PHILADELPHIA – Bryce Harper wants to get to Cooperstown.
Sure, what baseball player, especially a two-time NL MVP such as Harper, doesn’t dream of induction into the Hall of Fame. But Harper’s hopes extend well beyond a call to the Hall -- the Philadelphia Phillies slugger would love for Major League Baseball to stick one of its yearly attraction games -- akin to recent “Field of Dreams” and London trips -- in Cooperstown, New York, as part of Hall of Fame weekend.
“I think it’s pretty cool being able to play in different areas and different countries,” Harper said. “The next one we were all talking about would be a Hall of Fame Game. ... I grew up playing in Cooperstown, at Cooperstown Dreams Park. That was the travel ball place to go, kind of like Williamsport. It’s a little bit of a different level than Williamsport, but it’s pretty cool.”
Harper and the Phillies hit Williamsport, Pennsylvania, on Sunday to play the Washington Nationals in the annual Major League Baseball Little League Classic at 2,366-seat Historic Bowman Field. The field is just a 6-mile trip from the complex where the Little League World Series is underway with kids full of big league dreams, many of whom will attend the game ready to mingle with today’s stars and — perhaps like Harper did — find their way from one of youth baseball's biggest summer stages to MLB.
The Classic and games like it are part of MLB’s outreach efforts to draw more fans, preferably ones closer in age to 21-year-old stars such as Jordan Walker and Elly De La Cruz.
MLB says the efforts are working: Ticket-buyers are younger, more teens are watching the game (yes, on old-fashioned TV), social media accounts such as Jomboy Media generate big-traffic numbers with kids looking for snappy highlight breakdowns, and an education on the game’s greats comes on a deep dive from a few hours playing MLB: The Show.
Baseball has boosted efforts to reverse declines in participation among underprivileged communities and among young Black players, and has vowed to diversify the game from the grassroots level to the highest levels of team and league decision makers.
Hall of Famer Ken Griffey Jr. has served MLB as a youth ambassador and hosted Division I baseball players from HBCUs around this season’s All-Star game. Other programs across the country aimed to increase and diversify the sport’s reach such as the MLB Youth Academy, DREAM Series and the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) program.
Tony Reagins, a former scout and GM, has been tasked with bumping those numbers in his role as MLB’s chief baseball development officer. He's pledged to build participation at all levels and has found recent signs of growth encouraging.
“Once they have that connection and positive experience with the sport, the chances of them becoming a fan are greatly enhanced,” he said.
Baseball’s biggest hits these days are the numbers found on TikTok and YouTube that have ballooned the sport to a wider audience. With kids these days holding the attention span of a home run trot, Major League Baseball introduced a slate of rules designed to speed the pace of play, notably with the introduction of the pitch clock. The average time of game this season is 2 hours, 38 minutes, trimmed from 3:03 last season and 3:10 in 2021.
MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred said the median age of ticket-buyers this season has dipped to 43 years old, which is down from 46 last year and 49 years old in 2021.
“We’ve talked a lot about younger audiences and how significant they are for the future of the game,” Manfred said.
MLB says national and local TV viewership for teens ages 12-17 is up 11% from last year and noted that 86% of people ages 18-24 and 25-34 said they are more likely to watch MLB games due to the rules changes.
Young fans or old ones, ballparks are filling up this season with the average attendance of 29,277 up 9% vs. 2022 and total attendance is already 4.38 million higher than 2022.
Reagins said the shift in how young people watch baseball — more in short bursts — has forced the league to adjust at all levels in how it attracts new fans.
“The important part is that they are consuming the game,” he said.
Perhaps, though, the addiction to the highlight-reel has lessened the bond between young fans and the need to root, root, root for the home team.
Take the kids attending the Little League World Series.
Jacob MacKinnon, 11, from Springfield, Ohio, attended the Little League World Series and said he didn’t have a favorite baseball team.
“I just watch highlight videos on social media,” he said.
Twelve-year-old Grayson Leinart from Waco, Michigan, was also in South Williamsport as a fan. The Milwaukee Brewers are his favorite MLB team, but again noted, 2½-hour games or not, “I watch highlights because it’s more interesting.”
They're not alone. Bowman Field will be packed with Little Leaguers watching the Phillies and Nationals but perhaps just as likely catching a sparkling defensive play from an earlier game on their phones.
Last year, the Orioles and Red Sox were greeted at the airport by smiling Little Leaguers and they signed autographs -- yes, even the 12-year-olds signed jerseys and balls for the big leaguers -- and watched some of the early Little League World Series games.
Nationals first baseman Dominic Smith wishes he could take more than a day trip to the Little League World Series. The 28-year-old Smith grew up in Los Angeles and is the co-founder of a nonprofit, the BaseballGenerations Foundation, that helps provide resources for underprivileged youth involved in the sport. He played in the Little League Classic previously with the Mets and said it’s important for kids to discover that major leaguers are just like them.
“Those couple hours that we get to spend with them, I think they’ll have a better understanding on how we’re regular human beings, how we have probably the same common interests,” Smith said. “It makes them more hungry, makes them want to work harder so they can get up here and be in our shoes.”
Making it to Williamsport as a kid was never the top priority for Washington’s 58-year-old, Brooklyn-born manager, Dave Martinez.
“I just thought about playing as much as I could possibly play, whether it was Little League, whether it was a pickup game. Back when I was growing up in New York we played a lot of stickball,” Martinez said.
He was excited about the trip and connecting with the next wave of baseball fans.
“I want to pick their brains, too, see what drives kids these days, why they love the game,” Martinez said.
He might want to pass his findings on to the braintrust at MLB.
AP Sports Writers Ian Harrison in Toronto and Ben Nuckols in Washington contributed to this story.
AP MLB: https://apnews.com/hub/mlb