Pops Out 

What the Flying Squirrels are doing in Richmond has nothing to do with people's intelligence.

click to enlarge SCOTT ELMQUIST/FILE

In his recent essay, "Overplayed" (May 11), Alan Pell Crawford opines that the owners of the Richmond Flying Squirrels are "insulting the intelligence and trying the patience" of true baseball fans with over-the-top, between-inning promotions and antics. I'm sorry his intelligence is insulted but what he lacks as a baseball fan is vision.

What the Flying Squirrels are doing in Richmond, along with other successful minor league operations across the country, has nothing to do with people's intelligence. Yes, it is about business. But it's more than that. Crawford's myopic attitude isn't allowing him to see that the Squirrels are opening the minds of a new generation to the game.

Crawford and I would probably enjoy going to a baseball game together because it's a sport we love. At 32, I still find baseball to be the best game in the world.

Yet what a certain older generation of baseball fans fails to realize is that today's sports fan doesn't appreciate baseball for the beautiful game that it is. We live in a society that needs constant entertainment and action. Newspapers used to be our primary source for news until the 11 p.m. newscasts broke stories and beat print to the punch. Then word got to us quicker with the invention of the Internet. Now that's not fast enough. Where did we first learn of Osama Bin Laden's death? Not on CNN but on Twitter!

Sports fans now require constant action and entertainment. ESPN's "SportsCenter" became a hit when executives realized the new generation didn't have the time nor attention span to watch an entire game, so they shortened four-hour games into one-minute highlights.

Crawford wrote: "Not all fans need such [promotional] prompting. Given a good game, most will actually cheer without being asked to do so." He couldn't be more wrong. Baseball fans like Crawford and me are drawn to The Diamond for the game, the chance to see a future star like Charlie Culberson, and perhaps a walk-off or a no hitter.

Most people are there to be entertained and they expect just that for their dollar.

I love baseball but it's a slow game with limited action. In our society it isn't a game that appeals to the younger set. The curmudgeonly attitude of some older fans and the slow reactionary creativity of Major League Baseball Commissioner Bud Selig has allowed football to become America's game, while baseball withers as America's "past time."

My love for baseball raises my concern for its future. Society has changed as well as sports entertainment. Through the years I've learned to sit with a hot dog and a score card and just enjoy the game. But when my Dad used to take me to Philadelphia Phillies games at Veterans Stadium, it was a different story. I loved to watch Mike Schmidt play third base, but I was also an antsy kid like so many of us were at 7 years old. So my Dad took us for walks to find the Phillie Phanatic or go watch Steve Bedrosian warm up.

Unfortunately, a mascot and a walk to the bullpen don't rivet the attention of today's youth.

The Flying Squirrels are running a business. The marketing and sponsorships pay the bills and make the franchise profitable, a necessity for every business. In the context of sports, the Squirrels are also drawing a new generation to baseball. It is difficult to get kids to love baseball in 2011. For the game to grow minor league owners, who must compete with the instant gratification of video games and iPods and attention deficit disorders, must package the game with special promotions and between-inning contests. If they kids have fun, they'll come back — dragging their parents with them.

Minor League baseball feeds the game to nonbaseball fans in slow doses with rally pigs and toilet-seat ring-tosses. And while those kids and nonfans wait for the next promotion, they're occupied with stolen bases, home runs and double plays.

The hope is that their interest for the game will click, like it did with my 3-year-old niece. I took her to her first baseball game in June. After a night of Nutzy, hot dogs and us dancing to the "SpongeBob SquarePants" theme song, baseball brought us together a month later in a car driving for nine hours from Albia to Dyersville, Iowa, just so we could have a catch at the "Field of Dreams" movie set.

She's now grown to love the Phillies and watches baseball with that same guy who took me to Veterans Stadium 25 years ago, all thanks to Nutzy and SpongeBob.

The Flying Squirrels aren't force-feeding the love of baseball down the next generation's throat like Crawford suggests. Instead of relying on "the crack of the bat," these owners are keeping the game healthy like the geniuses years ago who realized kids would take their vitamins with a little creative packaging, and made millions by carving them up into Flintstone characters.

Minor League baseball and the Squirrels need not worry about the curmudgeonly gripes of the older baseball fans, who want to enjoy the game without the noise. They need to worry about the next generation of fans. S

Wes McElroy is weekday afternoon host, 3 p.m. to 6 p.m., of Sports Radio WRNL-AM 910, which carries the Flying Squirrels' games, and he works part time for Minor League Baseball in its online official scoring department.

Opinions expressed on the Back Page are those of the writer and not necessarily those of Style Weekly.

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