Hudson Babe Ruth baseball falls victim to the times

For old baseball players, there is a bit of sad news coming out of Hudson that will make them feel even older.

The Hudson Board of Selectmen has approved a new lacrosse program, which will be run through the town’s Recreation Department. The program will replace the floundering Babe Ruth baseball league, which has seen a decrease of revenue and interest over the past few years.

This is, of course, a trend that is not unique to Hudson, southern New Hampshire or New England. A Wall Street Journal story in March 2011 reported the makings of a definite generational trend nationally, with a pronounced break between adolescents and their younger counterparts.

According to the Journal, while participation in high school baseball remained steady, among the broader group between ages 7-17, it dropped 24 percent in the first decade of the 21st century. While evidence of baseball’s waning popularity among young athletes has been reported for decades, none had suggested such
a precipitous, fast-paced drop.

Those who love baseball and are realistic enough to accept these findings would offer a variety of reasons. Major League Baseball, which has the greatest long-term financial interest, has seen it coming and increased its support for youth baseball, particularly in urban centers. Unfortunately, MLB has not done more than tinker with its core product to make it more “kid-friendly.”

Generations of baseball poets have marveled at the games easy, pastoral pace, allowing for quiet meditation between pitches. Alas, for generations, what may seem blissful for one generation is now seen as maddening inaction for those of more recent vintage. Games last too long, with too little action for children whose knowledge is confined to the digital age.

And the most important games of the season – the playoffs and World Series – are often scheduled to end in late night (or wee hours of the morning), which guarantees that a generation of potential fans will be fast asleep as the greatest drama unfolds.

(Matters such as outrageous ticket prices and players’ questionable behaviors may also fit here, but are best left for another day.)

But MLB’s business practices are hardly the only or most influential causes of baseball’s decline. For those, we may need to look closer to the game’s core.

For young boys and girls, filled with energy and a passion for exerting it, baseball can seem like an exercise in tedium. The starting right fielder may go an entire game without moving, except for running into the dugout and back out to right field between innings. In leagues that require game time for every player, those who are at the far end of the dugout may get to hit once per game.

There also has emerged an emphasis on winning that may end up causing players to turn away from the game by the time they are through playing their regular-season and All-Star team seasons. Those who excel at the youth All-Star level sometimes find themselves playing upward of 50 games per season, then head into the year-round grind of one-sport participation. This is hardly unique to baseball; in all sports emphasizing such an all-encompassing commitment, the potential for burn-out is great.

It is difficult to quibble with Hudson for choosing to use its resources in an area that caters to the greater number of young athletes. Lacrosse is a wonderful game; its fast pace and ability to give more children a chance to participate rather than just watch is an attractive draw that baseball may not be able to equal.

For those who love baseball, despite their reluctance to accept an ever-growing reality, let this serve as a wake-up call. Your game needs change, from the pros to the sandlots, and it better act quickly.