If you could drive a DeLorean three decades into the past, you’d likely stumble upon a dark hall full of Americans captivated by the idea of driving a DeLorean three decades into the past. You would also find a small-market team shocking the baseball world.
Not much has changed since 1985, when Back to the Future ruled at the box office and the the Kansas City Royals reigned over Major League Baseball. Alright, so Meaghan Trainor’s “All About That Bass” rather than Ah-Ha’s “Take on Me” tops Billboard’s Hot 100 on the eve of the Fall Classic, and “New Coke” now hits ears as an anachronism the way it then hit mouths as an abomination. But kids still wear Air Jordans, Vince McMahon still stages Wrestlemania, and Bob Ley still talks sports on ESPN.
Then, Jack Buck called the game. Now, Joe Buck does. Back in ’85, Islamic terrorists hijacked the Achille Lauro, murdered wheelchair-bound Leon Klinghoffer, and forced crewmembers to dump his body overboard. Now, they kidnap foreigners, dress them in orange suits, and chop off their heads. In 1985, crack cocaine cursed American ghettos. In 2014, crack cocaine curses American ghettos.
Denizens of 1985 traveling by a flux-capacitor propelled DeLorean to 2014 wouldn’t be shocked that a Walkman evolved into an iPod, an Atari into an Xbox, and slideshows into Tumblr. America’s pastime drifting into times past might jar.
In 1985, when Harris first queried Americans on their favorite sports, Major League Baseball vied neck-and-neck with the NFL for fan allegiance. While pro football increased as the favorite sport of 24 percent of Americans to 35 percent today, baseball dropped from 23 to 14 percent. The NFL now dominates in a way that baseball did during George McFly’s high-school heyday.
Baseball loomed a lot larger in the pop-culture consciousness in 1985. The game’s commissioner, Peter Ueberroth, reigned as Time‘s “Man of the Year” based on his performance running the Los Angeles Olympics the previous summer. The man in the Oval Office had played Grover Cleveland Alexander in a movie, broken a leg trying to beat a throw to first, and announced Chicago Cubs games to radio listeners despite the handicap of not broadcasting from Wrigley Field. John Fogerty’s “Centerfield” received saturation play on rock radio that summer. But even the record, a sonic Back to the Future sung by a sixties rock star namedropping fifties baseball heroes, depicted the game’s golden age in the distant past.
Why has baseball feasted on a smaller piece of a growing professional-sports pie since 1985?
A few contributing factors come to mind. MLB games have slowed down a half hour in 29 years as everything else has sped up. Baseball, a sport in which success means failing to reach base on a hit seven times out of ten, presents a culture clash with the pervading trophies-for-everyone mindset. In 1985, neighborhoods boasted enough kids to play baseball without the prodding of parents or the structure of leagues. Do kids play even stickball or even wiffle ball anymore?
The strongest catalyst for baseball’s decline paradoxically comes from its success. Sports Illustrated examined “The Money Game: Baseball’s Millionaires” in a March of 1985 story. The spring training cover depicted Mike Schmidt, and his unimaginable salary of $2,130,000, followed by the names and salaries of 35 other major-league millionaires. Why on earth, amazed readers no doubt asked themselves, did the Reds pay Mario Soto (he went 12-15 that season) $1.1 million?
Twenty-nine-years later, George Brett–the only Kansas City player whose name and numbers graced SI‘s “baseball’s millionaires” cover–would rank as one of the lowest-paid players on the Royals, raking in more than Mike Moustakas but less than Salvador Perez.
The “money game” Sports Illustrated obsessed over in 1985 spiked salaries. Zack Greinke makes twelve times more today than Mike Schmidt did then. In the spending race that ensued, the Dodgers, Yankees, and Red Sox could afford top players; the Royals, Twins, and Pirates could not. So, a competitive imbalance developed in MLB unseen in the NHL, NBA, or NFL. This, more than anything else, explains why baseball doesn’t interest us as much as it did the last time the Royals played for rings, why Willie Wilson still rolls off the tongue but Mike Moustakas sticks to it, why we recall Steve Balboni minding first base in 1985 but can’t quite remember Eric Hosmer as the guy who assumes his duties today.
Baseball’s steady decline, at least vis-à-vis the other major sports (attendance has actually climbed by about 8,000 a game since 1985 even if World Series television ratings have dropped precipitously), makes one want to go Joaquin Andujar on a bathroom fixture. But the odd appearance of the Royals–a team volunteered as the season’s eventual champion in July by just two percent of fans (their opponents served as the most common answer)–in the World Series might signal a reversal. Rather than understand their clubs as farm teams for the big spenders once free agency arrives, fans in Minneapolis, Miami, and Milwaukee may reorient their take on their teams in light of the success of the Royals.
Baseball grabs the casual fan more firmly when October doesn’t look the way envisioned in April.