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So Here's the Thing...

Bill Bilodeau

Days of future pastime.

My son, who is nine, is in love, and as is the case with many first loves, is headed for ruin.

I must confess I haven't done enough to dissuade him. In fact, I've undoubtedly contributed, even fueled his passion.

In part, it was a matter of timing, as love often is. When he was six, he watched as I cheered every big hit, every Pedro strikeout, and ultimately agonized over the managerial incompetence that is Grady Little. My son showed interest in the Red Sox-Yankees series in October of 2003, and expressed his disappointment at Aaron Boone's home run in the quaint way you'd expect of a six-year-old. "THAT SUCKS!" he said upon hearing, the next morning, that the Sox had blown yet another big game.

I, of course, expressed my disappointment in a more adult way. Eventually, however, hunger prevailed and I was convinced to come down from the roof.

As I followed the ups and downs of the next few months as a Red Sox fan, I fielded a stream of increasingly disturbing questions from my son: "Is Curt Shilling a good pitcher?" "Is Schilling better than Pedro?" "Is Randy Johnson better than Pedro and Schilling?" "Is Alex Rodriguez better than Manny?" "Why didn't the Red Sox sign Alex Rodriguez if he's the best player?"

As the 2004 season unfolded, I could see his interest growing. He knew the players; he collected the cards; he listened to games on the weekends with me; he actually knew what was going on and stopped saying silly things every inning, like "They should get a triple play" when there were two outs and nobody on base.

That same summer, we began going to games at our local park. These are summer college-league games, similar to the famed Cape Cod League. Players from all across the country come to New England and play for two months to stay in baseball shape before they return to school. We went to a half dozen games in our cozy little field, ate pizza and peanuts and chatted with friends and neighbors. The game was almost secondary, yet still he learned the players' names and positions, formed opinions on who was good or not, and watched happily as the hometown Swamp Bats won the league championship.

Meanwhile, the Red Sox were falling further behind the Yankees and looking like they wouldn't even reach the playoffs.

Then, they traded their superstar shortstop, and immediately began playing better defense and gelling as a team. They started gaining ground, and although they didn't catch New York, they went into the playoffs on a roll, and smoked the California/Anaheim/Los Angeles/Orange County Angels. Again, they would face the Yankees for the chance to play in the World Series.

I suppose it should be said that in the same time frame, the New England Patriots were winning two Superbowls. I mention it because when I was my son's age, the Boston Bruins won two Stanley Cups in three years, and were always one of the best teams in hockey; the Celtics were the class of the NBA, finishing their run of 1960s championships and winning two more in 1974 and '76. The Red Sox hadn't won a World Series since World War 1, of course, but were often a playoff contender, or nearly so. But over the past 20 years, no Boston team had even come close to a championship since the Celtics won in 1986 and the Sox — well, let's just say they came pretty close that year, too.

So I had lived through the pain. My son hadn't. As soon as he became interested in sports, the Patriots delivered back-to-back championships and his hometown college-league baseball team did the same.

And then, the Sox did the impossible. They came from a 0-3 hole against the most-dominant pitcher of the era to beat the Yankees, then swept a very good St. Louis team for their first World Series win in 86 years. I wouldn't have batted an eyelash if my son had asked, "Dad, what do people do in places where their teams don't win all the time?"

All this is background, you understand, for the case I'm about to make. It isn't, as might be expected, the obligatory "My son is a Red Sox fan and therefore doomed to heartbreak" spiel. He is a Sox fan, has the cap, the requisite Big Papi game shirt, follows the games and how the Sox (and the Yankees) are doing in the standings.

But there's more.

Last week, Delaney was furious at my wife because she refused to call the cable company and order NESN, the channel that carries, now, virtually all the Red Sox games on TV. You see, last year, he watched some Friday night games with me on "free" TV, and a few on Saturdays on Fox. But this off-season, the Red Sox, who own NESN, decided to stop carrying any games for free except those the big network is paying them millions for.

It's indicative of the real reason I think my son is in for heartache. Baseball, once the national pastime, has been slipping in popularity for decades. The people running the game don't understand why, but I do.

It's greed. Pure, short-sighted greed.

It happens that the Red Sox are in a popularity boom right now. You can't get a ticket, even if you're willing to pay the ridiculous prices they've set for seats, plus the astonishing parking fees (Fenway Park has no parking of its own for fans, but you could park nearby on opening day this past April for only $90 a car.), overpriced food and memorabilia that's most memorable for the dent it puts in your bank account. Since my kids started showing an interest in baseball, we've been to exactly one Red Sox game. It was in St. Petersburg, Florida, where the Devil Rays' prices are low enough to avoid dealing with late fees and interest penalties.

The choice to force all fans to pay for the Sox's cable station rather than offer some games free is typical of baseball thinking. Sure, it means it's harder and more costly for fans to enjoy following the team. But so what? There's money out there to be grabbed. Why worry about the future when we can cash in now?

When the Sox beat the Yankees in 2004 and won the World Series, my son, the future of baseball's cash stream, didn't see an inning of it. Why? Money. The TV networks insist big playoff games take place at night, when they'll generate larger ratings. In fact, night is not even good enough; it has to be Prime Time, which means starting games even later than the Red Sox's normal 7:05 p.m. game time. The All Star game? Maybe, they'll get it going by 8:30 if they tone down the self-congratulatory drivel that typically precedes the game.

So a generation of potential fans is growing up watching football on Sunday afternoons on network TV (Even the SuperBowl is at a decent time, but could baseball learn from this model? Nah!) instead of baseball games after bedtime on stations we don't even get. I know, football is moving more and more to cable, also. But the NFL has also put in place rules that allow a team's fans to watch the games on free TV when their team plays a cablecast game.

On the contrary, baseball has gone as far as to force radio stations to block their Internet transmissions when carrying games, so fans are forced to pay Major League Baseball extra to hear games online.

I suppose some day Delaney will be old enough to stay up for playoff baseball games on TV — we sure can't afford them in person.

But will he even be a fan by then?

Baseball wants my son's money, but doesn't care about his love.


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