With all the talk of the “crisis” in golf, I find it interesting that rec-league baseball and softball may be going through the same thing. A column in the Ann Arbor Observer laments the decline in interest:
These days, ball diamonds sit empty most of the summer. Try to find a playground now where neighborhood kids are bringing their mitts and bats to play ball. At parks that used to host frequent softball games, like Allmendinger and Virginia, it’s rare to see anyone swinging a bat anymore …
The Baby Boom reached its demographic acme in 1957. Slow-pitch peaked in Ann Arbor in 1985, when the average Boomer was approaching thirty. That year, Rec & Ed counted 450 slow-pitch teams and 6,300 players. Just about every other able-bodied adult in Ann Arbor must have played softball that summer. Then, like us Boomers, the game began a long, steady decline.
From my observation, what seems to have replaced America’s game are soccer, flag football, frisbee and various forms of hiking, biking and watercraft —the same things that have been accused of threatening golf.
There is a common thread here. Both golf and baseball are being replaced by sports that can be played and enjoyed by dilettantes. While acknowledging that at the higher end, soccer requires great skill and conditioning, at the lower end, the vast majority don’t get beyond kicking the ball in the general direction of the opposing goal. And yet they still have fun.
I have played rec-league softball, flag football, soccer and participate in hiking, biking and watercraft. I get the fun. But I also recognize that you can have that fun while not being particularly “good.”
That kind of casual effort, however, is a recipe for absolute misery on the course or on the diamond. The players I see on most rec league fields are the equivalent of a 30 handicapper in golf. They’d have a .000 average in softball but for the fact that the people they play against are also incompetent fielders.
Hackers get frustrated and quit golf because they can’t consistently get the ball in the air and don’t have the time, money or fortitude to get lessons and practice. If the game doesn’t come naturally, they quit.
I’ve seen this kind of thinking over the past decade among my high school students, so I’m sure that they carried it over to their adult lives. If something is difficult, they would for the most part rather quit than take on the challenge. Here’s an acual conversation with students, repeated in similar form many dozens of times over the course of a school year:
Student: How can I get a better grade?”
Me: Well … you could try studying for a couple of hours and doing better on tests..
Student: That’s too hard. Isn’t there something I can do that’s easier?
To really enjoy baseball and golf, players need fine skills that can only be developed by practice. That’s why there are commercial driving ranges and batting cages. That’s why there are private golf and batting lessons. How may rec-league flag football or soccer players several hours a week practicing their skills? On the other hand, at driving ranges you’ll often see a waiting line.
Sadly, that need for practice also is in my mind the reason why golf has not achieved the popularity predicted in the Tiger Woods era. Golf is just not something you can pick up a couple of times a month and expect to have fun.
The difficulty is what has driven some course owners to embrace fifteen inch holes and soccer golf. I don’t think the fifteen inch holes will help when people can’t get the ball to the green in less than eight shots, but any darn fool can kick a ball.
Cater to the masses. Bring the game down to the lowest common denominator. Softball league should make things easier by going to tees rather than pitchers and having fewer outfielders so that people can get on base more often.
For my part, I agree with Donald Trump in a recent interview, when he said that “golf is an aspirational sport.” The difficulty … the perpetual challenge .. is what holds my fascination. It is what makes the game so addictive to those who embrace it.
But—like baseball—it is not going to appeal to the immediate gratification crowd.