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A July 4th attendance boom and MLB's next big thing

AP Photo/David Zalubowski

How was your Fourth of July? What did you do? I'm curious because, after all, it's the heart of summer and most of you had the day off, and in today's world, there are countless ways to spend leisure time.

You know what a heck of a lot of people did Wednesday? They went to baseball games. Well, since teams' attendance figures reflect ticket sales rather than turnstile counts, it would be more accurate to say that a heck of a lot of people paid to go to baseball games.

Much of the rhetoric generated by the first half of the baseball season has been about what has changed in the game, what is changing and what needs to be changed. Games are longer. Hits have become more rare than a new season of "Game of Thrones." Attendance is down. The baseball world as we know it is ending. It's the ballpocalypse.

We have to pay attention to these trends because they exist, and we want to always make sure the game we love is steering in the right direction. But these trends have to be looked at from a big-picture approach, and for most of them, we don't yet have a big picture. Yet that does little to slow the rollout of knee-jerk reactions.

The attendance issue has become the hottest of the hot-button topics over the past couple of weeks, even as the actual problem begins to self-correct. We don't really know why attendance is down. There are possible reasons that seem obvious, including the absurdly early start to the season, the Icelandic April weather patterns, the longer games (though not as long this season; according to Baseball-Reference.com, the average game time is down by four minutes) and the disappearing act of balls in play. And don't forget about the preponderance of teams in the early or middle stages of rebuilding.

Yet we don't really know what's causing the problem. More crucially, we don't know if the attendance decline is a blip or a trend because it's the first season we've seen this kind of decline. Before this season, per-game attendance numbers were largely stable. If it's not a trend, it's not a problem.

On the Independence Day holiday, the 15 games played in the majors drew an average of 34,685 fans. Seven games drew 40,000 or better. Two of baseball's problem spots hosted games -- Miami (7,872) and Oakland (14,408) -- or the numbers would have been even better. On July 4 last year, teams averaged 35,805 fans. Oakland hosted a game that day as well, but Miami did not. If you remove the Marlins from the equation, this year's July 4 docket outdrew last year's by 830 fans per game.

One good day of attendance, even on a high-profile holiday, wouldn't necessarily justify these words. But I want to point you to a posting from the excellent ballparkdigest.com. In a nutshell, attendance records have been falling all week at all levels of minor league ball, and in all parts of the nation.

For me, the minor league attendance trends are as important as those of the big leagues. That's because they speak to a more fundamental issue when we ask about the future patronage of MLB: Does baseball still occupy a central place in the cultural landscape of 21st century America? Because if it doesn't, the sport has bigger problems than the length of games. However, the trends in minor league ball are highly encouraging. Baseball, as an industry, must continue to strive for growth, but the base is still there, arguably as strong as ever.

As for the big league attendance issues, those have become less pronounced as the season has progressed:

The gap has closed with each full month that has gone into the books. That doesn't make up for the fans missing from the first two months. And the numbers, even in June, were still down. But the problem looks less urgent as the season progresses.

As mentioned, I think we need to be careful about assigning blame for the attendance drop. However, if I had to guess, it's the rebuilding teams that have been the issue. Let's look at this using the year-over-year numbers from Baseball-Reference.com.

The overall shortfall is 2.24 million fans, an average of 1,736 per game. It's a big number, representing millions in lost revenue leaguewide. Twenty-one of the 30 teams have seen a drop, with 11 of those -- more than a third of the teams in the majors -- losing at least 2,500 fans per game. Two other teams are down more than 1,000 and they are both contenders -- Boston and Cleveland.

The Red Sox's numbers were off 2,368 in 13 March and April games, but they have been much closer since: down 153 fans in May and 362 in June. Cleveland was down nearly 4,000 fans for 15 dates in March and April, but has been up by 1,228 fans in May and 1,353 in June. For both of those cities, it seems highly likely that the poor early weather is at the root of the year-over-year shortfall.

Meanwhile, let's pull out my preseason playoff odds and use them as a proxy for fan expectations. There are six teams that had less than a 10 percent shot at the postseason entering the season, and they are still there today. Those are the Padres, White Sox, Royals, Orioles, Tigers and Marlins. Together, the attendance figures for those teams are off by 1.61 million fans from last season. That is 72 percent of the leaguewide shortfall.

If you increase the probability threshold to 15 percent, you have eight rebuilding teams, all of which have seen an attendance decline -- accounting for 90 percent of the shortfall. And if you increase the threshold to 20 percent, you have 10 teams accounting for 107 percent of the shortfall.

That's right. A full one-third of the majors falls into the rebuilding class right now. For the two-thirds who are not, the collective attendance is actually up by a healthy margin.

That doesn't mean the attendance problem is not an issue. The bottom line remains that a good amount of ticket revenue has been lost this year. For the teams that can point to spring weather as the issue, this shouldn't persist, though it might be tough to reach last year's season-end numbers. For the teams looking to the future, chances are the fans aren't going to come back this season, so the hope is that they'll be ready to return when the team's competitive outlook is more optimistic.

In terms of the question of whether the attendance problem is a lasting or accelerating trend, there is no clear sign that's the case. In fact, a big reason why that might not be the case is due to ...

What the numbers say

The haves and the have-nots

... the historical levels of stratification that we've seen. I've written on this before by pointing to a metric called stratification score that I track, which is basically the MLB-level standard deviation in team-by-team run differential expressed as an integer. The higher a stratification score is, the more disparity there is in team performance across a league. The smaller it is, the more top-to-bottom parity exists.

Through Wednesday's games, that score was 94.6, which would be the sixth-highest figure of the post-war period. The years with a higher score are 1948, 1949, 1953, 1954 and 1955. You can see by that simple list that these things tend to happen in clusters, and if stratification is indeed a culprit in this year's attendance dip, it might not be a one-year issue. That doesn't mean it's a permanent trend, but it would mean that a return to parity would be welcome sooner than later.

Of course, that stratification score is for the majors as a whole, but, in fact, things look very different at the individual league level:

AL stratification score: 114.5

NL stratification score: 73.5

Wow. The highest score we've had at the MLB level, from that list of years above, is 116.1. The thing is, stratification tends to increase over the last couple of months of each season, as rebuilding teams trade vets and contending teams either load up for the postseason or position themselves for a pennant push. So this year's American League is unlike anything we've seen, at least not in a couple of generations. Just check out what this year's final AL standings would look like if each team in the junior circuit maintained its current win pace:

The National League, on the other hand, is tightly bunched, with eight teams owning at least a 1-in-4 shot at the playoffs. When viewing this divergence through the prism of attendance, this gives us two very distinct test cases. From here on out, the majority of the games in the NL will have some sort of impact on who gets into the playoff bracket. In the AL, where all five playoff slots seem pretty firm even now, before the All-Star break, that won't be the case.

There will be stakes involved, of course, even in the AL, with the division races in the East and West looking like old-school pennant races. But that still leaves out a lot of markets. So how will attendance going forward dovetail with these divergent levels of stratification? We will see.


Since you asked

Q&A with Negro Leagues Baseball Museum's Bob Kendrick

If you haven't spent much time in Kansas City, Missouri, here's something that might surprise you: It's a really good museum town. There's the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, the Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art, the National World War I Museum and Memorial, the College Basketball Experience and Hall of Fame, the American Jazz Museum and the Harry S. Truman Museum and Library, which is in nearby Independence. Oh, and don't forget about the fascinating National Museum of Toys and Miniatures.

It's an impressive list, but atop them all is the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum, which shares a building with the jazz museum, just off the renowned intersection of 18th and Vine. The NLBM keeps alive the history and spirit of those who weren't allowed to play in the majors before Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947. Yet it's far from a melancholy place. Indeed, it's a celebration of those leagues, not to mention some of the best players ever to walk onto a baseball field. Some of the best of those greats are immortalized on the museum's Field of Legends, which features life-size bronze statues of Negro League stars at their positions, from Satchel Paige on the mound to Josh Gibson behind the plate.

The soul of the museum, and its face, remains the late Buck O'Neil, who first emerged as a national figure nearly a quarter of a century ago, when he shined as a talking head in Ken Burns' epic documentary "Baseball." O'Neil died nearly 12 years ago, which for a time left many wondering about the future of the museum he helped create.

Indeed, there were some trying times in the years after O'Neil's death, but in recent seasons, the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum has been gathering momentum. There was an explosion of awareness during the Royals' pennant-winning seasons of 2014 and 2015. Last year, MLB and the MLBPA announced a $1 million donation to help ensure the future of the museum and to create a formal association among some of game's most crucial entities.

However, some of that momentum was curbed recently by a pair of apparently unrelated incidents. First, near the end of May, Paige's vacant former home was destroyed in a fire, with arson suspected. Worse, a couple of weeks ago, vandals flooded the former Paseo YMCA building up the street from the museum by cutting a water pipe in the interior. This is the site of the founding of the National Negro League by Rube Foster in 1920.

In recent years, the YMCA building has been undergoing renovation as the future site of the Buck O'Neil Research and Education Center, a dream of the late legend. The center will foster research of the Negro Leagues, serve as a math and science education facility and be a gathering spot for public events. The damage from the flooding was extensive, but the work will continue.

Facing these challenges will be NLBM president Bob Kendrick, a close friend of O'Neil who has been with the museum in official and unofficial capacities since before the opening of the first incarnation, save for a brief period in 2010. Kendrick has served as president of the museum since 2011, and he heads up the work to build on what O'Neil was so instrumental in starting. With each passing year, the ranks of those who played, managed, coached or umpired in the Negro Leagues grows more thin, which makes the mission of the NLBM all the more crucial to the efforts to preserve a precious part of baseball history.

How are things going?

Bob Kendrick: It's been crazy. Busy. We were having a great summer really until two weeks ago when somebody vandalized the Buck O'Neil Center. We're kind of bouncing back from that little incident.

Have they found out anything about what's behind that?

BK: Not yet, and I don't know if we ever will. We didn't have surveillance cameras in the building because really there is nothing in the building. Nothing to steal. There are some cameras outside in the area, so they're checking out that video. I don't know if they'll find out who did it or not.

I also read about the fire at Satchel Paige's house. Has there been anything at all to indicate that these two incidents were somehow related?

BK: I honestly don't believe that they are connected. Now, what you don't know is if somebody heard about the burning of Satchel's home and if that might have planted a seed in somebody's mind. You certainly don't know about that definitively, one way or another. My heart of hearts says they aren't connected. My guess is whoever burned Satchel's house didn't know that it used to be Satchel's house. That name hadn't been connected to that house in quite some time.

Since the incident at the Buck O'Neil Center, what has the response been like?

BK: It has been overwhelmingly positive. Particularly from baseball fans. For instance, I got a call last week from the Ted Williams Museum. They had heard about what happened, so they decided they would make a contribution to help support the cleanup and restoration. Baseball fans, particularly through social media, have shown so much concern and consideration and, really Brad, sending significant contributions to support this effort. Even though it was such a dark day for the museum, there's been this kind of light out of the darkness as people have rallied around the spirit of Buck O'Neil and his museum. That certainly makes you feel good. When I walked into that museum two weeks ago, it was almost like you really did start to question humanity. It was so dark and lonely, and the feeling of emotion was such that you just start to question humanity.

Then all of a sudden, you kind of understand what Buck O'Neil was all really about. He understood that there were always going to be people who were going to do bad things. But good people would come along and fix them. He was absolutely right. And we know this. There has always been and always will be more good people in the world than bad people. The outpouring of support that we've gotten since that crime has really lifted everybody's spirits.

You mentioned that before the incident, you'd been having a good summer. It has been nine years since I left Kansas City, which was about three years after Buck passed. What has it been like from those times to where the museum is at now?

BK: It's been interesting. It will be 12 years in October since Buck passed. It doesn't seem like it's been that long. Everywhere you go, people have a Buck O'Neil story, and you never get tired of hearing them. It's almost like Buck is still with us. But it's been 12 years that we lost him, and the museum lost, really, its leader. It's a bad baseball analogy, but he was our power hitter in the middle of the lineup. And we lost that. We knew life would be difficult without Buck O'Neil. Then some other things occurred, the economy, a bad transition plan related to the museum. Things started to spiral in the wrong direction.

As you probably recall, I left in 2010 and came back in 2011 to take on the role as president and try to carry on the mission that Buck set out for all of us. We've been very fortunate because we've been able to orchestrate a tremendous turnaround since that time. We've been able to grow many things. It was almost like the stars aligned in many ways. When I got back, I didn't inherit the greatest set of circumstances, but I don't know if the timing could have been any better. It's like old Buck is standing over our shoulders watching over all of us.

This goes back to [O'Neil's] 100th birthday in 2011, during which people stepped up. The All-Star Game [in Kansas City] the following year. In 2013, we attached ourselves to the epic film "42." In 2014, I thought, well, we don't have any national thing to wrap around, but our Royals got into the playoffs and into the World Series. In 2015, they won the World Series. We've been riding that horse now for quite some time. There was nothing like having two World Series back-to-back in this city. It ignited the city, but it also brought a lot of attention to the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. As a result, we're seeing almost every facet of our business grow.

Great. What's next?

BK: We're kind of planning for the centennial celebration, because 2020 will mark the 100th anniversary of the Negro Leagues being formed here in Kansas City. It's a 1-in-100 years opportunity to try and capitalize on what is truly a significant anniversary. I can tell you now, every not-for-profit organization looks for an anniversary to hang their hat on. So, we'll create an anniversary in a heartbeat. But in this case, it's legit. One hundred years since the founding of the Negro Leagues is as significant of any event we've had in our history.

A few times a year, we see pictures and stories and videos of teams coming through Kansas City and paying a visit to the museum. How essential have your relationships to Major League Baseball and to the Royals been to keep awareness of the museum at a high level?

BK: First and foremost, it never gets old. I always look forward to each and every time we have young major league players. When we have the young athletes here, it's just as exciting as when Buck was alive. He always relished in those young athletes, and sharing the history of the town, and talking baseball. Because when it's said and done, it's still baseball. The thing I always share with these young athletes, relative to the thing they have in common with the players of the Negro Leagues, is simply love of the game.

A lot of times, we as fans believe that the modern-day athlete doesn't love the game. Because we equate everything to money. But, of course they love the game. They are making a great living playing the game that they would have played for free. And they played for free when they were kids. I tell them that you will never see a greater example of love for the game than when you visit the Negro Leagues Baseball Museum. They had to love it in order to endure the things they endured in order to play this game. Yet they would never allow whatever social adversity that would confront them as they traveled the highways and byways of this country to kill their love for baseball.

All of them can relate to that. But they can also relate to the wonderful stories about these tremendously talented athletes. They could play! Great athletes appreciate other great athletes. So they marvel at the feats of these players. It's always a welcome day when the young athletes are here. And what I appreciate, it used to be that I would try and call teams to get their guys to come in and visit the museum. But I'm getting more and more teams calling and saying that their guys want to come by. That makes you feel good because word is starting to spread. It's starting to spread among that peer group.


Coming right up

The 'right' All-Star picks

On Sunday, this year's All-Star starters will be announced, giving us our first chance to see who made the final cut from the fan balloting. With that in mind, here are the right answers so you have them for comparison's sake. OK, they are simply my picks, based on metrics and various subjective criteria.

American League

1B -- Jose Abreu, White Sox

2B -- Jose Altuve, Astros

3B -- Jose Ramirez, Indians

SS -- Francisco Lindor, Indians

C -- Wilson Ramos, Rays

OF -- Aaron Judge, Yankees

OF -- Mike Trout, Angels

OF -- Mookie Betts, Red Sox

DH -- J.D. Martinez, Red Sox

None of these was a particularly tough choice. As I've written before, the catcher and first base positions in the AL are a bit lackluster this season. However, Ramos has continued to ramp up to the point where he's legit as the starter behind the plate. Abreu is simply the best of a tepid bunch at first base, and I wish I could cheat and move someone like Manny Machado to that spot.

National League

1B -- Freddie Freeman, Braves

2B -- Scooter Gennett, Reds

3B -- Nolan Arenado, Rockies

SS -- Brandon Crawford, Giants

C -- J.T. Realmuto, Marlins

OF -- Matt Kemp, Dodgers

OF -- Lorenzo Cain, Brewers

OF -- Nick Markakis, Braves

DH -- Paul Goldschmidt, Diamondbacks

There are some tougher choices in the NL. Freeman still holds an edge on the hard-charging Goldschmidt, whom I named as my NL designated hitter. But that leaves out the deserving Brandon Belt. At second base, I go back and forth between Gennett and Ozzie Albies on a daily basis. And if you took Trea Turner instead of Crawford at short, I wouldn't argue with you all that much. Also, there's a case to be made for a handful of outfielders to go in place of Kemp, such as Kyle Schwarber, David Peralta, Brandon Nimmo and Christian Yelich.