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Is baseball on its way out?

By Mike Downey
July 15, 2014 -- Updated 1954 GMT (0354 HKT)
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Mike Downey: Attendance at Major League Baseball games is way down for many teams
  • He says All-Star Game Tuesday held against backdrop of waning interest, dearth of big stars
  • He says players of prowess come along, but with fewer viewers, they don't get famous
  • Downey: Players like Derek Jeter don't come along. We need more of them

Editor's note: Mike Downey is a former columnist for the Los Angeles Times and a frequent contributor to CNN. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely his.

(CNN) -- So, where'd everybody go?

Baseball's Philadelphia Phillies' attendance is down 8,290 per home game from a year ago. Toronto Blue Jays and Texas Rangers, each down more than 4,000. Minnesota Twins, more than 3,000. Detroit Tigers, Washington Nationals, Atlanta Braves, Arizona Diamondbacks, Chicago White Sox, 2,000-plus.

Baltimore Orioles, Chicago Cubs, Cincinnati Reds, Cleveland Indians, Colorado Rockies, New York Mets, San Diego Padres, Tampa Bay Rays .... down, down, down, down, down, down, down, down.

Mike Downey
Mike Downey

Like they say, come on out, good seats still available!

As baseball's yearly All-Star Game gets under way Tuesday night in Minneapolis, we will be bombarded with a lot of talk about what a great young star this guy is, or that guy is. "You'll be hearing a lot about this guy." "This kid's going to be around a long, long time." "He's got 'future Hall of Famer' written all over him."

Of course we will. Of course he does.

Never mind all the one-season wonders. The flashes in the pans. The golden boys who turned to rust. The All-Stars who were barely seen or heard from again. It's a frat party and everybody's up for it. Major League Baseball has never been better -- at least that's what somebody will tell you and sell you.

Except it's untrue. Seventeen of the game's 30 teams have poorer attendance than a year ago at this time. World Series television ratings get more disappointing year after year. Household-name players -- I mean popular and scandal-free ones like Mariano Rivera and Derek Jeter -- have come to the ends of their careers, with no clear heir-apparents.

Is there a star player of today you'd go out of your way to see?

"Hey, Felix Hernandez is in town!" "You wanna go to the ballpark tonight and see Adam Wainwright?"

Those are your All-Star starting pitchers. Would you recognize either one if you saw him coming toward you on the street?

Baseball is losing its luster. As ticket prices get higher, interest goes lower. As options on television expand, baseball's grip on the American public gets ever more slippery.

TV's audience for Game 1 of the 2004 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and St. Louis Cardinals came to approximately 25.4 million viewers. When the same two teams met in the World Series last October, Game 1's viewership was pegged at around 15 million.

One year earlier a series between the San Francisco Giants and Detroit Tigers attracted the worst TV ratings of any World Series in the past 30 years.

Will Jeter go from Captain to Boss?
Hank Aaron on breaking barriers at bat

Players of great prowess and promise do still come along. Miguel Cabrera. Andrew McCutchen. Robinson Cano. Clayton Kershaw. A kid can capture imaginations in the blink of an eye. Mike Trout. Jose Abreu. Yu Darvish. Yasiel Puig.

They also can vanish from the radar just as quickly. Albert Pujols now seems two-thirds the superstar he used to be. Prince Fielder, CC Sabathia, Matt Kemp, Ryan Howard ... not exactly the game's hottest names anymore. Stephen Strasburg .... wasn't he the pitcher we were all waiting for? We're still waiting.

Derek Jeters do not come along every day.

Oh, he isn't nearly as famous nationwide as New Yorkers think he is. You could go months in California or Texas or Ohio without meeting a soul who cares that this is Jeter's last season, let alone anyone who could tell you who "the Captain" is. Yet he is a rarity in baseball indeed, particularly in this era -- a standout from beginning to end, as well as a guy who never gave us cause to question what kind of guy he secretly must be. He's been about as controversial as a Muppet.

Baseball could use more like him. They had better show themselves soon, too, because fewer and fewer people are watching. You'll hear somebody tonight call it the national pastime, but let me assure you of something: This nation can find other ways to pass the time.

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