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Splitting Apart: American Polarization, Part 1

This is part one of a two-part series on polarization in America. This post focuses on Americans' views on, and roles in, polarization. Part two addresses the systemic causes of polarization that result from our ... Read Now >

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Bonnie Angelo

Bonnie Angelo is the author of First Families: The Impact of the White House on Their Lives and First Mothers: The Women Who Shaped the Presidents.

Bonnie Angelo

Bonnie Angelo

In Ms. Angelo’s more than 25 year career with Time Magazine, she has covered the White House and other current events, both, domestically and internationally.

8/13: The Eco-friendly Way

By John Sparks

Jim Motavalli has been writing on the environment for more than a decade.  His work has appeared in the Mother Nature Network, E Magazine, and the New York Times.  In this interview with The Marist Poll’s John Sparks, he talks about organic food, what people can do to preserve our environment, and the environmental efforts of the Obama administration.  Listen to or read the interview below.

Jim Motavilli

Jim Motavalli

John Sparks
Jim, the Marist Poll recently conducted a national survey, and we asked the American public to think about how they live, the things they buy, specifically to help the environment.  76% told us that they do a fair amount to help the environment.  Do you think that folks are really conscious and really doing that much to help out with our environment these days?

Jim Motavalli
No, I think people tend to exaggerate their environment. I think their involvement.  I think people tend to think that putting out their recycling bin is like being a pretty good environmental soldier.

John Sparks
When I read things like the BP oil spill, global warming, threats to wildlife, I confess that I sometimes feel that the battle to preserve our planet is lost. Is it too late to get involved and start trying to be more eco-friendly?

Jim Motavalli
No, I mean it’s — if you were to just look at it: Is it too late to stop global warming? It definitely is.  Global warming’s going to happen whether we continue to burn fossil fuels or not.  If we could stop tomorrow, we’d still have a hundred years of global warming, because carbon dioxide stays in the atmosphere.  But, if you’re thinking about leaving any kind of long-term legacy for the planet, the planet certainly is savable.  Anything we do I think is reversible, so I don’t think … I mean a lot of things are probably irreversible, but saving human life on the planet isn’t.

John Sparks
Does living green have to be difficult?  I’m just curious what some of the little things that people could do to help out might be.

Jim Motavalli
I don’t think it has to be — being like eating everything local, for example, that’s pretty difficult.  People have tried to do that, and I think you end up going through so many hoops, it’s not even worth it.  You have to define what is local and all that kind of thing, and having zero environmental footprint is pretty hard. I think, but really reducing your impact, I think people can do little things that have that effect.

John Sparks
What advice might you have for those that would like to be more eco-friendly but just don’t where to begin?

Jim Motavalli
Well, I think you should look up, and there’s a lot of websites that would help you do this.  Understand where your main planetary impacts are.  Like everybody has a carbon footprint, and certain things like the car you drive has a lot to do with how your carbon footprint is, and you can reduce that in a lot of not too difficult ways.

John Sparks
One of the things that we asked folks had to do with gardening and this business of organic food.  First of all, 48% of our respondents said they personally have a garden where they grow their fruits and vegetables.  Does that number seem inflated to you?

Jim Motavalli
40% say they have a garden?

John Sparks
Yeah.

Jim Motavalli
Well I’m sure that they grow some, they grow some things.  Not… I don’t think 40% grow all their own vegetables. That would seem inflated.  Growing some, yeah, I wouldn’t be surprised.

John Sparks
I wanted to ask you specifically about organic food, and the Department of Agriculture released a study.  It said that last year sales of organic food were up to $21 billion.  Back in 1997 it was just a little over 3.5 billion.  We go to the supermarket, we encounter labels in the produce section which say “organic.”  When you see that label that says “organic,” what exactly does that mean?

Jim Motavalli
The organic standard is a federally recognized or federally enforced standard that you cannot use unless you’re certified organic.  The word “natural” doesn’t mean anything, but the word “organic” does, actually for about ten years now, have an actual legal meaning.  So, it means that it met the federal organic standards, which are pretty good.  So, it does mean quite a lot.

John Sparks
What are some of those standards?

Jim Motavalli
They’re very detailed and very technical, but it has…you’re not allowed to use pesticides, and you’re not allowed to use herbicides, and it has to be for a certain number of years you didn’t use any of those things.

John Sparks
One thing the organic label usually means is higher prices for those products, and I’m just curious why that is.

Jim Motavalli
Well, I think it is more expensive to farm organically. It is more expensive to do organic pest control, for instance, and generally you’re talking about smaller scale operations that don’t have the economies of scale you get with big factory farms.  The cost of production is a lot higher.

John Sparks
And no chances of prices coming down then on organic foods?

Jim Motavalli
Well, prices have come down as organic food has become part of the factory food system because you have many large organic farms now that have swallowed up…I mean you can look at something like on the retail end, you’ve got Whole Foods, which has swallowed up a number of smaller chains, and you have large organic producers swallow up smaller organic producers, so the end result is larger companies which do have more economies of scale. You also have a lot of these companies now selling into supermarkets where they used to just sell into health food stores, and you have these enormous Whole Foods-type natural food supermarkets.  So, there’s a lot – – the market is a lot bigger, and I think all that has resulted – – and there’s more competition, all of which has resulted in lower prices.  So, prices are a lot lower than they used to be, even though it’s still a fair amount higher. You can walk into any supermarket now and buy organic milk, and it’s not that much more than regular milk.

John Sparks
The Obama administration has been pushing for legislation that would create new clean energy jobs and a more sustainable energy policy.  I’m just curious your take on what passage of that kind of legislation would mean for the everyday American.  We’ve got a pretty tough economy as it is right now.

Jim Motavalli
A lot of it depends on what the legislation is.  It’s been through many different changes.  The current form of it does not include any sort of cap and trade system, and it’s quite a bit weaker than it used to be. I was for the stronger forms of those bills that did include cap and trade, so I think…there’s lots of good things in those bills, like for example, I cover the car industry quite a bit, and there’s provisions that would create something like 15 initial deployment areas for EVs in which you would get fairly major subsidies if you bought them. That’s part of that bill.  There’s lots of good provisions in it, but on the whole, it’s weaker than it could be.

John Sparks
You’ve written quite a lot about the automobile industry, and I know you contribute to the New York Times, and you have a professional relationship with Mother Nature Network.  When did you become interested in environmental issues yourself?

Jim Motavalli
I’m going to have to trace that back to about 1994 when I first started writing for E/The Environmental Magazine.  Before…actually before that, I had been editor of a alternative weekly paper where I did a lot of – – I did some environmental reporting anyway.  As a result of that, I started getting interested in the issues, but then I got quite a bit more interested when I became editor of E Magazine, and that was like 1994.

John Sparks
I presume that Mother Nature Network, their website, might be a good place for folks to start…

Jim Motavalli
Oh definitely, yeah, it’s very – – there’s a lot of stuff on there.

John Sparks
Any new adventures or projects that you’re involved with you’d like to share with our listeners?

Jim Motavalli
I’ve started a new piece on greenwashing for America Online. I do a regular thing for AOL.  I’m also the blogger for Car Talk at NPR.  You know, Click and Clack, most people are familiar with them, and I have a new professional relationship with the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School, so I do some things with them.  I’ve been doing as much…in addition to the car writing, I’ve been doing a lot of general interest environmental reporting on a number of different issues. Like for instance, I wrote a story for Knowledge at Wharton recently about carbon fraud. It’s amazing that even though I support the idea of cap and trade, there has been a fair amount of fraud in cap and trade operations in Europe.

John Sparks
Anything else you’d like to add before we call it a day?

Jim Motavalli
Well, I think people are making environmental progress. It’s kind of slow and halting, but I do think we are making a good effort.  I think President Obama is the most environmentally friendly president we’ve had in a very long time.  He has all kinds of obstacles in getting environmental legislation through, but I think he has pointed the EPA and the Department of the Interior in the right direction.  All that has made a big difference.  And, I think he’s enacted some very good initiatives that don’t necessarily require Congressional approval, so I think he’s been a very positive force in environmental action.

7/28: Sports Ethics

By John Sparks

This season there have been an increasing number of empty seats at major league ballparks, and the television audience continues to decrease. Could baseball have finally out-priced itself for most fans? And, are ethics compromised when it comes to sports? The Marist Poll’s John Sparks discusses these issues with Richard Lapchick, Founder and Director of the Institute for Diversity and Ethics In Sport at the University of Central Florida.

Dr. Richard Lapchick

John Sparks
Rich, 54% of the American public tell us they do not follow baseball at all as a national past time. Why do you think that is?

Dr. Richard Lapchick
Well, John, to be honest with you, when I hear the number 54% don’t, that means 46% do. To me that’s a substantial amount of people. I’m not sure if more than 55 or 60% of the public will say they’re great sports fans and that follow any particular sport, so I’m not sure that that tells us that baseball has a smaller following. I think that 40 is almost half of the people say they follow baseball, that’s pretty substantial.

John Sparks
Now I watch games this year, and seen a lot of empty seats. We’ve heard complaints about high ticket prices, concessions, parking, and we’ve seen multimillion dollar player salaries; yet, as I said, attendance seems to be down. Could it be that the American public feels that there’s just much too greed in baseball?

Dr. Richard Lapchick
Well I don’t have any doubt, John, that the public that if they rationally compared the salaries of teachers and teachers who are being laid off in huge numbers around the country in the recession to the kinds of contracts that are signed in baseball and now with the NBA’s free agency, you can pretty much pick the sport, it’s true in all sports, that the public would say, “Yes, the dollars being spent in baseball or in any other sport are enormous.” And I think that perhaps a bigger factor, however, because that never really affected fans coming to games before, I think the biggest factor here is we’re having a lot of people who are baseball fans and fans of other sports who are deeply affected by the economy and simply can’t afford to go to the games.

John Sparks
Undoubtedly. I read an article this week in the paper, the Nokona Leather Company in Texas, it’s the only place in the United States now where baseball gloves are made. All others are made where labor is cheap overseas. This gets into our economic situation. I’m just wondering this picture of people working for pennies to make the tools of the trade for players who make millions, what does that say about us as a nation?

Dr. Richard Lapchick
Well outsourcing our manufacturing process is hardly limited to baseball, basketball, and football. This is something that has plagued the American economy and the American worker for more than two decades now. I think everybody here would prefer that these things were produced in the United States. I think the reality of the economy is under capitalism, we’re going to go wherever we can produce the products cheaper, and the cheap labor doesn’t exist in the United States as it is overseas.

John Sparks
Rich, let’s talk about college sports. We now have a Big 12 Conference that has 10 teams and a Big Ten Conference which has 12 teams because of the switches being made by universities that are seeking more money, better television contracts. How out of hand has college football become? There’s just tremendous need for money, money, money.

Dr. Richard Lapchick
Well I think recent switches of a few teams in college sport, which of course was anticipated there’d be much bigger switches in the Big 12 Conference, might actually evaporate. I think it was one more explanation point on the generally accepted assumption that college sport has become a big business in the United States and decisions are made on how much money is going to be spent and how much money’s going to be earned by college sports much more than the competitive nature of the games.

John Sparks
Well I know that colleges, like everyone else, they’re hard strapped for money and they of course see Division I athletics as being a good source of income. But have we out priced our tickets for major college sports? Is there a point where folks will say, “Enough’s enough”?

Dr. Richard Lapchick
Well there’s definitely going to be a place where people say that “I can’t afford it and I’m not going to take my family of four to see Kentucky play because I just can’t afford the tickets anymore,” but there are of course those hard-core fans and corporate dollars are filling skyboxes and driving the industry not only in college sport but in professional sports also and I think that — I think to predict what’s happening is difficult under this — under these economic circumstances. I think if this continues after the recession and fans stay away and fans don’t go to games and don’t buy licensed products, et cetera, then I think we’ll realize that the drive for money above all else has cost us the most beloved part of or the part of the beloved nature of sports is we have people who play the sports and people who are fans of those who play the sports.

John Sparks
Is this pressure to make more money the reason why a lot of college coaches and university officials will keep students on their teams after they’ve been arrested for criminal behavior?

Dr. Richard Lapchick
Well I think coaches want to win. They realize that they’re going to play better, so they’re going to have more chances either to increase their contracts and have a little more longevity at a particular place or get a better job at a different place, so there are coaches who will turn a blind eye to what I think is a terrible situation. Especially in the cases of domestic violence when an athlete gets an act of sexual aggression against a woman, I think that’s the one set of circumstances where there should be an automatic banning of the players for at least a certain period of time and we see players banned for other things. I think the most egregious thing that men do in this society is batter women, not just athletes. I don’t think athletes do it in disproportionate numbers, but I think when they do there should be consequences for it.

John Sparks
Rich, you head up the Institute for Ethics and Diversity in Sports. Can you tell our listeners what the Institute is and some of the things that it does?

Dr. Richard Lapchick
John, we publish 24 studies a year and try to generate an average of a book a year on things that we think are — where there’s missing information in sport. We published a racial and gender report card which analyzes the hiring practices in the NBA, NFL, Major League Baseball, Major League Soccer, and all college sport. We’re adding this year the U.S. Tennis Association. We do a report card for the Associated Press affiliated newspapers and dot-com sites, about 405 papers in the country, on who is — who are our editors, copyeditors, writers, and columnists in our major papers and dot-com sites. Do graduation rate studies. Do Division 1A programs around the country, break them down by race and sport. We also do the hiring report card for the Black Coaches Association and Women’s Basketball, Men’s Division 1 football and athletic — Division 1 athletic directors.

John Sparks
Rich, it’s always a pleasure talking to you, appreciate your time today.

7/15: Instant Replay in the MLB

By John Sparks

“To err is human, to forgive divine.”
-Alexander Pope

sparks-caricature-440A whopping 73% of baseball fans have told the Marist Poll that they like the idea of expanding the use of instant replay in baseball.

For all of its shortcomings, television coverage of the baseball games has given the armchair fans the best seat in the house for close plays and determining whether a pitch is in the strike zone.

It’s also put more pressure on the umpires to make the correct calls, and when they don’t, it puts them in the hot seat and casts a shadow on the integrity of the game.

We know the men in blue are human just as we are.  They make mistakes.  If it’s a judgment call, the call is not subject to dispute.  If the ump errs and makes a ruling contrary to the rulebook, that’s another case and can cause the game to be played under protest.

So, should we apply the technology of television’s instant replay to become the final word on a judgment call?

I’m not so sure.  I have mixed feelings.

I’m all for correct calls, but I’m also concerned about long games.  I’m not crazy about the game being halted while officials study video replays on close calls.

Baseball showcases our shortcomings.  We post defensive errors for all to see in the line score.  Players in the field are so separated that there is never much doubt when one makes a mistake and which one that is.  On the field, a batter who fails 70 percent of the time is a hero who bats .300.

Some players and their mistakes become legends.  Ask Bill Buckner or Ralph Branca.  Sometimes, close calls which could go either way become the difference in the outcome of the game.  Sometimes, the emotions associated with them get the best of a team and turn the tide as well.

So, will the instant replay change all that?  No doubt it would make a difference and certainly correct egregious errors.  But, it won’t correct all of them.  There’s always the problem of the different angles, and sometimes they can show different results.

Alexander Pope wrote “To err is human, to forgive divine.” We saw that illustrated last month when first base umpire Jim Joyce cost Detroit Tigers pitcher Armando Galarraga a perfect game. Joyce admitted his error, and Galarraga forgave him.  It was the right thing to do, and it was classy.

Had the instant replay been in effect to overrule Joyce’s call it would have been a bizarre way to end such a triumph and undoubtedly would have taken some time to employ.  It’s hard to picture the fans waiting around in the stands in suspense to learn the outcome.

Regardless, I suspect MLB will adopt the instant replay in some form or fashion. It probably won’t be perfect and will be refined over time.  It may even bring about some new issues which we haven’t even thought about.

7/14: Multitasking Bad for the Brain?

One could argue that digital technology has helped make us better multitaskers.  These days, we can simultaneously check our e-mails, monitor our Twitter feeds and listen to a podcast, all while eating our breakfast.  Wouldn’t it make sense that such a capacity for divided attention is making our brains stronger?

goldman-caricature-430Unfortunately, that might not be the case.  Experiments comparing the ability of heavy multitaskers – thus designated based on self-reports about their technology use – to non-multitaskers, found that the latter group actually performs better on certain cognitive tasks. In a Stanford study, cited in a recent New York Times article, subjects participated in a test that required them to ignore extraneous inputs, a measure of their ability to filter out distractions.  (You can take a test on ignoring distractions here.)  In another test, participants had to switch between tasks, showing their ability to adjust to new information and task demands on the fly.  (Take a task-switching test here.)  In both cases, the non-multitaskers performed better than heavy multitaskers.  Based on these and other experiments, the scientists surmised that multitaskers are more responsive to new incoming information.  On the positive side, one might say the multitaskers are more alert to new stimuli; on the negative side, one could claim their multitaskers’ focus is more easily disrupted.

As with many scientific studies, the tests in this case might not truly reflect real world situations.  A cognitive test in a laboratory could fall short of replicating the experience of juggling computer applications.  As always, more study is needed to examine, among other things, how different amounts of multitasking affect performance on cognitive tasks, and whether the recency of one’s immersion in technology affects the ability to direct attention.  Nonetheless, it would appear that heavy use of gadgets and computers is influencing our brain function.

On the plus side, there is also evidence that screen technology benefits certain cognitive skills. It has been demonstrated in the laboratory that playing action video games improves visual attention in several ways.  Gamers show the ability to process more visual inputs than non-gamers, the ability to process inputs across a greater field of view, and a better ability to process inputs presented in rapid succession.  Considering the deficits shown by people with disabilities and the demonstrated erosion of certain cognitive skills among the elderly, perhaps, action video games – or programs that mimic them – can be used therapeutically.

Above all else, the experiments reveal the apparent power of technology to mold our brains, for better and for worse. The question, however, may be whether we can harness our gadgets’ power to maximize the benefits and minimize the harm.

7/14: Baseball Strikes Back

By John Sparks

The other day I criticized television’s coverage of Major League Baseball — specifically television’s pre-occupation with taking shots and talking about things that have little to do with the strategies and nuances of the game being played on the field.

sparks-caricature-440The dramatic close-up shots of the players, the shots of celebrities in the stands, and announcers talking about things other than the ongoing game are the things that I dislike most.  I would like to see more shots of the entire field so I can see where the defense positions itself against different hitters in different situations.  That doesn’t happen much.

So, what to do?  Go to the ballpark to enjoy the game.  The price of tickets, parking and concessions aside, there is nothing like an evening at the ballpark.  You can see the entire field.  You can enjoy the finer points of the game and the strategy employed by both teams.  The pace is such that you can also enjoy a pleasant conversation with your companions at the same time.  Well almost …

Two weeks ago, I went out to the Ballpark in Arlington to watch the Texas Rangers host the Pittsburgh Pirates.

I got quite a bit more than I had bargained for.  For starters there were the loudspeakers blaring so loud I could not carry on a conversation with the person sitting next to me.  Every batter has his own song which is played each time he makes a plate appearance.  Most of these songs are rap or Tejano.  There was one exception.  Rangers shortstop Elvis Andrus singled, and the speakers started playing “Don’t Be Cruel.” Why, you ask?  Think about it. It’s just another hit by Elvis.

Baseball isn’t the product being sold these days.  The ball clubs will tell you they’re now in the family entertainment business.  The game and its stars are no longer deemed enough to draw us there and hold our attention.

So, there’s the dot race, the kiss cam, the muscle cam, and the wiffle ball home run contest at the adjoining kids’ park. There’s also a contest where kids literally steal a base and get to keep it, a video version of the old shell game where you guess which cap the baseball is hidden under after being shuffled around, the Cotton-eyed Joe, and various other sponsored announcements blasting over the speakers and projected on the giant jumbotron for all to see and hear.

Just as television has determined that it must inject more excitement into a game, major league clubs are doing the same thing at the game itself.

Perhaps, these distractions are designed to make up for the lack of a pennant contender on the field.  For way too many years that has been the case with the Texas Rangers.  So far this season though, there’s something strange going on.  The Rangers find themselves atop the AL West at the All-Star break.  Gimmicks or not, nothing brings the fans out like a winner.  So, besides voting for my All-Star selections, I also vote to cut back on the side shows at the Show.  And, please turn down the volume on the speakers.

7/13: The President and the Midterm Elections

By Dr. Lee M. Miringoff

If there is a silver lining for President Obama in Marist’s latest national poll numbers, it is that well into his second year as president– by more than 2 to 1– the electorate still thinks current economic conditions are mostly inherited from the Bush years and not the result of Obama’s policies.  Admittedly, the current number of voters who blame prior failed Republican policies—62%— is substantially lower than the 76% who felt that way in the spring of 2009.  But, it still represents a strong argument for the president as he shifts into campaign mode and tries to preserve his party’s margin in Congress.

miringoff-caricature-430I suspect this view is reflected in the President’s internal polls and in what his advisers have been telling him.  In his June 30th town hall meeting in Racine, Wisconsin, President Obama noted:  “I just want everyone to remember—we’ve tried the other side’s theories…. We know where they led us… we can return to what we know did not work, or we can build a stronger future.  We can go backwards or we can go forward.”  Ditto for his Missouri campaign style swing where among other things he said, “It’s a choice between the policies that got us into this mess in the first place and the policies that are getting us out of this mess.”  Not too subtle.  Certainly, not a bi-partisan appeal.

But, things are far from rosy for President Obama and drawing upon the past is mixed.  The Marist Poll finds that the nation is largely divided on his handling of the economy as it is on his overall approval rating.  More troublesome for the president, however, is that for the first time, the Marist numbers point to more voters who now think Obama has fallen short of their expectations than think he has met or exceeded them.  In this instance, turning the clock back to 2008 does not pay dividends for the president.

With the eyes of the political community already fixed on the midterm elections, national polls are providing some preliminary data that turnout is unlikely to demographically reflect the 2008 electorate.  According to Charlie Cook’s analysis of the latest NBC/Wall Street Journal poll, interest is greater among McCain 2008 voters than those who supported Obama.  GOP’ers are hopeful that the election is a referendum on President Obama, and this translates into a wholesale turnover in Congress.  Team Obama wants to make it a choice about who can best lead into the future and is claiming that progress on many fronts has been slowed by obstructionist Republican representatives.  The battle lines are being drawn as sides try to rally their base and appeal to the all important Independent voter.

But, which side will be taking a victory lap in November?  Although the White House has been caught off-guard in the past, they seem to be gearing up on schedule for the fall elections.  The somewhat daunting political task facing President Obama is how to re-energize his 2008 winning coalition.    He needs to mobilize young and minority voters who provided him his winning margin two years ago while finding a way to win back independent voters who have strayed.  This may prove to be a tall order for the president.

7/13: Lingering Effects of the Economic Collapse

By Barbara Carvalho

Since 1992, “It’s the economy, stupid!” has been the mantra of American politics.  Now, a frustrated electorate is waiting impatiently for any signs the economy is picking up.

carvalho-caricature-430There have been faint, sporadic glimmerings of improvement in some economic news.  This month’s Marist Poll of Americans found that 33% of residents expect their family finances to improve in the next year.  That’s up from 28% in Marist’s April 2009 survey.

These numbers are promising but nothing to write home about.  And, the latest national reports on job growth, coupled with other economic indicators, have been disappointing.  What’s going on?  The electorate is assessing economic growth in terms of jobs.  They understand what it means to be a lagging and not a leading indicator.  The Gallup Poll estimates the number of underemployed at 18% and the long-term jobless face even tougher prospects. Recent gains in jobs were mostly tied to temporary hires for the Census.  But, that’s old news.  The addition of 83,000 private sector jobs in June did not keep pace with need as more than 600,000 Americans left the workforce.  As The New York Times pointed out, this resulted in a somewhat “illusory decline” in unemployment to 9.5% from 9.7% last month.  On the surface, this looks like an improvement.  But again, it’s nothing to write home about.

The economic collapse from the fall of 2008 has lingered.  Americans sense there’s no quick fix.  As pols look ahead to this November’s elections, no doubt, they are worried whether there will be a sufficient economic recovery to cover their political backs.  The White House is in an internal tussle between the deficit hawks vs. those who argue that the government must kick in with some added money to avoid a slowdown.  The GOP is trying to tap into the frustration but needs to find a way to provide answers without being tagged obstructionists.  The latest national Marist Poll shows that voters are almost evenly split between supporting their current congress person and casting their lot with someone new.  A majority of Democratic voters want to stay the course whereas it’s the GOP’ers who want to throw the bums out.  Independents are also clamoring for change.  But, will it be an anti-incumbent or a partisan choice?   This is a storyline that is still being written.

Regardless of which political force dominates this fall’s elections, expect the economy to be front and center, and the jobs agenda to be driving the discussion.

7/13: Expansion: A Role in Baseball’s Demise?

By John Sparks

In my last blog, I suggested that television may have killed off the national pastime.  In the latest national Marist Poll, 54% of the American public tell us that they do not follow baseball at all.

sparks-caricature-440But, television can’t be held solely accountable for the demise of our great game.  Expansion and some crucial decisions from Major League Baseball have also contributed.

Part of the problem dates back to 1993 and 1998.  In 1993, the National League expanded into Denver and Miami with the creation of the Colorado Rockies and Florida Marlins.  Each League would now have two divisions made up of seven teams each.

But in 1998 when baseball expanded again adding Arizona to the National League and Tampa Bay to the American League, the Milwaukee Brewers also moved to the National League.  Now you have 14 teams in the American League and 16 in the National League.

Things start getting complicated.  Each league now has three divisions.  In the American League two of the divisions have five teams, and the West has only four teams.  In the National League, two divisions have 5 teams, but the Central Division has six teams.

The critical factor, I believe, is with the time zones.  In the American League West, the Texas Rangers are the only team in the Central Time Zone.  The other three are all in the Pacific Time Zone which is two hours earlier.  Think about it.  If half of your games are played on the road, and most of them with teams in your own division, there are a huge number of games that don’t begin until 9:20 p.m. local time in Texas.  Young fans have to stay up past midnight to watch those games.  That certainly doesn’t work on school nights, and even in the summer, it’s a challenge.  Then, there are the older fans who must be at work the next morning.  They are also challenged.  So, for the past 12 years, you’ve lost a whole generation of young fans, certainly in Texas, but elsewhere as well.

There are several options to fix this—none of them easy.  One solution would be to create divisions and leagues within geographic clusters.  That would require breaking some long traditions by moving teams into different leagues.  That would also require rebuilding those teams that switch leagues as long as the AL and NL continue to play a different game because of the designated hitter.  No one likes the prospect of either solution, but the present structure while bringing big league baseball to more cities is not fan friendly to kids.  And without kids, the fan base will eventually erode, and the day will come when the economics will force baseball to reduce rather than expand.  That won’t be pretty either.

An answer must be found, and the first step begins with the resolution of the DH dilemma.

Tomorrow:  Baseball Fights Back.  Are attempts to lure families to the ballpark helping or hurting?

7/12: Baseball’s Demise at the Hands of the Networks?

By John Sparks

“God, I just love baseball.”
–Robert Redford as Roy Hobbs in “The Natural,” 1984

sparks-caricature-440So, in the latest Marist Poll, 54% of the American public tells us they do not follow baseball at all.

Clearly, Roy Hobbs and I are in the minority.  I’m writing this column in Texas as I watch my favorite team, the New York Yankees, do battle with the Oakland A’s on television.  Friends of mine tell me the game is much too slow.  It’s boring.  They prefer the slam dunk on the basketball court or the action of the NFL which makes for the fast pacing television thrives on.

They don’t know what they’re missing.  But, they’re missing quite a lot if they depend on television coverage.

One of my pet peeves is that I am at the mercy of the television director to show me what is going on.  Instead of the game, I get far too many close-ups of Andy Pettitte and his intimidating stare as he gets the sign from Jorge Posada.  I get shots of celebrities like Tom Cruise sitting in the high dollar seats at Dodger Stadium.  Two weeks ago, Fox spent way too much time showing me the broadcast booth as Tim McCarver, Joe Buck, Tommy Lasorda and Reggie Jackson argued ad nauseam about a controversial play in the 1978 World Series while today’s  game was going on.

To love the game, you must understand it.  To understand it, you have to see an overview of the field — something the television director rarely shows you these days.  Is the infield playing in or deep?  Has the defense shifted to the right for Mark Teixeira?  If so, and Brett Gardner is on second, should he attempt a steal with third base not being covered?  How many outs are there?  Who’s the pitcher?  Does he know what Teixeira’s weakness is?  Does Tex know that he knows?

You have to see the entire field to determine these things.  Can it be that television which breathed life into the National Football League has killed off the national pastime?

There are other reasons baseball has diminished in popularity.

I’ll share those thoughts tomorrow.