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Thursday, October 27, 2011
Baseball doing just fine, thank you

By David Schoenfield

ST. LOUIS -- This is what I love about baseball: Tonight's hero could be Nick Punto; it could be Skip Schumaker; it could be Albert Pujols or Josh Hamilton.

We don't know. Isn't that part of the fascination of baseball? We don't know. You can't script the storyline in baseball as easily as you can in other sports. Kobe Bryant? He's the story every game, whether he plays well, doesn't play well, shoots too much or doesn't shoot enough. Tim Tebow? He'll be the major story every game the rest of his career.

Skip Schumaker
Unlikely heroes like St. Louis' Skip Schumaker make baseball unique.
It doesn't work like that in baseball. Sure, sometimes -- like Pujols' performance for the ages in Game 3, or Roger Clemens and Curt Schilling facing off in Game 7 in 2001 -- you get that rare alignment of expectation and plot.

But check out some of the players to win the World Series MVP Award: Pat Borders, David Eckstein, Rick Dempsey, past-his-prime Edgar Renteria, Scott Brosius, Ray Knight, Bucky Dent, Gene Tenace. These weren't star players. Sure, Bob Gibson and Sandy Koufax cemented their legends by each winning two World Series MVP awards; Derek Jeter won in 2000; Reggie Jackson, Johnny Bench, Mike Schmidt and other Hall of Famers have come up big. But you don't know. Compare that to the NBA Finals MVP: Every winner except Jo-Jo White, Cedric Maxwell, Chauncey Billups and Tony Parker is in the Hall of Fame or will be eventually.

So while baseball is about Pujols and Hamilton, it's also about Allen Craig coming through with a big pinch-hit or Colby Lewis trying to deliver the Rangers their first World Series in the 51 years of the franchise's history or a converted catcher from Iona College named Jason Motte hoping to close out two more wins for the Cardinals.

For us baseball fans, that's OK. I could care less if a national television audience isn't geared up for a Lewis-Jamie Garcia matchup in the biggest game of the season. Mike Napoli isn't a household name to many sports fans? Doesn't bother me. People would rather watch "Big Bang Theory" or "Grey's Anatomy" instead of Ian Kinsler and Elvis Andrus? So be it. We're not watching just because the field is the reality TV canvas for a superstar.

Every year at this time, you get all the stories about baseball's declining World Series ratings on television. "Baseball is dying!" everybody screams. Kids don't care about baseball anymore. Football rules everything. Nobody saying that has been in St. Louis or Dallas over the past week. Everywhere I've been, everyone asks, "Are you here for the game?" After dropping off my rental car in Dallas, the woman driving the shuttle bus to the airport asked if I was from St. Louis. I told her I wasn't, but that I had been there for the games. She said she wasn't a big fan of baseball -- "It goes pretty slow at times" -- but she also said she'd been watching all the games.

Maybe the Rangers don't possess the rich history of the Cardinals, or the generation of baseball fans like St. Louis, but they're building their history right now. Those fans in Texas were loud, I'll tell you that. All decked out in their red or blue Rangers T-shirts, they were certainly enjoying baseball and the tension of the twists and turns of every pitch of October baseball. Bandwagon fans? Does it matter? Maybe some of them are new to the game; many of them will stay with the sport and pass down their joy to their kids, building a new generation of fans.

Baseball is dying? Please. Despite a bad economy, the wettest season with the most rainouts since 1997 and major attendance decreases from two of its largest franchises (the Dodgers and Mets) due to ownership issues, attendance still showed a slight increase from 2010. The Rangers drew 441,000 more fans than 2010. Nine franchises drew more than 3 million -- that's more than 37,000 fans per game.

Yes, baseball is doing just fine. Maybe the TV ratings for Game 6 -- and Game 7, if we get there -- won't be high enough to quietl the critics. Maybe the critics aren't even watching. That's OK, too. They're missing some great games ... and, yes, a great story as well, one that isn't pre-fabricated. Either the Rangers finally win it or the Cardinals complete their miracle comeback from 8.5 games out of the wild-card race on Sept. 5. Remember, this is a team whose best pitcher -- Adam Wainwright -- had Tommy John surgery in spring training.

Asked before Game 6 how he would have felt being two wins away from a World Series title when Wainwright was injured, Tony La Russa said, "I would have kissed your butt at home plate Opening Day." But they are two wins away. "We've had a lot fun," he said. "We've popped champagne three times, and we're going to try our best to get the fourth one."

A lot of fun. I couldn't agree more. We'll have at least one more game. I have a feeling it will be another good one.

Follow David Schoenfield on Twitter @dschoenfield.