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Baseball has abandoned the kids

James Alan Fox

July 14, 2013

What’s the biggest difference between the upcoming All-Star Game at CitiField and the midsummer classic held at Shea Stadium a half-century ago, when the Phillies’ Johnny Callison stroked a walkoff three-run homer in the ninth inning off of Dick (The Monster) Radatz?

It’s not the size of the ballplayers, their paychecks or their egos.

Nor is it the contrasting venues for the showcase games. The 1964 match between the best of the two leagues, like most games back then, was played in the afternoon sunshine. With a 2:30 p.m. start time, the game was over before dinner.

This year’s call of “Play Ball” won’t happen until after nightfall.

Major league baseball has long been known as “America’s Pastime,” a healthy diversion for kids of all ages.

But TV ratings and ad revenues took precedence and, over the years , it became “America’s Primetime,” with most games now played at night.

For youngsters nowadays, the afternoon is primetime — for passing their time with unwholesome behaviors, that is .

Studies, including my own, have shown that juvenile crime peaks during the after-school hours, when far too many youngsters are bored, idle and unsupervised.

What’s needed is a concerted effort to attract kids back to the field down the street .

And this effort starts by nurturing their interest in what’s going on in the professional ballparks in their hometown and across the country.

In a different era, many young fans would venture out to old Shea or Yankee Stadiums to sit in the grandstand and get autographs from the stars.

Other kids would spend their afternoons rooting for the home team on radio or television. Inspired by the skillful performances they saw , they would then head out to the sandlot to imitate their heroes .

As Major League Baseball has moved further away from the interests of children, youngsters have lost interest in the sport.

Since the 1950s, according to surveys of American adults conducted by the Gallup organization, the popularity of baseball has declined for males of all age groups except those over 65, with sharpest decline among the 18-29 demographic.

In addition, youth baseball participation levels have declined significantly during the past quarter-century .

Over the past decade, the number of kids aged 7 to 17 playing baseball fell 24%, according to the Sports and Fitness Industry Association.

As baseball and other healthy diversions have become less accessible, today’s children have filled the entertainment vacuum with violence: graphic movies and video games are always available on demand, anytime and virtually anywhere.

Even if parents attempt to control their kids’ entertainment choices, what healthy and engaging alternatives do they have?

In order to get children to tune out violence, we must give them something better — and just as appealing — to tune in.

So, it’s not that kids have abandoned baseball. It’s that baseball has abandoned the kids. I am not naive enough to suggest that we can bring back all the day games of yesteryear along with the free autographs and half-price tickets for kids.

But certainly, we could have a major league “Game of the Day” televised nationally, every day of the week during the summer months. Teams do play day games when it suits their travel schedules. What about the schedules of star-struck 9-year-olds?

Without a doubt, kids and baseball go together like hand and baseball glove. Perhaps MLB should deepen its commitment to kids by gearing the schedule more to their timetable.

When our youth are engrossed in our national sport rather than some hideous violence they encounter in a video game, we all benefit.

James Alan Fox is hte Lipman Professor of Criminology, Law and Public Policy at Northeastern University.