Depending on your point of view, the searing major-league baseball drama Wednesday evening was anything from the rescue of the 2011 season to the saviour of the sport itself. Three games with do-or-die playoff implications went down to the final out, with the Tampa Bay Rays win and Boston Red Sox collapse ending within three minutes of each other on TV. As weary fans in the Eastern time zone watched Evan Longoria's laser beam propel Tampa into the postseason some time after midnight, broadcasters were trying to assess the impact on a sport that has fallen off the radar this year.
Principally, does a sport whose culture seems lost in the 1980s with a distinct northeastern bias have a future with young people across the continent? Wednesday aside, is the sport catching on with the 18- to 35-year-old male demographic? Rogers Sportsnet, which is heavily invested in baseball through its ownership of the Toronto Blue Jays, says numbers in young people are picking up.
According to figures supplied by the sports broadcaster, "coverage of the Toronto Blue Jays has attracted an average audience of 101,000 in adults 18-34, compared to an average of 83,000 over the same period last year, while men 18-34 is averaging 63,000 viewers, compared to 53,000 last year." Sounds impressive.
But other signs indicate that baseball faces an uncertain future. Despite the dramatics of Wednesday, Tampa couldn't fill half its seats for the showdown game. Worse, the sport has no young, identifiable stars to succeed marquee players such as Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez and to fill those acres of empty seats in major-league ballparks. Quick, who's baseball's most charismatic young star? Hmmm … wait, don't tell us.
Increasingly major-league baseball is seen as a white, middle-class sport with no profile in the hip-hop or MMA cultures that dominate televised sports at the moment. Longoria aside, it's seen as your father's sport. Worse, there's no new market that wants a major-league franchise in North America.
While football and basketball are about the art of the new, baseball still fetishizes the Ken Burns nostalgia that captured Boomers in the 1970s and 1980s. Witness a new book celebrating the 1951 home run by Bobby Thompson of the New York Giants, The Shot Heard Round the World. Hey, this just in: The Giants moved to San Fran in 1957!
Those of us who've drifted away from baseball got a reminder this week of why we used to love it. But is one sensational night of baseball enough to make up for a season that was flatter than panini? Until we see a second act for the sport, we're going to withhold approval of the game's rebirth.
Just a little outside
Here's why we don't do predictions. Boston Globe scribe Dan Shaughnessy spitballing during the rain delay in the Boston-Baltimore Orioles game Wednesday: "I think the Rays are not going to win tonight. I think that's the one thing that we've eliminated tonight is that the Red Sox season is not going to end tonight. They live to play another day." Oh dear...
Not to nitpick, but shouldn't the update guy on Rogers Sportsnet Fan 590 in Toronto know that the final Blue Jays game of the season was played in the afternoon, not at night? Even at 8 a.m. local time Thursday, the announcer on the team's radio voice was talking about the Jays using walks "last night" to win against the Chicago White Sox. Of course, Barack Obama thinks the United States built the "intercontinental railroad" so maybe we should just chill on this stuff.
Peyton it forward
Hard to think of a player who moves the betting line or TV ratings more than injured Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning. Manning's injury has moved the line by as much as 10 points some games. Worse still for the TV programmers who lard their schedules with Manning appearances, the Peyton-less Colts are blowing a hole in the appointment viewing quotient for the NFL's premier TV games.
The Colts' modest Sunday night loss to the Pittsburgh Steelers was a limp biscuit for NBC. While ratings were up over the same week last year, the game was off about four million viewers from NBC's 2011 average. Now, ESPN's Monday Night Football gets a full helping of backup Curtis Painter on the road as Indy goes to Tampa for the feature game next Monday. The networks allow NBC to "flex" lousy games for better matchups later in the season, but for its billions ESPN is stuck with the Monday Night schedule as printed. That includes two games each from the awful Kansas City Chiefs and Jacksonville Jaguars, plus a stirring Seattle Seahawks-St. Louis Rams slog in December.
We at Usual Suspects are in despair. Despite all attempts to educate the public about such things, the alleged perp in the Wayne Simmonds banana-toss in London, Ont., says he didn't know that throwing a banana at a black athlete could in any way be construed as racist. Honestly, where did we fail? Somewhere in broadcast heaven, Howard Cosell is having an ironic chuckle today.
Finally, just once, could we have the moderator of the Ontario provincial election debate ask the one question all Ontarians want asked of the leaders, "So, the Leafs … like, what do you see from them this year?"