It’s Wednesday night and the sun is setting in Harlem.
I’m on my way to Rucker Park to watch some basketball. Walking with sunglasses on and ear buds in, trying to interact with people as little as possible, a basketball hits my leg. I look up. I’m standing at the intersection of 155th Street and Bradhurst Avenue, just inside Washington Heights territory. A small kid in a white ribbed tank top sprints toward me, scoops up the ball without looking up and runs back to the mob of kids on the playground.
There are, by rough guesstimate, 60 kids on the playground. There are basketballs being chucked from all over, maybe eight or nine balls being shot. It seems like a strange cross-section of the childhood games “500” and “Tackle the Ballcarrier” as the kids try to snag a rebound and shoot the ball before being hit by other kids.
Directly adjacent to the basketball court is two baseball fields.
There isn’t a single person on either of them.
That image became imprinted on my mind.
A basketball court—its lines barely containing the teeming, writhing mass of children fighting for just a few basketballs—sitting directly beside an empty baseball field. It seemed to me a split-pane visual representation of how baseball, “America’s national pastime,” is dying and basketball, the sport with the gargantuan new TV deal, is taking over.
But I kept thinking, “Did I catch the park on a bad day? Is that a fair representation of how things are?”
So I went back.
It’s Saturday afternoon and the sun is burning hot high in the sky in Harlem.
There’s a tournament on the basketball court now. Two dozen kids who appear to be too young to play dribble balls on the sidelines. On one of the baseball fields, a man in a white ribbed tank top and Dominican Republic World Baseball Classic cap is hitting grounders down the third base line to a small boy.
“Por favor, inténtalo. Sólo tartar,” the older man spits. “Please try. Just try.”
Later, repeatedly, he says, “Sé serio. Be serious.”
My rudimentary Spanish catches half that, but “Papi,” the man leaning against the fence and watching this defensive drill, translates the rest. Papi won’t tell me his real name—he’s involved in a “legal process” which would make “the use of his name undesirable”—but says he lived on Floor 11 of the apartment building across the street for nearly 20 years before he recently moved down a few dozen blocks into the Sugar Hill neighborhood.
“Hardly never,” he says about people coming out to the baseball fields in the summertime. “Maybe six or eight times a year people play ballgames there, but [sic] not hardly. Not even catch.”
Papi isn’t the only one who sees children abandoning the game. The Wall Street Journal wrote about how “the casual young player is vanishing.” The New York Times columnist asked if the game was over. The New Yorker wrote baseball’s obituary, too. Deadspin, in true Deadspin fashion, wrote “What’s Wrong With Baseball?” It’s so common to hear the “baseball-is-dying” narrative is dying, and that it’s due to the old white men fans, that Chris Rock wrote an on-color joke about it.
A 2014 Harris Poll found that baseball is the favorite sport of 14 percent of its responders. Granted it was second behind the NFL (35 percent), but it finished just above college football (11 percent). The Week went as far as to say that baseball’s decline in popularity correlates with the crumbling of American Character.
NBC baseball guy Craig Calcaterra points out that defining Who We Are in this day and age by one pursuit, especially sports, is foolish. He also points out that worrying about baseball’s health is productive if you want to be nostalgic, or if you’re a writer with a Very Important Social Commentary Point.
For every obit baseball gets, there’s a clever thinkpiece refuting that claim (oftentimes from Calcaterra himself). There’s talk of baseball team’s valuations rising and the Forbes article which, on its own line in the story, in bold, read: Don’t Be Stupid, Fan Interest Isn’t Measured By Participation.
But it’s true. Participation is down nine percent. I can read it online from The Washington Post and I can see it in front of me. But I can’t get anyone to confirm to me that the ballfield is empty most of the time, more than just the two days that I’ve been there. Papi’s testimony is the best I can get. Seventeen other people declined to be interviewed for this story.
“Big Al” Williams, whose older son plays for a Bronx team in basketball the tournament and who came down to watch, says he doesn’t often venture into Harlem, but that his son’s friends mostly play baseball in Harlem at Riverside Park, a few blocks away.
So maybe I’m at the wrong park. But the point still holds: Kids aren’t coming out to play baseball.
I thank Papi for his time, for regaling me with stories about the neighborhood which are all hilarious, but highly questionable in accuracy and unprintable in decency.
It’s been three hours. I’m leaving with a narrative in mind. I see what’s happening here. Baseball is dying. People don’t care about it anymore.
I stash my notebook in the front pocket of my backpack and zip it up. I start to walk away when I see some blue-and-maroon shirts walking down the block. I check the time; it’s a quarter to 3 p.m.
It’s a baseball team. They’re going to practice.