Amid an American economy that Warren Buffett just said has "fallen off a cliff," many eyes will be on Major League Baseball in 2009 as a giant bellwether of consumer sentiment. At the urging of Commissioner Bud Selig, clubs across the board each have made individual efforts over the past offseason and this spring to add value in ways that can help alleviate an ever-growing burden on people everywhere.
Here is one bit of hopeful news: Through Sunday's exhibition games in Florida and Arizona, Major League Baseball is two percent ahead of last year's Spring Training attendance pace, the Commissioner's Office reported on Monday.
MLB.com contacted many fans and found widespread examples of people who view the national pastime as a necessary relief from the economic woes. In some cases they talked about scaling back the number of scheduled trips to the ballpark, but overall one sensed a passionate need for tickets to a game, possibly now more than ever.
Leonora Unser-Schutz of New York, headed for a brand-new Yankee Stadium in the coming weeks, said skipping part of a summer baseball routine could mean missing an event you might remember for the rest of your life.
"Even with the economy on this huge downturn, I am going to many [about 30] MLB games this year," she wrote in an e-mail to MLB.com. "Out of anything I do for fun, going to games with my friends tops the list. Going to a game costs only a bit more than going to a movie in New York, and I prefer being a part of the camaraderie at a baseball game to sitting quietly in my seat in a theatre.
"Being a part of an event in progress is exciting, and you have the chance to see something really special. I was at David Cone's perfect game in 1999 with my mother because we decided the night before that we wanted to go to Yogi Berra Day. Anything can happen, and by going, I can be a part of it all."
Chris Reed of Belleville, Ill., started talking with his girlfriend Sarah Lundgren two years ago about getting Cardinals season tickets -- when he first heard that the club would be host to the 2009 All-Star Game. She is primarily a White Sox fan, but she surprised him for Christmas 2007 with a half-season ticket package (40 games) -- so they will be at Busch Stadium roughly every other game.
"When we first got our tickets before last season, we had no idea what we were in for other than a lot of ballgames to attend," he said in an e-mail to MLB.com. "But the other season ticket holders around us have become like a second family, and we all watch games together, hang out before and after, etc. It feels like a regular part of the summer, now -- just like camping trips, swimming in the pool and the Fourth of July. We budgeted for it like you might budget for a family vacation.
"With regards to the current economy, though, we are conscious of spending. Season tickets certainly are an indulgence, but for many of the games, we'll bring our own snacks and keep score on a $3 card rather than drop $100 on parking, a couple of beers apiece plus nachos or hot dogs or whatever. If we did that every game we'd be spending more on concessions than we do on the tickets themselves. We're pretty lucky to be paying relatively low ticket prices, too, compared to some other parks I've heard about.
"I'm sure that we'd give up our tickets if, for instance, one of us lost our job or something. But we'd still find a way to go to some games. I mean, it's baseball. Even if I did lose my job, I'd be able to put that aside for three hours while I sat in Busch Stadium and watched the game."
Jason Piscia is a 33-year-old Cubs fan in Springfield, Ill., and he said it is "hard to imagine summer without going to a baseball game." He said the "tight economy has cut back on how many tickets I've purchased in recent years," but so far he has plans to hit seven games at either Wrigley Field or Busch Stadium, and another two in either Washington or Baltimore.
"In past years, I've attended up to 20 games in one season, which isn't too bad considering I live 3 1/2 hours from Wrigley Field and 1 1/2 hours from Busch Stadium, the two stadiums I go to the most," he said. "Also, these days, I try as much as I can to buy the tickets directly from the team at face value, which means being online the moment a team puts its single-game tickets on sale to get something decent. It's getting harder and harder to justify paying the marked-up prices from the resellers."
His tickets so far include three "random games" at Wrigley: May 31 (vs. Dodgers), July 8 (vs. Braves) and Sept. 11 (vs. Reds). He also has tickets for a Cubs-Cardinals rivalry game this September in St. Louis, and while he will not drive as far as usual to watch an entire Cubs road series, this past Saturday he purchased tickets to drive up to Detroit for the Tigers-Cubs series June 23-25 at Comerica Park.
"The other two games are going to be part of a one-year-wedding-anniversary trip with my wife to Washington, D.C., next month," Piscia said. "We're going to hit a Nationals and Orioles game while we are out there. We haven't purchased those tickets yet. We plan to just walk up on game night."
Ryan Maus is the leader of a "consortium" of about 15 people who pooled their resources to split a full 81-game Twins season ticket package for the final year of the Metrodome (section 116, row 19 -- $29 seats).
"This economy makes you really look hard at your entertainment budget, but Major League Baseball is definitely a top priority for me," said Maus, 24, who works in University Relations at the University of Minnesota. "I don't know what I'd do without Twins baseball every summer -- my Twins tickets will definitely be one of the last things I give up if times get tough."
"We got the plan in anticipation of the opening of Target Field in 2010; the Twins are going to be the hottest ticket in town and I didn't want to miss out! I've been a huge Twins fan my entire life and it's been one of my lifelong dreams to be a season-ticket holder. I'm pumped for baseball to start!"
Stefanie Gordon of Hoboken, N.J., is a Yankee diehard who makes sure baseball remains a priority.
"I will go to games even in this economy because I enjoy going to games and I do without other luxuries during the rest of the year to be able to afford my tickets," she said. "I don't sit in the most expensive seats, I bring my own food and drinks to the stadiums that allow it. Also, without a family to support, it makes it a little easier and more affordable to go than if I had to bring my family of four.
"Going to a game is an escape for a few hours. While watching a game, I disconnect from the world outside the gates, as much as possible, and enjoy what is going on, on the field."
The Nationals are approaching their second season with the new ballpark, and they are typical of so many clubs in that they reduced ticket prices in many sections. Those sections that were not reduced were not raised and remain the same price as in 2008. The Nationals offer several exclusive season-ticket holder benefits such as complimentary ballpark tours, complimentary Nationals Yearbooks, the opportunity to purchase single-game tickets before the general public and discounted merchandise at Team Stores.
No one can be absolutely certain how good the home team will be nor how the economy will fare over the summer, but Kristen Hudak of Alexandria, Va., has a 2l-game plan to watch the Nationals and go along for a traditional ride.
"For me, baseball has always been an escape," she said. "No matter what is happening at work or in my life, I count down the hours each day until I can sit in my seat and leave the rest of the world outside the gate. Some people have wine, a bubble bath and a good book -- I have summer nights at the ballpark."
Baseball once weathered the Great Depression, ushering in a new era with the fabled Gashouse Gang of St. Louis and with Babe Ruth calling his shot at the 1932 World Series in Chicago. It has been there through the economic good times and bad, and it will be there strong again in 2009. Whether Major League attendance can reach or better last year's level remains to be seen, but it is clear from talking to many fans that it will take much worse to keep them from being part of the scene.
Clubs are doing their best to help alleviate the overall strain, and the Wight family will be making their usual drive down from Columbus to see if this might be the year at Great American Ball Park. Jenna is 6 and Rusty Jr. is 4. The father lights up when you ask him about the pair, and many baseball parents will relate when he adds that his son "can flat rake." Hitting lessons from the pros will ensue soon in the big pantheon, just as they once did when you went to see Pete Rose, Johnny Bench and Tony Perez rake.
"The Reds have not raised ticket prices, but I have heard some news about them offering value meals at the concession stands for around $5," Russell said. "My family and I usually eat at The Machine Room, a sports-bar type restaurant at the stadium. It is around $30 for the four of us [no alcohol], which is very comparable to a dinner at any local establishment. ... We love the experience of going to the ballpark."