Where are the Kids? – Baseball’s Post 1998 Youthification Craze

By Sean H.

In 1998, the lives of Ken Griffey Jr., Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa were elevated from those of the normal baseball celebrity, to sports icons. That year, when the weather warmed, the days elongated and kids got out of school, these three superstars changed the game of baseball forever. The summer of ‘98 would end with history; the 27-year, seemingly unbreakable home run record of Roger Maris was doomed to fall. Not only would it fall, however, it would shatter. These dog days of summer seemed to shimmer bright, seemingly pushing the sport past the ‘94 lockout. Seemingly. Unfortunately, this season, filled with exciting storylines, pushed the sport to complacency and would later doom Major League Baseball in the long run and force the league to go to desperate measures to regain the perch it reached in Y2K. ‘98 was special, and it was a season where everything went right, whereas now, nothing can.

1998’s  three sluggers would all finish the season and their careers engrossed in history, with Griffey best remembered not for that summer (as he was unable to reach Maris’ 61 round-trippers), but as one of the best ball players ever, arguably the second best five tool (home run power, batting title hitting, 40 stolen base speed, cannon arm and Gold Glove defense) behind the great Willie Mays, and being eponymously known as ‘The Kid.’ Even though he wouldn’t be in the books that September as the all-time homerun champ, he was the only one of the three to be enshrined in Cooperstown, baseball’s Hall of Fame. McGwire, the Golden Haired, bicep bulging SoCal first basemen, who burst onto the power scene even before the beginning of his professional career, shattering home run records at USC, living up to the schools nickname; playing like none other than a trojan. McGwire began his professional career for the Oakland Athletics, garnering notoriety after winning Rookie of the Year, and putting together a consistent all star campaign by his age 34 season in 1998, being by far the oldest of the three players in the pseudo homerun derby that occurred during the season. Finally the, in all senses of the name, formerly unknown Dominican 30-30 threat Sammy Sosa. Sosa, the outfielder who was only an all-star a single time prior to 1998. Sosa came from desperation in San Pedro de Macoris, whereas the only off the island for him was baseball. Sosa states on the ESPN 30-for-30 Long Gone Summer “You can’t make it to the majors by walking.” Sosa came out of nowhere in 1998, and finished the season as the National League MVP. The three superstars became the faces of a sport, packing ballparks, with fans, reporters and viewers witnessing a piece of history each and every day. By the end of the season, Maris’ mark was long forgotten, with McGwire hitting an astonishing 70 home runs, Sosa right behind him with 66, and Griffey with 56. Baseball seemed like it was at a peak that year, with superstars that were not only successful on the field, but lovable off of it. Fans loved the homeruns, the strikeouts, the storylines, and baseball was fun. The Mariners, Cardinals and Cubs were all top 11 in the league for attendance, in fact the Cardinals were in front of the Yankees, Dodgers and Red Sox in that category. Only four years after a lockout nearly purged the sport of respectability, everyone, even non-fans, tuned in to see what would happen that day for the Cardinals, Cubs, Mariners, and of course the “near-perfect” Yankees, in reference to their 114-win mammoth of a season, as Will Leitch mentions. He continues, “I called my dad [the day McGwire hit his 62nd]  because it was a moment everybody knew they’d remember forever.” Everything went right for baseball that year, and it looked that it would only continue forever. Until it didn’t.

“Baseball got arrogant,” former Red Sox beat reporter Steve Krasner describes, looking back at the marriage that signaled for a future that wouldn’t come to fruition. The post 1998 fall of baseball wasn’t swift, nor could it be pinpointed to a signal action. In fact, some of the main reasons for baseball’s collapse were from entities with no relation with the sport, and with the MLB’s entanglements even reaching the federal, congressional level. There were a multitude of things that looking back, hurt more than healed, but to rattle it down, three significant factors. Those three: the sudden, monstrous explosion of popularity for the National Basketball Association, steroids, and youthification of the game ‘we’ all know and love.

The year of 1998 was, if not just for the MLB, a gargantuan year for the NBA. This year would be the last year of the Michael Jordan Era in Chicago, Kobe Bryant’s first all-star campaign, and the year of the ‘Last Dance.’ The league, during the ‘90s, had seen a steady rise from a third-tier league, on par with the NHL or NCAA, to by 2010 being at the same level statistically as the MLB. In 2010, the World Series between the Cinderella San Francisco Giants and the Texas Rangers received a lowly 8.4 million viewers on average according to SMW. On the flip side, the NBA Finals rematch between the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics received over 18 million average viewers, as per Statistia. Now to be fair, these matchups are unfair in some senses, and the World Series featured mid-market teams versus basketballs two most popular teams. So, looking at a different year with comparable markets, signs point towards 2018. Baseball’s two best teams faced off in what was supposed to be a television network’s dream. The Boston Red Sox and the Los Angeles Dodgers. League MVP Mookie Betts and the BoSox looked to capture their fourth Commissioner’s trophy in 15 years. The Dodgers, hungry after a game 7 defeat in the year’s prior championship, were chomping at the bit to reverse their fortunes. Baseball fans gather around, the rating should be through the roof. Well, if the roofs were significantly lower than expected. The average game garnered 8.1 million viewers, only outdone negatively by 2012. While the MLB was seeing little buzz, the finale in the Warriors-Cavaliers saga played out with masterful numbers. 17.7 million on average watched LeBron James scream at J.R Smith after a game 1 flub, Golden State earn their third title in four years, and James strip the black ‘Cavs’ jersey from him for the final time. At this point, it was clear basketball was football’s sidekick at the sports success perch, with baseball stumbling and falling. This factor had very little to do with baseball itself, but with the NBA’s masterful marketing of their superstars, their shrewd business deals, and their ability to skillfully take advantage of shifting demographics.

It is a fact that young sports fans love fast-paced, constant motion sports. Young people are playing soccer, hockey and wrestling at record highs, but none such more than basketball. According to an SFIA statistic, basketball participation from the ages of 6-12 is at over 4.2 million, while baseball is at 3.9 million. For comparison’s sake hockey is also significantly growing, with a 10% growth in 2017, baseball only at 3.6%. Basketball is being played more at a younger age, due to the pace of the game and the financial simplicity of it. Second, the superstars of sports like the NBA are being marketed and accessed at a much higher and more successful rate than in baseball. ESPN compiled the Fame 100, a list of the hundred most popular athletes internationally. Mike Trout, baseball’s clear best player was not on the list. There was one player on the list, Bryce Harper, the villain who left the Nationals, the team that brought him up, for the money. He only reached 99th. In comparison, there are 9 basketball players on the list, two in the top ten, and even an international player over any baseball player. The NBA simply knows how to market their stars. Players like LeBron, Durant, Curry, Giannis and Dame are all marketed as the best at their sport, and are thrust to the forefront on commercial media, merchandise, and monetary salary. Also, notice how all those players were mentioned mononymously, and they are immediately recognized. If one were to say, Bryce, Mike, Clayton, or Betts, you may know who they are if you follow the sport, but a casual fan will never think Trout in relation to Mike the same way they think of James when they hear LeBron. These players have stories. They are almost like characters in a great novel. Durant is the snake who took the easy way out to win championships and is looking to make a name for himself independent from ring chasing. Stephen Curry is the undersized, skinny guard who burst out of nowhere to revolutionize the sport. LeBron is the hero, the protagonist, the ‘Chosen One.’ He looks to unseat the greats, and each and every season is an addition to the tale that is basketball. Baseball players do not have that. Those outside of New Jersey won’t remember Trout is from Millville, that Cody Bellinger was a LLWS star, or Giancarlo Stanton was almost killed by a pitch to the face. Baseball hasn’t created these storylines like they did in 1998, and it is a major reason they simply aren’t enticing enough to the random viewer.

The MLB’s lack of decisiveness as well as outside elements were no doubt a factor in baseball’s beaten path in this millenia, but mistakes internally through scandal was undoubtedly a major part. Baseball has had its scandals as of late, most notably the sign-stealing scandals of the Astros, Yankees and Red Sox, but no such wrongdoing will match that of steroids. The late 90s and early 2000s (and yes, that includes the ‘98 season) saw a power surge seemingly out of nowhere. Unfortunately, that ‘nowhere’ was very planned. Players began using Performance Enhancing Drugs, or steroids, to boost play. A University of Illinois study found that “players’ OPS boosted .104 when using HGH [a PED]… earning an average of $12 million more” than the average player. In fact, steroids were so rampant in the sport, 5-70% of MLB players were suspected of using them during their careers during the span of 1991-2003.  Additionally, steroids offered financial surplus for the leagues, the cause of which the MLB did not know of at the time. “While franchise values fell during the early 90’s, they increased dramatically during the Steroids Era, with the average MLB franchise value rising from $140 million in 1994 to $332 million in 2004” U of Illinois reports. The situation became so bad, in fact, that the league was brought on to a United States Senate hearing in 2003 in which players like Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa (both of which were obviously previously discussed) and the player who brought the whole scandal to light, Jose Canseco. Thanks to this scandal and these hearings, players like Alex Rodriguez, McGwire, Sosa, Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Manny Ramirez and so many more will likely never reach Cooperstown due to their usage, and their legacies will forever be tarnished. No man’s legacy, however, was as tarnished as Bonds. The all-time home run leader isn’t credited for his successes due to steroid usage late in his career, and even for one of the best to ever do it, he will be locked out of the ‘Hall’ because of his track record. However, Steve Krasner believes steroids did have some saving grace. “Baseball was fun, it was loud, it was tough.” The point was very much true. Steroids, looking back, were the driving force of baseball’s revitalization, but ultimately its downfall. In a Bleacher Report feature, it was stated that “what was once known as America’s pastime is now known as America’s doormat.” Baseball’s reputation was “tarnished” after this scandal. Fans would never look at the stars of the era the same, and the sport lost monumental amounts of credibility. The home run ball was supposed to be a messiah, instead it became a source of destruction.

Watching sports like the NBA, NFL and NHL market off of their superstars, the MLB looked to do so. Not just that, the sport made a hell-bent goal of theirs to make the game as fast as possible, doing so by making extensive rule changes that completely in some ways, and objectively destroyed the old-fashioned mentality of it. It is almost as if golf enacted a rule where whoever tee’d the ball off the farthest was automatically given an increase on the hole’s par. The game is simply so different. The strategy of the pitcher-hitter cat and mouse is gone. Pitchers cannot stay for a single, climatic showdown, rather required to stay for three at-bats minimum. Mound visits that build suspense are limited, and the long-standing “unwritten rules” are no more than part of the history books. Players boast and brag, they are loud and extravagant, and they don’t play the way the game was meant to be played. Baseball is a Gentleman’s game, simple as that. The only flash in a game should be what occurs with a diving catch, a perfectly placed breaking pitch, or a home run. There is no screaming, pointing or jumping necessary. Baseball’s base, those who stuck around past a lockout, scandal, and controversy, are not causal. Baseball is dominated by regional fans, and as opposed to the NBA and NFL, fans of baseball care more about the team they will root for diehard, rather than putting on a random game and seeing it through. This can be seen in ‘Contextualizing MLB’s Regional Business Dominance Compared to the NBA’ by Ryan Glasspiegel. In his piece, he demonstrates how city markets and individualized pinpointed markets show local games are far more successful during baseball games rather than national games Local networks thrive off baseball coverage, rather national markets see more financial dividends with a more national sport, the NBA. The NBA rules the national market, but in cities like New York, Chicago and Houston, baseball games dwarf basketball. New York has quadrupled the average viewers in baseball over basketball, and Chicago has triple. To point out, Chicago does have two baseball teams and only one basketball, but each team outdos the Bulls boy wide margins. Contextualizing links local audiences to diehard fans, and generally older audiences. Thus, baseball’s bread-and-butter with success and marketing should benefit their older audiences, so they can maximize their successes. The only way they can do that is to market baseball’s glory days. Hard-nosed teams like the Carlton, Schmidt, Rose Phillies, the early 2000’s Yankees and the 90’s Braves. These teams didn’t rely on braggadocious mannerisms, show-off nature, or disrespect. For instance, Rose was characterized as ‘Charlie Hustle,’ demonstrative of his play style. The fact of the matter is, baseball will never be as inherently fast-paced or as star-driven as sports like the NBA, and the MLB simply needs to recognize that and market the sport as a team game. Do away with the ‘Let the Kids Play’ campaign, and market players less for their celebrations and bat-flips, but for pure talent and team impact. Rather than marketing injury-prone Aaron Judge and unlikable players like Bryce Harper, talk about the five-tool talents of Christian Yelich, the constantly under-respected work of Jacob DeGrom, and of course one of possibly the best to ever do it, Mike Trout.

Baseball is at a crossroads; will it choose to sell out what it truly is in order to attempt to hold onto dear life the idea they are America’s second most popular sport, or suppress all of the temptation to stay at what it is, a pastime, a gentleman’s game, and the greatest sport in the world. Baseball still has potential for growth. It was noted on WEEI, the Red Sox radio broadcast network that baseball was the most popular television program for July 24th, opening day. It garnered over 7.1 million viewers, almost matching the World Series numbers of 2012. The sport is far from dying, but if it continues to isolate the die-hard fan, the game will have no opportunity to grow. An opposing statement surely would state, “how can you grow the game in the future if you do not target youth?” Simply put, a sport cannot grow for the future if it cannot preserve itself in the present. Baseball is a graceful sport, but if it continues to crave for Youthification in order to appease a generation hapless with patience, then it will never sustain the beauty and art of the sport.

Student Bio

Sean H.

2019 MSU Oranges Camp
2020 Summer Program

A standout athlete, I participate in wrestling and baseball and am an avid fan of the Boston Red Sox and Dallas Cowboys, along with other teams. I also enjoy mini-golfing, spending time with my family and friends, and going to the beach.

Social Share