Baseball is not "popular" in the way football is. What's the second most-watched sport after the NFL? College football. Anyone ever seen a crowd of more than 100 at a high school baseball game? Anyone seen a minor-league or indy team sell tickets without "family fun" and fireworks and assorted stunts?
Baseball still "works" because it is engrained into the fabric of American life. It is the summer game. Consider horse racing. No one gives one whit about horse racing outside of the events that have the tradition and are tied to a certain time of year. Baseball is the Kentucky Derby that lasts all summer.
Part of that is the numbers. Face it. It's not just Bob Costas romanticizing or Ken Burns panning over grainy photos with quiet banjo music. The ability to quantify is a big part of the appeal of baseball. Box scores. Stat lines. Who scans the NFL box scores on Monday? [That's not the same thing as checking on your fantasy points ...]
Peyton Manning might be "chasing" a record of some sort, but will it demonstrably increase the interest in the game he's playing in? The NFL had one sort-of "magic" number -- the 1,000-yard rushing season. That got blown out when they went to 16 games. No one cared.
But baseball depends on the fabric, and the numbers are part of the fabric.
And a big reason for that is that baseball is dependent on the balance. Free swingers who don't connect often enough ... flamethrowers who can't find the strike zone ... glove wizards who can't hit it out of the infield ... no Hall of Fame for you.
- Steroids threw the game out of balance.
- Therefore, steriods threw the historical fabric of numbers out of balance.
- Therefore, steroids threw baseball's primary reason-for-being as part of the American cultural landscape out of balance.
Guys who were barely league average were doing things that only Hall of Famers had done before. And it was obvious.
People drank it up for awhile, but once it was clear that "the fix was in" then the sport was in danger of collapsing like the rigged game shows in the 1950s.
That's not justifying hysterical overreaction, but it is justifying overreaction. Baseball has to over-protect itself in order to preserve its place.
If it loses its place, it's horse racing outside the triple crown ... a niche with a nice little rump following.