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Guest Host: Marc Fisher
Major League Baseball returned to the District six years ago this month. But having a “big league” team in town hasn’t done much to boost the numbers of young people playing the game — only four Little Leagues fielded teams in last year’s D.C. championship tournament. We explore what’s behind baseball’s decline with young people in D.C., and whether the city can claim to be a “baseball town.”
- Dave Zirin Sports Editor, The Nation; Author, "Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love" (Scribner); author, "A People's History of Sports in the United States" (New Press)
- Brendan Sullivan Executive Director, Headfirst Camps; Former Player, San Diego Padres Organization
- Eddie Smith Head Baseball Coach, Woodrow Wilson High School (Washington, D.C.)
MR. MARC FISHERFrom WAMU 88.5 at American University in Washington, welcome to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show," connecting your community with the world. I'm Marc Fisher sitting in for Kojo. Coming up this hour, Washington holds a special place in baseball's rich storybook. This is where Negro League legends like Josh Gibson and Buck Leonard played many of their home-away-from-home games with the Homestead Grays at Griffith Stadium. Washington is where Mickey Mantle launched one of the epic home runs in the history of the game. A blast that was said to have traveled 565 feet, soaring out of the Senators' stadium and into somebody's backyard on Oakdale Place, Northwest.
MR. MARC FISHERAfter 33 years without baseball, the District is now finally home to a different franchise, a new ballpark and two of the most promising young prospects in the game, but the city is also part of a more sobering chapter in baseball history, the sport's declining popularity with African-Americans and to a lesser extent with young people of all backgrounds. Only four little leagues fielded teams in the District's annual citywide championship tournament last year, and only six Major League teams drew fewer fans per game than the Nationals did in the 2010 season. Now, six years into baseball's return to Washington, what is the Washington's area relationship with the sport, and is D.C. once again a baseball town?
MR. MARC FISHERJoining me to discuss these issues are an illustrious panel including Brendan Sullivan, executive director of Headfirst, an organization that runs sports camps and baseball programs around the Washington area. He played professional baseball in the San Diego Padres organization and played high school ball with Saint Albans in the District. Eddie Smith is varsity baseball coach at Woodrow Wilson High School in the District, where he's been for eight years. He's a D.C. native who played high school ball at Wilson. He's also a product of the city's Little League system. And Dave Zirin is sports editor of The Nation magazine. He's an author whose books include "Bad Sports: How Owners Are Ruining the Games We Love."
MR. MARC FISHERWelcome all of you. And, Eddie, maybe you could start us off. The Nationals brought baseball back to Washington six years ago, in the city where you grew up, and people were wearing red hats all over the city. The president threw out the opening pitch. The team even was winning for a few months that first season, but since then, the team has been a loser on the field and increasingly a loser at the gate. How do you think Washington's recapturing of baseball has gone? Has it measured up to what you hoped for as a fan?
MR. EDDIE SMITHI don't really know how to answer that one. It -- I mean, this -- I guess, the decline in -- the players that they had, but I guess what -- the drafting of Strasburg and those guys like Zimmerman, I guess, slowly but surely this team will turn around, just have to have a little more patience with the team itself.
FISHERAnd, Brendan Sullivan, you've been a part of Washington baseball almost your entire life, and so it must have been a momentous occasion when the Nationals came to town. Has it played out the way you'd hope?
MR. BRENDAN SULLIVANI'd say in some ways it has. Certainly, I mean, for the diehard baseball fans among us to have a ballclub in town to follow every night, to listen to on the radio in the car and, obviously, go down to the new stadium and check them out is a great thing. And you're certainly seeing, you know, young ballplayers at our programs that are wearing the Nationals' stuff and have gotten on board and maybe left the Orioles behind or the Red Sox or the Yankees whoever won the World Series the most recent October. And there are some good pockets of things in baseball. I think overall, unfortunately, there's still a big divide. The Little League program in this city, certainly east of the park, is struggling mightily, and, you know, the diversity in the game, both in the stadium and when you see who's playing around the city is not where it once was.
MR. BRENDAN SULLIVANAnd I think there's a good discussion to be had, and we'll probably have it here about what's the role of a Major League team in a city to sort of help build this. And in my opinion, it's pretty large, especially if they want to have a fan base that's going to last for years.
FISHERDave Zirin, as you've looked at sports around the country, is this a fair connection to make between the success of the Major League franchise and the ability of the sport to recapture a generation of fans?
MR. DAVE ZIRINWell, it is a very fair connection, I think, because it's a very fair connection, because one of the issues at play here is that baseball is a sport has always required infrastructure to succeed. You need funded boys' and girls' clubs. You need coaches. You need fields that are well-maintained. From its very roots, baseball has been a sport that's required a stable working class or a middle class that would play the game. And as the country has become more stratified, it's -- I think, baseball has really paid a price for that with the absence of funding for the kind of programs that you need for baseball that, say, you don't need for soccer or for basketball for that matter.
MR. DAVE ZIRINAnd the connection with major league clubs, of course, is that in cities around the country, the public funding of ballparks has become a substitute for anything resembling an urban policy. So, for example, the very first year our billion-dollar park opened here in D.C., the city defaulted on its little league dues that very first year. And there is a direct casual connection here, so I would make the case that Major League Baseball teams -- and they've tried to do this through things like the RBI program, which stands for Reviving Baseball in our Inner Cities, but I think they have more of a responsibility to pour money into the cities where the stadiums have a home to be able to support young players.
FISHERYou can join our conversation by calling 1-800-433-8850 or e-mail us at kojo, K-O-J-O, @wamu.org or get in touch with us by tweeting us to @kojoshow. Brendan Sullivan, when you work with young people now, how -- in baseball programs across the area, how does their enthusiasm for and knowledge of the game compare to what you saw among your peers some years back?
SULLIVANI think it's lower. I mean, I think it really is. I mean, a couple of things that we see, number one, is recognition of players. I remember back in the day, all of my little league teammates could have named the Orioles' roster, I mean, could have named it right down to the guys that are pitching the middle relief. And now, even amongst the kids in the city who are playing, who are in organized little leagues, certainly, there are some incredible diehards, and I think that's related to are you watching baseball at home, are you being taken to either the Major League games or the -- some of the college games around here or the great high school games that coach Smith plays or some of the other schools in town, but there seems to be a real divide.
SULLIVANThey can name Zimmerman. They know Strasburg. They're going to know Harper. But do they know the other guys to be able to follow that? And I will say the farther you leave the pockets of this city that are really playing baseball, Ward 2 and 3 primarily, you'd be hard pressed to find groups of kids that could name a single National, and I've had that experience.
FISHERThere's a piece in today's New York Times about Sam Fuld, the rookie Tampa Bay player, who grew up as one of those diehard fans, and he knew every statistic. He knew everything there was to know about baseball. He was one of those kids who walked around with his statistics book when he was 6 years old. So it's great to hear that there are still kids like that, but he's the kind of kid who, you know, might have grown up in a place like Montgomery County. He went to Stanford. He, you know, comes from that more affluent background which has more and more been associated with the baseball fan base. In the District, however, where we have a large population that doesn't have that affluence and doesn't have that background of playing baseball as young kids, there's far less knowledge.
FISHERAnd so, Eddie Smith, when you look at players coming up to the high school level, do you have to do sort of remedial work and teaching them basics about the game because they don't have that kind of background?
SMITHYeah, fundamentals. Definitely, at Wilson, fundamentals is something we really have to stress because it's not like, you know, when I was growing up and going to Wilson, you pretty much -- everybody was fundamentally sound. You just had to work on other minor pieces of their game, but now, you've got to work on every aspect of their game. And this -- normally, at Wilson, we would get ballplayers who would come in and they had already been playing ball all their life. Now, we get some ballplayers who just started out, right around 13, 14 or just starting out right in high school. We never used to get them when, you know, they're starting out right now. We used to get them they've been playing ball all their life.
FISHERAnd, you know, the role of race has certainly been debated in baseball where the -- both in the stands and certainly who goes to the games and the players on the field at the Major League and professional level. There are far fewer African-Americans proportionately than there once were. Does that do you think play a role in whether the kids that you see in the District are attracted to the sport?
SMITHYeah, definitely. When I was growing up, you know, we used to go out and actually play ball, you know, on the playground. I grew up in Northeast, D.C. around where J.O. Wilson Elementary School is, and I remember growing up and we actually play -- we had nine players on the field and nine players on defense, and we, you know, we actually had a game. Now, you -- they know few people, and nobody goes out to play catch. It's like it's a boring game to them whenever you bring up the term baseball because -- I mean, now, I watch baseball all the time. When I leave here, I'm probably going to go watch baseball but probably not, you know, the little ones growing up.
SMITHThey're probably thinking about basketball or some other aspect of another sport but just -- baseball is just much different from when I grew up as opposed to, you know?
FISHERAnd, Brendan Sullivan, you get kids even from very tender ages and bring them all the way up through the high school level. I mean, do you see -- why do you think it is that baseball doesn't have that special place for as many kids now? What went wrong? Where did it fall off the tracks?
SULLIVANIt's hard to say. I think there are a couple factors. Certainly, back from when Eddie and I -- and I'm a little bit older than Eddie -- but there weren't as many things to do. The videogames weren't like the videogames of today. There weren't a million cable channels that are interacting with these kids in so many different ways. And baseball is a sport that takes patience to learn. You're going to fall on your face a lot. You're going to fail a lot. It takes really positive role-model coaches that are encouraging you through what can be really tough difficult times, and I just think a lot of kids are look -- I dare mention the word lacrosse in here, but it's certainly a factor for young boys.
SULLIVANDo I play a game where I'm going to be standing around a little more? Do I put a helmet on and get a stick in my hand and start swatting my buddies with it? I think there are a lot of different things that are pulling kids away from baseball, and, you know, the less that start playing, obviously, that's going to have a trickle -- a real trickle-up effect, and you're going to find less capable qualified well-taught kids by the time they get to the high school level.
FISHERWe've got a ton of people who want to talk about this. Let's go to Elizabeth in Washington. Elizabeth, it's your turn.
FISHERYes. Go ahead. You're on the air.
ELIZABETHHello. I wanted to say one of the reasons, I think, that children are less good at baseball these days is it's so expensive to take your family to a baseball game. Look at what Nationals tickets cost along with your $6 hotdogs. The cheapest seats that you could buy is $18, where the old Yankee Stadium used to have the dollar seats out in the bleachers, and that just doesn't exist anymore. So, of course, children are less familiar with strategy and players because they don't get to go see them.
FISHERWell, certainly, it's true, Dave Zirin, that ticket prices are way higher than they used to be, and they top out at Nationals Park at about $375, but the Nats have had thousands of seats at the 5 and $10 level, and they don't even sell all of those. So...
FISHER...is that really the factor?
ZIRINWell, that -- I think it is one of the factors because certainly it's a lot more fun to have a choice seat. You know, I still have my ticket stub from game six of the 1986 World Series, where the ball went through Bill Buckner's legs at Shea Stadium. I'll bring it in to show you guys. It was the first row behind the dugout, $25...
ZIRIN...$25. And you know how we got it? We didn't get it through some corporate seating, lottery or anything like that. We stayed up all night at Shea Stadium to get the ticket. It was a different kind of game. When my father grew up in Brooklyn, going to see the Brooklyn Dodgers, they used to trade in milk bottles for coins and then go see Jackie Robinson and Pee Wee Reese. It's a very, very different game now, and I think Major League Baseball has to have some accountability for this. I mean, we live in an era right now where there are more players from the Dominican Republic in the minor leagues than African-Americans. Fifty percent of all minor league players were born in Latin America, and that has everything to do with where Major League Baseball has chosen to invest its money to sign players on a much cheaper basis.
FISHERThat's an interesting point. But, you know, I want to push back on this idea of cost really being the factor there because -- I mean, I used to -- I grew up in New York, and I would buy those $1.50 general admission seats at Yankee Stadium. And then, since the Yankees were terrible in those days, we'd go right down to the field level and sit in the NBC box because we knew that they never used their box for day games. So -- but you can still do that kind of thing. My kids go to Nats Park.
FISHERThey buy the $5 ticket, and they go right down and sit in the fancy seats, and that's still possible. And yet, they still sell, you know, many of the games it's less than half full. Any thoughts on why that might be?
SULLIVANI mean, I think it comes down to choice of entertainment. I agree. I mean, Elizabeth, your point is certainly well taken that -- and I think, certainly, prior to this year, I think the new Nats management, in terms of their operations, are really making an effort to reach out and make it family affordable with packages that include food and et cetera. But at the end of the day, it's still is a decision of what are we gonna do with our family? Ten-year-old kids aren't going to the ballpark by themselves these days on the green line. It's just not happening. So what are we gonna do with our family on this evening or this weekend day? And, you know, the product has to be exciting and, unfortunately, it feeds on itself.
SULLIVANWhen you go to a -- I remember going to see the Cardinals at Nats Park last year. You got a great baseball club. You got one of the best players in the world. And it was a Thursday night, beautiful night. And it was -- you could hear crickets chirping in there. It just doesn't have the same feel. I mean, for those who have been in a Caps game lately or a, you know, where it's that energy and like, I walk out of there saying, that was what we're -- regardless of what you spend, that was worth every cent of it.
ZIRINI got to say one thing. You just mentioned the Caps. A couple of years ago, you could have made the same cricket argument about a Capitals game. The fact is, is that partly because of the transient nature of D.C., this is kind of a front-running town. And you have to think, now that the Caps are good, all of a sudden we're a hockey town. When Gilbert Arenas was dropping 30 a night, we were a Wizards town. I mean, you have to think that if Bryce Harper and Stephen Strasburg become the players we think they could be, it would change the park.
FISHERCertainly, we have a long history of being a fair-weather fan town. On the other hand, we've stuck with the Redskins through all, you know, awful seasons one after another.
FISHERAnd there have been periods where there was not that causal relationship between the success on the field and the success in the stands. And the transformation of the Capitals is really a remarkable story. It says something about the power of marketing and the power of just a smart positioning of a team. The Caps have gone from nowhere to being, you know, it's packed every night. And, as you say, Brendan, the place is just rocking. An interesting thing has happened with the Nats' TV ratings. They're up 110 percent this year, and it's the third most improved in all of baseball.
FISHERThey're averaging about 60,000 TV viewers per game, which is almost -- which is more than double what the Wizards are getting and a third more than the Caps are getting, which is a big change from the last couple of years, when virtually nobody was watching those baseball games on TV. Do you see any signs that the Lerner's are starting to turn this around, Eddie?
SMITHI can see, with the Orioles and the Nationals sharing MASN, between MASN 1 and MASN 2…
FISHERThe TV channel that they share.
SMITHYeah. Most of the games this year I have seen have been on MASN for the Nationals 'cause every time I turn the channel -- I hate to say it, but I'm an Orioles fan. And I'd look for the Orioles game, and they're on MASN 2. And I'm like, oh, my goodness. They're always on MASN 2. And it seems like all of the Nationals games have been on MASN 1. So it's kind of an advantage because I don't think people have found that flow of knowing where MASN 2 is. So, you know, it's...
FISHERIt's hard to find sometimes. That's true.
SMITHYeah. And then, you know, not a lot of games haven't been on ESPN like they normally have to -- have been. So MASN is the way to go.
FISHERWell, when we come back after a short break, we'll get into the existential question of whether Washington really is a baseball town and also into the connection between what happens at the Major League level and what happens down at the Little League level. And that's coming up after a short break. Stay tuned.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we're talking about baseball in Washington. Please join us by calling 1-800-433-8850 or email at email@example.com. And, Brendan Sullivan, before the break, we were talking about the connection between what happens at the Major League level and what happens at the Little League level. As late as the '90s, there were roughly a dozen Little Leagues in the District that fielded teams in the city's annual championship tournament.
FISHERLast summer, the tournament only included four teams, two of which came exclusively from the most affluent parts of the city. What do you think is going on here? Why has there been this decline at the youth level?
SULLIVANWell, I think that there's been a decline, in part, at the youth level. To touch briefly, some of the little bit higher end baseball is way improved than it was when I was playing 15 years ago, way more opportunities for guys who were in high school to get seen and go to college. And that's the top of the pyramid. At the bottom of the pyramid, I think, you know, a couple of the local little leagues are in better shape. Cap City Little League and Northwest Little League, great organization, great volunteer base, nice fields.
SULLIVANMayor Fenty helped us out with that, and there are people there that are really caring about it and pushing it. The other side of town, unfortunately, you know, baseball is distant third, if that, you know? Football and basketball are certainly king in most parts of the city. And, you know, will the Major League team and them playing better affect things overall? I think so, but it's gonna take an awfully long time to trickle down really to any Little League level regardless of what part of town.
FISHERBrendan Sullivan is executive director of Headfirst, an organization that runs sports camps and baseball programs in the Washington area, and Dave Zirin is sports editor of The Nation. And, Dave, do you think there is more going on here than just the decline? You know, baseball seeming to be this slow sport to a lot of inner city kids? Are there other factors?
ZIRINI do. I mean, like I said before, I think some of it really is rooted in class stratification in the U.S., like you really do need a stable safety net to have baseball, unlike other sports. There's a reason why soccer is the most popular sport in the world. It's because a third of the world lives on less than a dollar a day. So you roll out a ball, you can play soccer. Basketball, as well, does not require infrastructure. And to speak to something that coach said before, you only need a couple of players to play one on one and have a good time playing basketball. Baseball requires infrastructure, and it requires 18 people who are serious about it as a project. And I think...
FISHERBut it doesn't require nearly the infrastructure of football, and yet football is flourishing.
ZIRINTrue. Football is king in our culture, without question, especially in this area. But I would make the case that this is a national issue and -- as in coast to coast, not Washington Nationals. And, also, I think that there has to be something to said, to speak to something that Brendan said, about modeling. I mean, there are no -- please correct me if I'm wrong, but as of right now, there are no African American players on the Nationals roster.
FISHEROh, no. There's several...
ZIRINAnd Nyjer Morgan after his release...
FISHERMichael Morse is starting and Ian Desmond, the starting shortstop.
ZIRINOh, they're African-American?
ZIRINOkay. My bad on that. But Nyjer Morgan was...
FISHERBut you're right. It's not at the level that, you know, you would have seen 20, 30 years ago.
ZIRINAnd I had high hopes for Nyjer Morgan playing centerfield and leading off. I know that didn't exactly end well.
FISHERHe got roundly booed at the stadium on Sunday.
ZIRINRight, right. And what you'd like to see is more modeling. And you even think about things like -- Torii Hunter said the great baseball player and who -- he said about Barry Bonds' treatment at the hands of Major League Baseball and how that projects to the African-American community about whether or not this is a sport for young African-American kids.
FISHERLet's go to Paris in Washington. Paris, it's your turn.
PARISHey, guys, how are you doing? I -- well, first, Eddie and Brendan have both coached my boy. And I live in the city. And I originally got involved with baseball when I was living in Ward 1, and there was no baseball there. There are actually two new leagues in the city -- one on Capitol Hill and one in the center of the city, a mild neighborhood in the Howard University-LeDroit Park area called Banneker City Little League. I just wanna point that out. But I think the problem that we have is twofold. The way I learned how to play baseball is my dad playing catch with me. And the way most guys learned how to play baseball is normally at the hands of another male playing catch with them.
PARISAnd I think that's a major problem that I see in terms of teaching baseball. There are at least 10 -- and I could start naming them -- very good baseball coaches that work primarily in the city. Brendan is one of them, Coach Mac, Eddie Smith, Chief Stubbs, Jonas Singer, Gerard Hall, the guys over at Woodridge. There are some very good baseball coaches in the city working.
PARISAnd there's just not enough to go around and there are some fantastic athletes. Two years ago, it was a major investment made in football in the city and the last two Pop Warner championships have been made. So we talked about the problem as being there's not a lot of male role models who face a lot of baseball, teaching baseball at one hand to the other in the city.
FISHERLet's ask one of those great coaches about that issue. Eddie Smith, varsity coach at Wilson, how big a role does that question of black male role models playing?
SMITHWell, this trend has been going on for quite a while now. I say the -- when I went to Wilson and I played for Wilson, my junior year, we had eight African-American ball players on the team. Now, I don't know if they have kids or anything like that, but I say, between every other team, that kind of puts them with the rest. So if they -- if it's one good coach who has been growing up playing baseball, and he's teaching, you know, a group of guys who really -- I guess, he's not stressing it so much because, I guess, he learned what his dad taught him years ago.
SMITHSo once it keeps going down a line, then you get a lot of guys who really don't understand the sport and they just, kind of, let it fade away. Instead, when the guys go to Wilson and they really get taught the game, it's really to go -- it's really easy to go teach it out in a city, if they, you know, stay in the city, you know?
FISHERRight. So when you were there as a student, there were eight...
SMITHYeah, there were eight guys...
FISHER...African-Americans on the team? And now...
FISHERYeah. Yeah. And they were from the inner city.
FISHER...how about now?
SMITHWell, we have two Dominican kids. We have one kid that's black.
FISHEROn the whole team?
SMITHYeah, on the whole team.
PARISPedro and his brother Robinson, right.
SMITHBut they are Dominican. And Marlon is the only guy who is African-American.
FISHERAnd this is in...
FISHERHold on, this is in a school that is 85 percent black?
SMITHYeah -- no, Wilson is not 85 percent. Wilson, I'll say, it's a mix. It's probably a 40-40-20 mix.
FISHERBut it certainly a majority black, yeah, okay. So have you reached out to kids to try to get them interested or they're just not -- I mean, as you look at the best athletes in the school, is it that they just have no interest in or knowledge of baseball? Is that the issue?
SMITHYou mean at Wilson or...
FISHERYeah, at Wilson.
SMITHWell, Wilson, yeah, I guess, they just -- I guess it's hard with the UDC right now. I guess when the kids come back to Wilson, then it makes it easier because they get to see the practices and see what's going on and, I guess, kind of talk to other players about, you know, how baseball is and -- with Wilson.
ZIRINAnd, Marc, that's an important point. The city has not made it easy for the kids of Wilson this year. They're -- the entire high school is -- in an administration building are joining UDC while the school is under construction. My wife teaches there, so shout it out there.
SULLIVANAnd, Marc -- and, Paris, certainly appreciate the kind words and all the great work that you've done on behalf of little leaguers in the city, and you've been on the frontlines battling it. And, you know, unfortunately, 13, 14 years old, for my money, is too late to pick up baseball if you haven't been playing it. Not too late to pick up some other sports. It's just a sport that requires playing, being around a ball and a bat and a glove every single day.
SULLIVANAnd to Paris' point, I grew up in the city, got to play baseball for quite a long time. The reason I learned to love it were twofold. One was I had opportunities to go see the game played and -- under the lights and catch the love, and number two was playing catch with my dad and my brother in our yard every single day after I got my homework done until there is snow on the ground. And without either of those things, I probably would have gone a different direction. That's not happening in most parts of the city right now.
FISHERBut, Dave Zirin, it certainly is in baseball's economic interest to build up the interest and support of baseball in black communities and cities across the country and they have made at least a token effort with this RBI program. What could and should they be doing that they aren't?
ZIRINWell, just to give you an idea about the RBI program, CC Sabathia, Jimmy Rollins, I mean, some really tough players who have African-American descent play baseball now and are the future stars and the current stars in Major League Baseball because of that program. The fear is just that it's not enough and that it becomes a token effort. I mean, you were talking about billions of dollars that have been invested in the Dominican Republic primarily, but also Venezuela, to create what are called these baseball factories.
ZIRINMillions of dollars are spent on these people called buscones who are scouts down there who try to connect with kids on behalf of Major League ball clubs as young as 7 or 8 years old. And they signed them for 2,000 bucks when they're 15. I mean, so you're talking about a really advanced scouting structure to the youngest possible age where there are no restrictions and where the level of exploitation is very high. And the RBI program is really a drop in the water compared to that.
ZIRINSo you would like to see just the RBI program really part in this expression, but the RBI program on steroids. (laugh) You've like to see the RBI program expanded and invested in, in such a way that we can get more players have access to this incredible game. And I just got to say, I gave -- my son turn three earlier this week, got him his first glove. I'm really surprised that, like, let's just say it got a little dusty in the room when I saw his face go, wow, and we had our first catch, so.
FISHERWow. Let's go Olga in Washington. Olga, you're on the air.
OLGAYeah, hi. I'm a great National fan. And I've gone on -- I think the Nats are trying to reach out to young people. They have all these ticket programs and stuff to try to get kids to come. They've started daytime Saturday games, so kids can run the bases after the game. And I think that when kids grow up with their parents and just are there even when they don't understand the game or anything, that's gonna stay with them, and they're going to -- they're gonna love the game. They're gonna love that big, green field and just the beauty of the sport. And I would like to see more Little League, and I like Little League games to be posted somewhere, because if one is in my neighborhood, I love to go see these kids play. So...
FISHERIt really is that, sort of, daily presence like Brendan was talking about earlier. It's just got to be, kind of, in the blood, in the, you know, out there in the atmosphere.
OLGAYeah, in your earliest memories. And, you know, how much -- how great it was just to be there. And, you know, I think that would stay.
FISHERAnd, Brendan, that has really -- that, sort of, daily connection with the sport has come to be associated with economics. And so a lot of the kids who come to your programs come from more affluent backgrounds and really have grown up with the game and that sense of it being passed on from generation to generation.
SULLIVANYeah, and certainly, I mean, that is true. And, certainly, the opportunity to be able to go to an Orioles games years ago, to be able to go down at Nats park on a regular basis or, you know, just be able to be around it and take it in and importantly, have one or more parents or relatives who's engaging with you about that game either in a physical, you know, play catch, go to a batting practice kind of way or, hey, did you see the box score today? Do you online and watch nationals.com and that type of stuff is what certainly what I remember.
SULLIVANI will say there are certainly plenty of kids, you know, with the ability to go to games who don't go to games. I mean, there's all these different pockets, or they go to the games and they're not paying attention on what's going on and the, sort of, the dance that happens on the field. It's a game that basketball, you get ball, two kids. Let's go play. Baseball, we find a lot of kids at 10, 11, 12 who don't understand how the players move around in the field and to do that even on TV is hard. Seeing it in person at any level, you know, I would encourage to go -- kids, go see Eddie's team play. Go see a high school game. That's good enough.
FISHERIt really is different because -- especially the way the TV coverage of baseball has changed over the years. If you watched one of these classic ESPN games where they, you know, broadcast from the 1960s, you get this wide, expansive view of the field, and you can see how the players relate to each other and how they are all moving on a given play. Now, everything is about the close up, and everything is about the sweat on the guy's lip. And as a result, you don't see the larger picture.
FISHERAnd if you don't know the game's rules intimately, you really have a hard time keeping up with what's going on. I mean, do you find, Coach Smith, that there is this, sort of, ignorance about how the different positions interrelate and how the game actually works on the field?
SMITHWell, I guess, in certain parts of the game, if you don't get that -- if you don't see that on a consistent basis, it can easily follow a kid out, you know? But if they go to, you know, a game that's in, you know, maybe a Saint Albans, there's maybe a Wilson game, you can, kind of, you know, get that feel of it. Other parts, the game is kind of slow. They can easily lose interest in the sport really just that fast, unless they watch it a whole lot. They watch it on TV. They watch it, and they're going out into the city or they're going to Major League games and watching the game. Other than that, it's just -- it's kind of a slow game.
FISHERSpeaking of Saint Albans, John in Washington has a student there. John, you're on the air.
JOHNHi. Mr. Sullivan, my son is a freshman at the upper school, obviously, and I've given him every opportunity to pick up a baseball glove, a baseball bat, et cetera, but there seem to be, amongst his peers, just this energy around spring sports that are -- track and field and lacrosse, and it is not pushed. And I think that I grew up playing baseball. I'm not sure how to turn it around because I don't wanna be intrusive. I'll welcome any of the comments because I know Wilson now has the first public high school lacrosse team in Washington ever, and where are these kids going. And I'll end at that.
ZIRINWell, there's a baseball sociologist -- and that is such a thing, by the way -- an academic named Rob Rock. (sp?) And he has this line that I wanna repeat. He said that the financials of baseball have never been better, but the roots of the game have never been in more dire shape. And I think that one of the problems you have is that baseball, as an -- as a professional institution has become very self-satisfied because they are making a ton of money from public subsidies of stadiums, from the cable deals, from the luxury boxes, and that means that there is less accountability towards the roots of the game, towards whether or not kids actually have this interest, towards whether or not they know the players in such a way that excites them.
ZIRIN'Cause I think there is a synergy and there is this relationship between excitement about the professional game and whether or not the freshman at St. Albans are excited about it as well. Like, I know just growing up, if Darryl Strawberry walked into my high school, it would have been like Bruce Springsteen walking into New Jersey. I mean, people would have lost their minds. I bet if Joey Votto walked in here right now -- first of all, I bet a lot of listeners don't know who Joey Votto is. He was the MVP last year in the National League. I bet a lot of people would be -- just be like, may I help you, sir? You know, and it's -- that lack of connection with real recognizable faces and stars has hurt the energy at the youngest level.
FISHERYou're listening to "The Kojo Nnamdi Show" on WAMU. I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in for Kojo. And we'll continue our conversation about baseball in Washington in a moment. Please stay with us.
FISHERWelcome back. I'm Marc Fisher of The Washington Post, sitting in for Kojo Nnamdi. And we're talking baseball with Brendan Sullivan, who is executive director of Headfirst, which runs sports camps, baseball programs around the area, Eddie Smith, the varsity coach at Wilson High School in Washington, and Dave Zirin, sports editor of The Nation magazine. And just before the break, we're talking about how baseball is, perhaps, falling short compared to other spring sports.
FISHERAnd we have an e-mail from Michelle in Montgomery County, who says, "As a resident of Montgomery County, what I see on the local ball fields is soccer, even on baseball fields. It's simple and cheap. All you need is a ball and some goal markers or nets. Baseball is helmets, bats, padding and balls. And with the strong influence of Latino and African immigrants, the passion for soccer is highly fueled and catching on with the general populous." And, Brendan Sullivan, you were saying that even lacrosse is now in some way surpassed baseball as a sport of choice and that that is somehow parent-driven because of what they see down the road.
SULLIVANI think it can be parent and child-driven. I mean, certainly, there's a lot -- we're talking mostly boys playing baseball here, but obviously softball is a factor and a real sport in the city too. There's a lot about lacrosse that's exciting to young males -- helmets, sticks, swatting each other, that type of stuff. In addition, we're in such a lacrosse hotbed here, and lacrosse is not a popular sport across this country. The number of states that play lacrosse is very small that the funnel is really, really big in terms of getting to the next level. If you're a starting lacrosse player at a high school around here, your chances of going to play college lacrosse is extremely high.
SULLIVANAnd you know what, that's exciting to families. Opportunities to not only possibly get scholarship money, but also help with admissions, which are as hard as they've ever been. And I think that's something that does -- whether consciously or subconsciously, the fact that you go to a school and you see all these kids that are going to play this sport, lacrosse, in college versus one that's a lot smaller opportunity, I think that's a factor.
SULLIVANAnd, you know, soccer is also for young kids. We run soccer programs too. Coed, active, failure doesn't happen in such pointed ways, you know? Harder to have a real bad game in soccer when you're 7 years old as opposed to strike out three times and let three balls go through your legs. And I think that's something that plays into these decisions.
ZIRINAnd it's also it's like skilled versus unskilled coaching labor. I hate to say this, but you don't have to be that sharp to coach soccer. You can just be a really well-meaning parent. But if you're gonna be an effective baseball coach, there is real nuance to being actually being able to teach the game.
FISHERAnd, Eddie Smith, do you find that it's hard to find enough coaches who can do that?
SMITHWell, not only coaches, but I wanted to add something to what Brendan said about lacrosse. And, you know, before from football, baseball was the thing, you know? You play football, you play baseball. Now, since they -- you're kind of looking for some kind of contact. You don't initiate no contact because the rules, as far as high school, you can't run over the catcher. And that's what mainly the guy from football, they can't wait to run over the catcher in the spring. Well, in lacrosse, you can make contact all day, you know?
SMITHAnd that's what kind of guys, you know, they follow their way to.
FISHERLet's go to Brian in Alexandria. Brian?
BRIANGood afternoon, gentlemen. Thanks for taking my call. My son is on Little League team out of Springfield, Va. I live in Alexandria. I grew up here in -- just outside Alexandria and went to Senators games at RFK in the '60s. I met Frank Howard back when -- way back when. And I was actually looking forward to seeing a team back in this area when everything was, you know, years ago when they're -- when it was all --they're vying -- Washington was vying for the team.
BRIANBut I have to tell you -- and this may be part of the problem that you're seeing, is an image problem -- I got so turned off by the process of Washington vying for the team -- the deals, the extortion-like tactics to get that stadium built, the land grab, all of that stuff, the rotten, rotten deal with D.C. I don't even live in D.C., but I feel bad for the horrible deal that they got into all to get this team that I consciously made an effort that I'm not gonna see this team when they get here after the stadium was built.
BRIANMy family and I have gone down into plenty of Potomac Nationals games down in Woodbridge, and we’ve gone up and seeing the Frederick Keys. We've gone to the AA or whatever, the AAA games. We've enjoyed that as a family. Again, my son enjoys Little League, but quite frankly, I have no interest in going to see the Nationals, you know, going to the stadium or seeing the team. In part, a large part, by the whole ridiculous process that it took to get here. I call it sort of the Dan Synerising...
BRIAN... of professional sports. The whole -- the big -- they were so focused on the luxury boxes and on the gourmet restaurants in there and the club seats and all that other stuff. It was such a turnoff that I just said, nah, forget it.
BRIANAnd again, my family and I will spend an enjoyable afternoon going down to see a...
BRIAN...Potomac Nationals game for a couple of bucks for a ticket, a couple of bucks for a hotdog and a drink, and we have just as much fun and enjoy that. And I've settled on with myself that's how I'm gonna enjoy baseball, that's how I'm gonna expose my son to baseball. But unless...
BRIAN...some friends cajole me into going, I will never see a Nationals game, and I have no interest in going downtown and fighting the traffic and fighting the Metro to do that when I can drive down and see -- or go up to Potomac Key. I went with some friends a few years ago. And so (unintelligible) ...
FISHEROkay. Dave Zirin, Brian -- do you think Brian is typical at all of fans? Do these things such as the stadium deal and a bad TV contract really have an impact on fans' decisions? Or is it just a matter of a winning team coming to town?
ZIRINI absolutely think that, and I also think it's not just a Washington issue. I think the Baltimore Orioles have lost thousands of fans over the last 15 years because of people fed up with Peter Angelos. And now he's chosen to do that team. And process is important. I mean, because of the Internet and because of the media, we now know, more than ever, about how these deals are get made and on the blogs. Everybody has an opinion about it. And let's remember that when the stadium first started getting built, there was 70 percent opposition in Washington, D.C., to the stadium.
FISHERIn the city...
ZIRINIn the city.
FISHER...not in the suburbs.
ZIRINRight. You're right. Right.
FISHEROf course, the suburbanites weren't paying for it.
FISHERSo they were happy to have the city pay for it.
ZIRINSo in the city. And you could also make a very strong case that Adrian Fenty doesn't get elected mayor without his stalwart opposition to the stadium. So you're talking about something that was quite the broad political issue in terms of how people viewed themselves as Washingtonians relative to this team, and I do think it has a hangover effect.
FISHERAnd after the -- Lerner has finally got the team and began marketing it, they had to deal not only with the bad taste left in some mouths by the stadium deal, but also with this television contract that's controlled by Peter Angelos and the Baltimore Orioles, where the Orioles get almost all of the profits from the television revenue that comes in from both baseball teams. Has that -- I mean, do you think that is an insurmountable hurdle? Have the Lerners really been tied down because of that, or is that just an excuse?
ZIRINBrendan, as a disavowed Orioles fan...
ZIRIN...might be a good person to answer this one.
SULLIVANYeah. I mean, and I -- I was -- Dave and I were talking before the show. I disavowed the Orioles before I knew the Nationals were coming. That was certainly the final nail on the coffin. But I understand Bryan's point. I mean, I certainly, you know -- the start, where it was the fight with the city and the bad deal. And on the TV, you could barely find the team on TV. And then you lose 100 games three years in a row. And then your community outreach is suspect, at best. You're starting way behind the eight ball.
SULLIVANAnd I think the -- to me, one of the really telling things was when the stadium first opened. And you imagine the stadium first opened. The Lerners seemed to really think, here it is. Come on down and watch this crappy team. And you know what? People didn't come down to watch the crappy team. And everyone -- they're catching up. And to me it's you've got to make a conscious effort. Every single family that comes in there, you're either gonna catch them or you're gonna lose them forever. And for the last few years, they haven't been acting that way.
SULLIVANMy sense in the times I've been down, this year there's more of that, and hopefully Bryan and other families who have really good options in the minor leagues. And to be honest with you, the baseball, to the naked eye, is almost the same. And, you know, I think, hopefully, people will give it a chance. And needless to say, when you add Zimmerman, who's a great front man, Strasburg, Harper, Desmond, Espinosa, the makings are there for an exciting young team. And Andy Feffer, new COO, really different marketing approach this year. To me I'm noticing differences, and hopefully that will make a difference in terms of stadium experience.
FISHERSpeaking of the stadium experience, Julia in Washington has a comment about the stadium experience. Julia, you're on the air.
JULIAHi. Thanks so much for taking my call. I had the pleasure in the summer of '08 of going to lots of Nats games at the -- as the guest of lots of corporations who have bought fancy boxes. And it was a lot of fun. And then the economy tanked in the end of 2008. And even though those corporations had paid for all those fancy, all-you-can-eat fillet mignon seats, a lot of them don't use the tickets anymore. They feel like it's unseemly for them to be seen in their fancy luxury boxes.
JULIABut what's different about D.C. versus other city, they aren't giving those tickets away to the community. And I feel like that's one of the reasons why the Nats aren't trying to fill those seats is because they're sold. They've been bought on long-term contracts by banks and other companies. And I just think it's shameful that when I turn on the television, if I see the four seats behind home plate empty, that tells me that that club doesn't care about my city and isn't looking to get people in my community in those seats.
JULIAAnd I just think those seats are paid for and that that's all that organization cares about.
FISHERIt is a devastating image when you watch that iconic shot of the batter and the catcher, and, right behind them, a bank of empty seats, although I have to say that you see the same thing in a lot of ballparks across the country because these ultra high-price seats do tend to go unsold, or the rich folks who own them don't bother to show up. And the teams are reluctant to give those away because, you know, the people in the surrounding seats have paid for this exclusive clientele to be around them. But the Nats claim that they do give away a lot of seats. Eddie Smith, do you find that kids are -- you know, community programs that you know about are getting those seats, and are kids willing to go?
SMITHYeah. Well, you know, the league that we're in, DCIAA, they give out free tickets to Nationals' games all the time. We go. Not sure about the other schools. I can't really vouch for them. But I do see other teams from the DCIAA do bring their kids to the games.
FISHERAnd part of the whole question about whether the Nats will dig roots in this area has to do with those 33 years of being in the baseball desert and not having a team at all and kids not growing up with baseball. Rachel in Silver Spring is on the air, and she has a comment about that. Rachel?
RACHELYes. Thank you for taking my call. I was 11 years old when the Senators left town. And before that, my dad would take us to games. He learned the love of his game of Washington baseball from his father and, you know, going back two previous generations. Well, when my nieces and nephews, who are now in their late 20s, when they were young, I didn't -- I took them to see the Keys, actually. We had a lot of fun with that. But there wasn't a team that we had an emotional connection to.
RACHELYou know, Frank Howard -- you gotta mention him -- he lived in my cousin's neighborhood. And when -- he would go down to the park and have batting practice with the kids. They knew who he was. And if you don't have parents who grew up with them, who grew up with a team that they're attached to, particularly, then their kids have nothing to be attached to. And I think maybe, you know, 10 years down the line, the Nationals will have been here longer, then maybe that'll change a little bit. But for now, you really do have a generation and a half of parents who have no attachment to a baseball team.
FISHERThanks, Rachel. And, Coach Smith, there was an electric moment a couple of summers ago when Emmanuel Burriss, a former Washington player, who was, at that point, in the majors with the Giants, came to Northwest Little League game. And -- I mean, people just came from all around the neighborhood. There aren't enough electric moments like that. But do you see more of them happening, and do you see that kind of connection being made more and more?
SMITHYeah. Well, you know, Maury Wills, the Banneker Field is now named after him. But I guess the kids weren't too -- 'cause they didn't know who Maury Wills was. But when I saw him, I was, wow, it's Maury Wills, you know? And -- I mean, I didn't know he was from the inner-city, you know, until, you know, people had told me he had played at Cordova. And I remember him playing with the Dodgers, you know, just hearing about it. So it was kind of an electric feeling to me, but I guess it wasn't to everybody else.
FISHERWe're down to our last minute. Ten seconds each. Is Washington a baseball town, and will it be one going forward? Dave Zirin.
ZIRINNo, because it's about the vanishing middle class. You got lacrosse. You got basketball. No room for baseball in between. Economics change, I think we could have a resurgence of baseball.
SULLIVANNot a baseball town, but we can -- there's enough people in this metro area to support a positive winning team with a ownership group that makes you feel really welcome when you come to the ballpark, and reaches out to other parts of the community to bring them into that.
FISHERAnd Eddie Smith.
SMITHIt's not a baseball town, but we just keep going with the best way we can, you know? Just kind of try to reach out the best way we can.
ZIRINThat's a coach talking right there.
FISHEREddie Smith is the coach at Wilson High School in the District. Dave Zirin is sports editor of The Nation magazine. And Brendan Sullivan is executive director of Headfirst, an organization in Washington that runs sports camps and baseball programs. I'm Marc Fisher, sitting in on "The Kojo Nnamdi Show." Thanks for listening.
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