The man known as Uncle Charlie had the right touch. "I don't feel like their uncle," Manuel said of his players. "I feel like their father." Manuel's long, sometimes tragic journey to the World Series is the kind of story Fox needs to tell before the Series, maybe as a special on its eve. Without the Yankees or the Red Sox or a Jordan, baseball needs to introduce viewers to the people and narratives, rather than hoping a seven-game Series reveals them. If viewers don't have their team in the World Series, they need something or somebody to care about.
Screw neutral sites
Based on sentiment from you and the owners, pundits calling for a Super Bowl--styled World Series held indoors or at a warm-weather site might as well suggest the games be played on the moon. Thankfully, it's not happening.
"The emotion in a city is so magnificent, you can't tear away the bond between the community and the team," you said. "People compare it to the Super Bowl. That's one game, not seven. It would make my life easier, but you can't do that to the fans. Could you imagine if the Cubs get to the World Series and it's not in Chicago?"
Many people frame the World Series against the Series they remember from their youth. For instance, the Phillies' championship in 1980, against the small-market Kansas City Royals, drew a 56 share. It was the last time half the households watching television tuned to the World Series. The TV landscape then was vastly different and far simpler. Football has since gained a far more prominent national profile, elbowing the World Series in October for sports consciousness, thanks to fantasy leagues, a national appetite for gambling and controlled violence, and wall-to-wall college and pro telecasts. People will watch collisions even with no rooting interest. Rutgers got more regular-season national prime-time exposure than the Rays did this year.
Baseball's bond with its fans is intensely local, as the Phillies proved with their cathartic championship. Philadelphia had been 0 for 99 since 1983 in major professional sports titles until the Phillies enhanced the city's pride and esteem. For the clincher last week, 73% of people watching TV in the Philadelphia market were tuned in to the game. (In Tampa Bay the game drew a less robust 45 share.)
Indeed, the Phillies are a prime example of what's right with baseball. In 2004 they moved out of soulless, multipurpose Veterans Stadium and into Citizens Bank Ballpark, a lovely baseball-only facility. The team drew 3.4 million people this year, more than double its attendance of six years ago at the Vet and nearly 800,000 more than the glory days of 1980. The local TV ratings have increased six years in a row, to a figure this year that was 21% greater than two years ago. The Phillies won with a homegrown core of exciting young players Philly fans have called their own for years: Rollins, Chase Utley, Ryan Howard, Pat Burrell, Cole Hamels and Brett Myers in particular.
Perhaps baseball, even while addressing start times, length of games and the playing calendar, must embrace its regional appeal while understanding a diminished national one. Without the Yankees, Red Sox or Cubs, or a compelling seven-game series, the World Series, while still a strong product (Fox picked up four nightly ratings wins with baseball and won the 18--49 demographic for the first time in months), can't be the supreme national institution it was. If the World Series rating is not the most accurate barometer of the game's health, so be it. But if you can't promise Fox anything close to those ratings of another era, you can at least make sure—by considering the aforementioned proposals—that you don't keep needlessly losing viewers before the Fox contract expires in 2013.
Last Friday afternoon, in perfect autumn weather for a ball game, more than a million people packed downtown Philadelphia to vicariously feel what it's like to be a winner. The streets were so crowded that the parade procession of trucks carrying the Phillies toward the ballpark hardly could squeeze through. To have watched the scene, and to understand this was the bond between baseball and the community at its best, was to dream that there is nothing wrong with the World Series. You know better.