COMMENT: Give baseball back to the kids


July 5, 2005

What's the biggest difference between the upcoming All-Star Game at Comerica Park and the midsummer classic held at Briggs Stadium more than a half-century ago when Ty Cobb threw out the ceremonial first pitch?

No, it's not the size of the ballplayers or the size of their paychecks. Nor is it the contrasting venues for the games. The 1951 match between the best of the two leagues, like most contests back then, was played in the warm afternoon sunshine.

Major league baseball has long been known as "America's Pastime," a healthy diversion for kids of all ages. But in the interest of TV ratings and beer sales, it has become "America's Primetime" with most games now played at night.

So the All-Star Game is a pastime all right -- it goes on well past the time when many young fans can stay up to watch. And children allowed to catch all of this year's July showcase may not be so lucky on school nights in October when the World Series is telecast well after dark. Last year, some of the championship games didn't end until after 1 a.m.

In a different era, many young fans would venture out to old Briggs Stadium to sit in the bleachers and get autographs from the star players. Other kids would spend their afternoons rooting for the home team on radio or television. Inspired by the skillful performances of Hank Greenberg or Vic Wertz, they would then head out to the sandlot to imitate their heroes on the field.

Of course, baseball is not the only sport to have forsaken youngsters. Many young Piston fans -- modern-day versions of Cinderella -- could not stay up to watch the NBA playoffs, particularly those games that fell on school nights.

As baseball and other diversions have become less accessible to them, today's children have filled the entertainment vacuum with violence -- grisly and graphic movies and video games are always available on demand. In the meantime, children's advocates are criticizing the role of the media in contributing to perplexing episodes of youth crime.

Under pressure from Congress, network executives agreed to provide viewer warnings for TV programs with dangerously violent content, and now the cable channels are following along. Also at the direction of Congress, TV manufacturers are installing V-chips in all new sets to allow parents to have remote control (all the way from the office) over their children's viewing choices. Unfortunately, the idea of content ratings and hi-tech filtering devices misses the point entirely.

Even if parents heed the warnings and supervise their children's viewing selections, what healthy and entertaining alternatives do they have? Going to see the WWE? Or maybe listening to some gangsta rap? How about playing Grand Theft Auto or Doom on the Xbox? And there's always porn and hate on the Internet.

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

TV might consider taking its cue from the movies. It is true that youngsters will flock to violent films like the Lethal Weapon series; it is also true that they will often shun "kids' movies" that are not rated at least PG-13. But the popularity of films like "The Rookie" (rated G) indicates that children are drawn to sports, no matter what their rating.

So, it's not that kids have abandoned baseball. It's that baseball has abandoned the kids.

We are 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 children. But we certainly can 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?

Of course, the issue is much larger than just putting baseball back on the tube. For the sake of short-term economic savings, we have closed down the neighborhood movie houses, community recreation centers, and local swimming pools. To control taxes, we have neglected the zoos, playgrounds, ball fields and lakes.

So violence in the media may be a problem, but it is hardly the problem. When it comes to reducing teenage violence and substance abuse, boredom and idleness are at the core. As adults, we can't just change the channel; we really have to change our priorities.

Promoting a return to daytime baseball would be a major league step in the right direction.

JAMES ALAN FOX is the Lipman Professor of Criminal Justice and JACK LEVIN is the Brudnick Professor of Sociology and Criminology, both at Northeastern University in Boston, alma mater of the Tiger's Carlos Pena. Write to them in care of the Free Press Editorial Page, 600 W. Fort St., Detroit, MI 48226.