Clay-Nation!

The Boston Red Sox have played excellent baseball as of late, and pitcher Clay Buchholz is in the middle of it.

Dwight Evans held the ball in his glove by his right ear, took a crow-hop, and fired a throw toward Rich Gedman. The ball tipped off of the catcher's glove, bounced one time and landed in my right hand.

"Nice catch, kid," Gedman yelled.

That was it for me. I was hooked on baseball. That "play" took place about an hour before the game, while I was with my brother in a throng of fans watching pregame warm-ups from seats none of us could afford.

I fell in love with every aspect of the game and all of its rituals and superstitions. I wear the same shirt every time the Boston Red Sox play in the postseason. I get a sausage from the same vendor every time I go to Fenway. I still think the best and brightest of the fans sit with me in the bleachers.

Growing up, baseball on the Major League Baseball level always felt like a world away. Sure, we played on the same dimensions and used similar equipment, but that is where the similarities ended. Playing in the Show was just a pipe dream for kids like me. That is, until, a player from my high school donned a Boston Red Sox uniform.

I am one of the other "kids" from Framingham, MA, which produced former MLB player and current Red Sox analyst ‘The Framingham Kid" Lou Merloni. Many of us who played with him feel that we have bragging rights. If the film of us playing with him ever leaked, the bragging would end immediately, but we feel connected.

I can only imagine that so many other fans my age and older have similar stories of their own connection to the great game. I know from experience that generations before me believe that baseball is somehow engrained in their DNA. However, what of the current and future generations of baseball fans?

Now is an easy time to take shots at the game that is fading in popularity, but it is also the most important time to take stock of baseball. The embarrassing steroid issue is but one issue, and arguably not the most important one facing the powers-that-be in Major League Baseball.

Imagine for a moment that you are a young person growing up in Kansas City. You are part of baseball, but that is about all that you can say. There is virtually no reason to think that your team can be competitive. In fact, the rules in place in many ways encourage your owners to stay uncompetitive and profitable.

That is the story for the majority of teams, not just the Royals. As a young fan in these cities, you have to rely on anecdotal evidence that your team once mattered, but how many stories about George Brett or Tony Gwynn, Sr., can a person endure and stay interested without the current team enjoying success?

These potential fans are forced to acquire a passion for the game vicariously. The excitement for them is in looking in the local newspaper when MLB announces its schedule so they can circle the games when the New York Yankees, the Boston Red Sox, the St. Louis Cardinals and whichever small market team gets hot that particular year are coming to town.

Then, the self-absorption of baseball players is also driving a stake between the National Pastime and the next generations of fans. The obvious is the enormous salaries that players make, only to perform the best when the next contract hangs in the balance. Other sports survive the same dynamic, but baseball represents grassroots America, so the disconnect between the game's stars and its fans eats away at that foundation.

Culturally speaking, though, the self-importance with which the vast majority of the players conduct themselves while playing is an even bigger concern. Kids today, for better or worse (genuinely no judgment being made), get their information and their entertainment at lightning fast speeds.

Kids keep themselves entertained at the ball park using their I-Phones, IPods and several other "I's" with which I am not particularly well-versed. If they so desire, they can learn of everything that is happening at a game, pitch-by-pitch, in real time. Nobody is waiting for the weekly sports magazine to keep abreast of what is going on around baseball. Honestly, I long for the days when "This Week In Baseball" was my one source for the national scene in baseball, but those days are indeed long gone and hard to find.

Umpire Joe West, he of the one-man umpire with a publicist club, was obnoxious in the way he chastised the Red Sox and Yankees earlier this year for their slow play, but he was dead-on. Each player takes minutes each plate appearance going through a myriad of pre-pitch and post-pitch histrionics that just reek of self-indulgence. They have the stage for a certain amount of time and I wonder if their purpose is getting on base or winning their next endorsement.

Fans are now asked to endure four-hour-long games for no good reason. I even witnessed a manager send his pitcher to the mound to warm up before slowly making his way to the mound to switch pitchers before a single pitch was thrown in the inning. That is just ridiculous, and such moves are becoming the norm in today's game.

I fully understand that more beer, hot dogs and soda can be sold during four-hour games as opposed to two-hour ones, but that just leaves the family of four with more of a hole burned into their wallets.

I fear that Major League Baseball is buying into the fool's gold that decent attendance is a sign that the game is healthy. The older generations are pulling that bandwagon while the younger generations are only along for the ride to appease the former. The young base of baseball fans is being eroded every day as baseball fights to get out of its own way.

All is not lost for this great game, however. Changes have to be made. The Union is going to need to make some sensible changes for the betterment and overall health of Major League Baseball. For its part, MLB needs to get serious about eradicating the real problems it faces.

For starters, baseball needs to shorten the game by demanding that 90 percent of the wasted time is no longer wasted. That means that Jason Varitek might only be allowed one trip to the mound per inning as opposed to six or seven. Hitters will need to take their signs with one foot in the batter's box and get right back in to hit. Pitchers might even need what amounts to a "pitch clock." Once these things become habits, players will stop whining, and the results could include the unintended consequences of actually increasing the quality of play, because the play will become the sole focus.

Next, the World Series needs to become an event once again. This is blasphemy from somebody who considers himself a purist when it comes to baseball, but a neutral site World Series makes sense. The salary cap, if that is what baseball even has, virtually ensures that a team from the Northeast will be in the Fall Classic. Thus, for the immediate future, the game's most meaningful games will often be played in near-winter conditions. What a terrible way to showcase your game. Every city with a team will be allotted a certain number of tickets to each game so that everybody feels connected to the Series.

Finally, and I have no concrete solution to this, but the competition in MLB has to get better. The divide between the haves and have-nots has never been greater and the fan base is diminishing in once proud cities. A different type of salary cap is obviously necessary.

Baseball needs to get these thing fixed in short order, because it is about receive an injection of young stars the likes of which this sports has not seen in ages. Stephen Strasburg landing in Washington, D.C., is a super break for MLB; he is the most marketable baseball player to come along in many years. The young arms in both leagues are terrific, and the time is now to turn the page in Major League Baseball.


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