GROSS: Baseball losing appeal, except where it isn't; Just ask Red Land's Benny Montgomery

TIM GROSS
The (Carlisle) Sentinel (TNS)
For former Red Land High School standout Benny Montgomery, baseball is still  "the best sport in the world."

Benny Montgomery stood in shallow left field at Lubrano Park in State College after the June 17 PIAA Class 5-A championship game, hands on his hips, socks pulled high, with dirt streaked across his Red Land High School uniform for the final time.

As the finality of his prep career began to soak in, with his pro potential humming to life like tower lights on a steamy summer night, Montgomery looked toward the children lining up for his autograph along the front-row seats on the third-base line, some of them sporting youth-league uniforms.

"It's awesome to me that we inspired these kids to want to play baseball," Montgomery said. "It's the best sport in the world."

The best sport in the world.

It's an easy enough claim to make for Montgomery, a probable first-round pick in next weekend's MLB Draft, but it flies in the face of the popular 2021 take that baseball, once America's pastime, has been buried by a bored society.

Familiar knocks against the game: At this point, the knocks against baseball feel as familiar to fans as the words to "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."

The game's pace of play has slowed to a crawl.

Pitching precision and defensive shifts — combined with the sense that launch angle matters more than legging out doubles and triples — have sucked the entertainment value out of baseball's offense. Entering Monday, the overall MLB batting average was .239, tied for the second-lowest for a season on record, according to Baseball Reference, and 10 pitchers combined to throw seven no-hitters, tying the single-season record and turning the once rare and impressive feat into further evidence that not enough action unfolds between the lines of today's game.

That's not to mention baseball's macro problems, including the constant and public financial animosity between millionaire players and billionaire owners, a willingness to wring out taxpayer dollars to publicly finance stadiums and the tension between traditional austerity and contemporary showmanship.

All of these issues, and many others, should concern even the most hardcore hardball fans. Baseball's popularity, in some respects, has plummeted among the ranks of the four major sports in the United States, becoming a 20th century relic and a casualty in a society that wields ever-expanding entertainment options with ever-shrinking attention spans.

Some, however, still love the game: To some, it's still the best game in the world.

Participation in youth baseball showed growth before the coronavirus pandemic shut down sports at all levels in 2020. According to a 2019 Sports Business Journal report, which cited three independent sources, 29.3% of all boys in the U.S. between ages 6 and 12 participated in baseball, the highest rate among team sports and an increase from 2017-18.

Over the holiday weekend, 16 youth-league teams flocked to the fields of Fisher Park in Mechanicsburg for the Ripken 10-and-under northwest state tournament, a scene repeated for different age groups in different tournament pools across the state.

From a TV viewership standpoint, ESPN pulled in MLB's largest afternoon Opening Day audience since 2017 in April, according to Sports Media Watch. Last year's playoff and World Series ratings declined, continuing a 21st century trend, but ratings for regional coverage on Fox has shown increases and decreases in its first few weeks.

TV ratings can be fickle and enigmatic, and they ebb and flow with a variety of factors, but regular-season baseball has not flown completely off the radar.

Anyone tuning in or streaming or catching highlights on social media have seen the Mets' Jacob deGrom throw a baseball with more accuracy and consistency than any human has ever been able to muster. They've seen the Dodgers' Mookie Betts string together another all-star season on a successful team in one of the nation's largest markets. They've seen the Padres' Fernando Tatis Jr. and the Blue Jays' Bo Bichette and Vladimir Guerrero Jr. continue to shine as sons of former major leaguers. They've seen the Angels' Shohei Ohtani, who turned 27 Monday, draw comparisons to Babe Ruth with his prowess as both a pitcher and a big-swinging position player.

An evolving game: The game has evolved, for better and for worse, and it will continue to do so. Baseball doesn't look like it did decades ago, but it also won't have the same stifled offense after teams and players make their adjustments over the years. It's the shifting-sands nature of sports that meshes and clashes with an ever-changing cultural appetite.

That appetite no longer has time for poring over box scores in a daily newspaper or memorizing lineups and batting averages. Maybe the current emphasis on the game's three true outcomes — home run, strikeout or walk — has led to an outcome of indifference among casual sports fans. Maybe baseball doesn't have a four-seam grip on American culture like it had decades ago.

But to Benny Montgomery, his protégés in youth-league uniforms and plenty of others, it's still the best sport in the world.