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The Red Sox ratings disaster

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Just take a look at the Red Sox TV ratings on NESN. They're down a staggering 50 percent from a year ago -- and a year ago they were down 20 percent from the year before.

Dick
Flavin

If you think the US Congress's poll numbers are lousy, you ain't seen nothin' yet!

Just take a look at the Red Sox TV ratings on NESN. They're down a staggering 50 percent from a year ago -- and a year ago they were down 20 percent from the year before.

If you look up the definition of "nosedive" in the dictionary, you'll find a graph showing the Red Sox ratings. They have fallen off a cliff.

If one looks at the underlying reason for this unfortunate circumstance, and does so with a cool, dispassionate, calculating eye, one must come to an inevitable conclusion: The team stinks; or, at least, it stunk this year. Come to think of it, it wasn't so hot last year, either.

The situation is made even more dire by the fact that the Red Sox brass has, like Gene Wilder in "Young Frankenstein," created a monster. They've built a fan base that is addicted to winning and will accept nothing less. Now that monster is on the loose, rampaging through every Middlesex village and town (to say nothing of all the other counties in Massachusetts and beyond), turning TV channels away from NESN. Oh, humanity!

Those in immediate danger of being caught up in the monster's wild frenzy of ratings devastation include the broadcasters, Dave O'Brien, Jerry Remy, and Dennis Eckersley. They were given the impossible task of making a silk purse out of a sow's ear -- putting a pleasing patina on what was happening on the field; a pitcher of whom we'd never heard being lifted for another guy we'd never heard of -- that kind of thing. They dressed it up -- made it entertaining -- but there was no denying that it was still a pig's ear. Just think of how bad those ratings would have been if we didn't have O'Brien, Remy, and Eckersley to distract us from the ugliness even as they reported it.

Often, the reaction to a disaster of this magnitude is to shoot the messenger. We can only hope that the three amigos of the TV booth (or, for this past season, NESN's hermetically sealed studio) don't end up before a firing squad. Instead, they should be given medals for valor. To measure their worth, just compare them to any of the broadcast teams covering playoff games. They are head and shoulders above the rest.

The ratings problems go beyond the ineptness of the team -- that can be fixed; the Sox have fixed similar problems before. The more institutional difficulty -- and the tougher by far to repair -- is the length and pace of the games. The average time of a Red Sox game this year was three hours and 20 minutes. One can fly halfway across the country in that time. Just think of it: You could get on a plane within sight of the Atlantic Ocean after a game has started and land on the western side of the Mississippi River, and that game could still be going on. That is, gentle reader, just too bloody long.

There are, of course, a thousand reasons for the mess that baseball is in. Here's one example: A pal of mine recently pointed out that he's sick of seeing batter after batter foul off one pitch after another, each foul landing in the stands and adding another minute or so to an at-bat. The result is that it's no longer uncommon to see at-bats of 10 or more pitches. There used to be enough foul territory on most fields, where many of those foul balls could be caught for outs. No more.

When Fenway Park was built more than a century ago, it didn't have any foul territory because of the confines of property on which it is located -- Jersey Street, Brookline Avenue, and Lansdowne Street are jammed closely together in their urban landscape -- so seats were installed right against the foul lines out of necessity. Then some smart guy (was it Larry Lucchino, when he built Camden Yards in Baltimore?) figured out that people like sitting near the field, where they can see -- and sometimes hear -- the players close up. The result is that all the new parks have stands right along the foul lines. No foul fly balls can be caught for outs any more. If they're foul, they're into the seats.

There are fewer foul popups caught because the stands behind and around home plate are far closer to the field of play than in the old days. Even in Fenway Park, cramped to begin with, rows of premium seats have been added, which infringe upon the field. That has resulted in greater danger to fans seated so close to the action. Line drives into stands that are fewer feet from home plate than from the pitching rubber pose serious risks. That, in turn, has led to mandatory screening in all parks along the first and third base lines, which means that the days of a player reaching into the stands to make a spectacular grab of a popup are gone forever. It also means that the batter stays up at the plate for longer -- when he's not stepping out of the box.

Those are just some of the reasons that, little by little, the games have gotten longer and longer.

Baseball games, like the games of all other major league sports, have evolved into television shows. Watching TV is how the vast majority of us see the contests play out. Television has also become the major source of revenue for teams even more so than gate receipts and concessions. There is a reason why no other shows on television last for three and a half hours or more. The programmers discovered long ago that audiences won't stay tuned for that long.

There was a time when baseball did, in fact, live up to its nickname, "the national pastime." Then, along came TV, and football and basketball adapted their games to fit its demands; baseball didn't. Now it runs a poor third in ratings as well as fan interest.

Maybe the next baseball commissioner should be a TV producer.

- Dick Flavin is a New York Times bestselling author; the Boston Red Sox "Poet Laureate" and The Pilot's recently minted Sports' columnist.



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