Sports

NICK CAFARDO I SUNDAY BASEBALL NOTES

Baseball has trouble keeping children interested

Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant could be the first among a new breed of power hitters, who might capture fans’ interest.

Rick Scuteri/Associated Press/File 2014

Cubs third baseman Kris Bryant could be the first among a new breed of power hitters, who might capture fans’ interest.

Baseball is trying to attract kids to the game, somehow, some way. But it’s been an uphill battle. If it continues, 20 or 30 years from now there won’t be much of a baseball viewership.

Dr. Charles Steinberg of the Red Sox said in a recent Globe story on the subject, “I think we all recognize that we can’t live by the long-held premise that a child will automatically fall in love with baseball. We have to recognize that we are one of many options.”

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The Red Sox probably are less susceptible to this than teams in other parts of the country where baseball isn’t as popular. The problem with the game is that it’s become boring to children and adults alike.

Baseball is cerebral and slow-paced by nature. It’s a simple game that has been muddled by the trends of recent years. Kids, particularly in the inner city, aren’t playing baseball with the frequency of the past, and the interest level in watching baseball isn’t there either, as the kids interviewed for the Globe story pointed out.

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The media landscape has also changed, with baseball stories now reading like technical documents. The human stories of players and their histories have gone the way of their WARs and WORPs, and I’m not sure kids see that as fun.

In our day, we loved baseball cards and all we cared about was batting average, home runs, and RBIs. It was simple. It was easy to be a fan.

Roberto Clemente, Hank Aaron, or Willie Mays used to step into the box and swing at the first good pitch he saw. Now, batters are encouraged to look at more than four pitches per at-bat.

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As a result, we’re seeing more called third strikes. At-bats take forever, attention is lost, and the outcome isn’t as good as it used to be.

In 2010, there were 28 players with 85-plus RBIs, 85-plus runs, and 20-plus home runs. In 2011, there 20. In 2012, there were 24. In 2013, there were 14. Last season, there were 11.

As Jim Rice often points out, “See the ball and hit it.” Whatever happened to that? Now batters let perfectly good strikes go by without swinging. Lots of first-pitch fastballs down the middle of the plate. Why aren’t hitters swinging at those pitches more often? It just prolongs the at-bat, and thus fans lose interest.

Now, the more pitches seen per at-bat is considered a good thing, wears down the pitcher, but so do doubles in the gap.

The personalities have changed, too. Players are making so much money that instead of a game, it has become a business to them.

There are very few characters left. You never see a cocky Reggie Jackson or Barry Bonds. Remember how colorful Ken Harrelson was with the Red Sox? The A’s wore white shoes. When we were kids, those guys were entertaining.

David Ortiz is fun, but then he gets criticized if he pimps a home run.

You rarely see a colorful pitcher such as Luis Tiant with his unique delivery, or a classic pitcher/batter confrontation where the pitcher knocks the hitter down to send a message, like Nolan Ryan used to do.

Tiant and Ryan once took a pitchers’ duel into the 14th inning. And before we say that power pitchers can’t do that anymore, what was Ryan? He could throw 100 miles per hour in the 12th inning.

There’s no Mark Fidrych or Bill Lee or Oil Can Boyd.

A pitchers’ duel is fun to watch, but how many last a full nine innings? You see good seven-inning battles and then, of course, managers go to their relievers.

Fans love home runs, and they’re down since steroids were taken out of the game. But even before steroids there were power hitters. There is hope on the way with players such as the Cubs’ Kris Bryant.

When you allow defensive shifts that take away power-hitting lefthanded hitters, what are we doing? Does a 12-year-old come to a game to watch his favorite player ground out to right field?

You take away their guy, they take away yours, and this is exciting?

And don’t tell me about Ted Williams. He faced the shift on a minimal basis, mostly from Indians manager Lou Boudreau. Now Ortiz has to face it in more than 500 plate appearances. Boring.

And there’s the designated hitter. Sorry, National League fans. Send all the nasty notes you want. Pitchers are worse hitters now than ever before.

Players’ union executive director Tony Clark said the DH is likely to become a more relevant topic in the next collective bargaining agreement discussions in 2016, because with interleague play the DH or lack of one could impact an important series down the stretch. And watching the pitcher hit is painful.

Lastly, players are getting hurt with greater frequency.

With all the advancements in understanding the human body and the claim that strength and conditioning coaches do baseball-specific work with their players, why are there so many oblique, hamstring, quadriceps, and shoulder injuries? Is it time to return to the days when players didn’t overtrain and really stuck to baseball-related exercises?

Red Sox outfielder Rusney Castillo injured an oblique by trying to make a shortened swing on a ball inside. Some of the strongest people to ever play the game — Dave Winfield, Rice, Eddie Murray, and Bo Jackson — never had oblique injuries.

“I never knew what an oblique injury was,” Rice said. “I never lifted weights, so I didn’t get tight like that. I think we all had more flexibility when we played. Some of the injuries you see are just mind-boggling.”

Tiant explained how he worked on his curveball by spinning the ball with his fingers so that he wouldn’t put stress on his arm.

Dr. Lawrence Rocks, a chemistry professor at Long Island University for 56 years, thinks body chemistry should be studied better. He said tendons take a lot longer to strengthen than muscles.

Players of yesteryear had to work other jobs and as a result got stronger. Aaron delivered ice. Bob Feller worked on a farm. Over time, their tendons got stronger.

Rocks thinks calisthenics rather than weight training is the way to go.

It’s something to study because the new methods have a done a poor job of prevention.

So yes, while the game has to be marketed better to kids, the kids need to see the game we saw as kids. That’s what we fell in love with.

CATCHING BACK UP

Mauer receives some help from Brunansky

Will Joe Mauer ever be the batting champion/MVP he used to be?

Criticism of him has grown louder in the Twin Cities, with a $23 million annual salary that runs through 2018, and underperformance (.277 last season, the lowest batting average of his career) that has left some Twins fans disillusioned.

I spoke to Tom Brunansky, the Twins’ batting coach, about the catcher-turned-first baseman, and asked, “Can Mauer get it back?”

“Swing-wise, absolutely,” Brunansky said. “Target Field certainly hurts him. At the Metrodome, you were rewarded for taking certain swings. You take the same swings at Target and you’re out. So going back to his MVP season [2009], you have to say the ballpark had something to do with it. The ballpark helps you out a little bit.”

Mauer hit 28 homers in 2009, but Brunansky said, “I’m not sure about the 28 home runs that year and whether he can do that again, but the damage can be done. What I mean by damage is extra-base hits and runs driven in.”

Brunansky said one of the biggest factors in Mauer’s decline has been his injuries. His lower body was virtually a nonfactor as he recovered.

“He’s worked on some things in the winter,” Brunansky said. “Health issues are clear. For me, his lower half and rotation is 6 inches more than he had at any time last year. That’s huge. It allows him to get his bat into the zone. He feels strong about what he wants to do. He has unbelievable hand/eye coordination. He can go to left field whenever he wants. His lower half is so much stronger. He has the ability to drive the ball better than he has.”

Brunansky also believes there’s a correlation between the decline and Mauer not catching anymore.

“As a catcher, you see multiple pitches, maybe a couple hundred a night,” Brunansky said. “So when he’s hitting, he’s used to tracking that zone. It’s a little different in not being able to see as many pitches. Not catching, not seeing it. He used to see release points. Now he sees maybe 10 pitches, if you’re lucky, which is something different. It’s something we talked about.”

As for the fan pressure on Mauer, Brunansky said, “I would think that [our team] losing the past few years, and that he’s the poster child for that given the salary he’s making, whether that’s fair or unfair, people look at that and expect him to be Superman. He’s one cog in our lineup. You can’t expect him to do more than he’s capable of doing.”

Apropos of nothing

1. Pablo Sandoval is having a manse built in Weston, Fla. He said it will have a batting cage and workout room. He said there’s no need for him to go anywhere else for his workouts next offseason.

2. On their way to look at Hawaiian righthander Jerome Williams, scouts discovered another pretty good baseball player, Shane Victorino.

3. Twins righthander Mark Hamburger can really throw the cheese.

4. San Francisco assistant general manager Bobby Evans, who hails from Framingham, gave us great insight into Sandoval last week when he pointed out the Giants made him a four-year offer last spring training that included a fifth-year vesting option for a total of $83.5 million. Evans also told us that the team offered James Shields a five-year, $80 million contract not long after the Jon Lester deal came down with the Cubs, but Shields wanted time to explore other offers and the timing wasn’t right. The Giants moved on to re-signing Jake Peavy and Ryan Vogelsong.

5. The new Twins spring training facility is spectacular. Great job by former GM and New Hampshire native Bill Smith, who oversaw it.

6. Signing international players used to be seen as a way for teams to save money on top talent. Now, teams such as the Red Sox are breaking the bank for them. Yoan Moncada, for instance, took the highest offer from the Red Sox, and he would have taken the highest offer if it was from the Yankees. His agent said as much before Moncada signed.

Updates on nine

Early reports on Daniel Bard from Cubs spring training are optimistic.

Abelimages/Getty Images/File 2012

Early reports on Daniel Bard from Cubs spring training are optimistic.

1. Daniel Bard, RHP, Cubs — Is he cured of the yips? Early reports are that the former Red Sox is throwing hard and without the yips that have troubled him the last two years. The Sox considered bringing him back this offseason, but the Cubs decided to give him another chance. And now, they may be glad they did.

2. Jon Lester, LHP, Cubs — The Red Sox spent a lot of time with Lester on the back fields in spring training trying to get him over his fear of throwing to bases. The Cubs will have to address the problem if it arises again. It’s strange that with all the sophisticated scouting out there that teams didn’t make Lester throw to bases by bunting on him. One team already is looking forward to testing him.

3. Yoenis Cespedes, OF, Tigers — Poster child for the ripped baseball player who is starting to break down. Cespedes already has had two injuries this spring. He is entering his free agent year and is said to be open to re-signing with Detroit, but injuries won’t help his cause.

4. Matt Barnes, RHP, Red Sox — Scouts were quoted in this space last season as saying Barnes had closer stuff. The Red Sox kept insisting Barnes would be a starter, until recently when John Farrell said Barnes could be seen as someone coming out of the bullpen. With Koji Uehara getting older and not having a good spring training, you wonder if Barnes isn’t a candidate to make the bullpen out of camp.

5. Everth Cabrera, INF, Orioles — Cabrera could wind up being a big acquisition for GM Dan Duquette. While Cabrera projects as a part-time player, he adds speed to a team that lacked it last season. In fact, over the last three seasons, no team has fewer steals than the Orioles’ 181. Cabrera stole only 18 bases last season but since 2012 he’s had 99. Cabrera was an All-Star shortstop for the Padres in 2013 but some personal issues have derailed his game and made him a bargain for the Orioles, who signed him for $2.4 million with incentives where he can reach $3 million.

6. Matt Wieters, C, Orioles — Wieters has every incentive to perform well this season in his walk year. Duquette twice has tried to engage in extension talks with Wieters’s agent, Scott Boras, but now it doesn’t appear that the sides will get together before Wieters becomes a free agent. The Orioles certainly hope to get the most out of Wieters, who was out most of last season after Tommy John surgery, and fellow Boras client Chris Davis.

7. Jackie Bradley Jr., OF, Red Sox — Scouts are beginning to at least discuss what the Red Sox may need to receive in order to part with Bradley in a trade. Right now, the Sox don’t appear to be in that mode, but there are teams who feel Bradley will come out of his hitting doldrums because he’s hit at every level except the majors. “I think Chili Davis is going to be good for him,” said one scout of Boston’s new hitting coach. “I think he needs someone with a tough approach and Chili isn’t afraid to give someone some tough love.”

8. Matt Kemp, OF, Padres — While many scouts believe the Dodgers’ lineup won’t be as productive without Kemp and Hanley Ramirez, the feeling is the Padres’ defense will suffer having Kemp in the outfield, while the Dodgers’ defense will get better. “Everyone raves about the Padres with Kemp, but they’re going to find some things they’re not going to like, and I’ll leave it at that,” said one scout.

9. Ryan Lavarnway, C, Orioles — Lavarnway has opened eyes in Orioles camp. He’s a long shot to make the 25-man roster, but if for some reason Wieters isn’t ready to start the season, Lavarnway would get the call, according to Duquette.

Extra innings

From the Bill Chuck files — “Of the 62 pitchers who pitched between 50 and 60 innings last year, it’s no surprise that Aroldis Chapman led with 106 strikeouts in just 54 innings. It might be a surprise to learn that tied for second with 76 whiffs were Oliver Perez (58 innings) and Brett Cecil (53).” . . . Happy birthday, Kevin Youkilis (36).

Nick Cafardo can be reached at cafardo@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @nickcafardo. Material from interviews, wire services, other beat writers, and league and team sources was used in this report.
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