July 3, 2001 -- Once upon a time in America, children and baseball were inseparable companions. Major League ballplayers were their heroes, and it was awfully hard to drag a child away from a summer evening game to go to bed.
It was that way for almost a century. … Until the 1990s, and the emergence of "extreme" sports like skateboarding and mountain biking, newly popular sports like soccer — and the virtual sport of video games.
Over the last decade, the companies that make baseballs, bats and gloves have seen their sales plummet. A study by the Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association found that overall baseball participation dropped by 3 million players in the last 10 years.
"We're losing the casual baseball player, the sandlot player," said Tom Cove, the association's vice president of government relations.
Although Little League numbers are at a record high and most baseball parks are busy, the association found an alarming 28 percent drop in children's interest in the sport since 1987.
Some critics say today's players often don't connect with children. In the last five years, the number of viewers under 18 who watched the World Series has fallen by 30 percent.
In a bid to encourage a younger crowd, Comerica Park in Detroit sometimes admits children under 14 for free.
But some of them are out of touch. One young visitor, Drew Grissom, was a little confused at a recent Detroit Tigers game.
"It's exciting when Babe Ruth's up and he's, like, hitting a home run," Grissom said.
Babe Ruth? The Babe played his last game in 1935.
Major League baseball is trying to get back in children's good graces. It has set up little leagues in inner cities.
President Bush — the first president to have played Little League as a child — is trying to help. Last month he held a highly publicized T-ball game on the White House lawn.
Promoters of the sport are also trying to make it faster, to keep pace with children's other diversions. Communities that can afford them are replacing child pitchers with pitching machines that speed the game up and give the kids more hits.