Alarm bells are sounding across Major League Baseball as attendance at ballgames has plummeted. One recent game drew less than a thousand fans, prompting some to wonder if there were more players than spectators.
Half of the major league teams have already broken their records of 2017 for their smallest attendance at a game, including traditionally popular franchises like the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs. The Miami Marlins are doing so poorly in attendance this season that they have repeatedly drawn less than 50% of their record-low attendance for all of last year.
Baseball has been in a slow slide in fan attendance, and the dismal attendance last year was the lowest in 15 years. But the particularly poor start this year should spark some soul-searching about what has happened to our national pastime.
The rules of baseball have not significantly changed over the past century, but the players certainly have. Today baseball has become a sport for foreigners playing on workers’ “P-1” visas, which are every bit as objectionable as the “H-1B” visas that Phyllis Schlafly and other Trump supporters have complained about for years.
Roughly a quarter of Major League Baseball consists today of foreign-born players, and an even higher percentage of foreigners have flooded the minor leagues. Today, some minor league rosters look more like a World Cup soccer team than a baseball squad.
Owners have figured out that they can sign foreign players to smaller bonuses, and have greater strings attached, than give nice contracts to American youngsters. The foreigners do not play baseball any better than Americans, and few of the foreign players are genuine Hall of Fame candidates.
In sharp contrast with a quarter-century ago, every baseball team today has a high-paid foreign player. Free traders brag about this as a model that Americans should imitate in other industries, but the reality is that fans prefer rooting for hometown heroes like Lou Gehrig, who grew up in New York City, played baseball for Columbia University, and then became the “Pride of the Yankees.”
The primary reason given by the so-called “free traders” for workers’ visas is that they are supposedly needed to fill jobs that Americans refuse to do. That’s a comical excuse when it comes to professional baseball, which are the most desired jobs in all of the American economy.
With less risk of injury than football, basketball, or boxing, professional baseball players enjoy a greater career income than any of those other sports. Players are not even required to be in particularly good physical shape to play the game, as Babe Ruth famously demonstrated.
Images of near-empty baseball stadiums during games leaves a lasting impression in sports fans thinking about where to spend their money. Atlanta saw an attendance boost in its new stadium last year, but a city cannot build a new stadium every year to try to prop up the fan base.
Baseball owners have exploited the P-1 visa to get bargain players who are cheaper than the top American talent. Apparently no one told the owners that foreign players with names no one can pronounce are not going to fill a stadium the way that Stan Musial, Ted Williams, and Jackie Robinson did.
Jackie Robinson, and Willie Mays and Hank Aaron after him, inspired a generation of young African-Americans to become baseball stars like them. That motivation is gone today with the deluge of foreign players on P-1 visas, and without enough black baseball stars hardly any young African-Americans play the sport anymore.
While major league teams have an oversupply of foreign players, and even more in the minor leagues, nearly one-third of the Big Leagues today have only one black player on their roster. Last year there were fewer black players in major league baseball than 1958, shortly after Jackie Robinson retired.
Like the H-1B worker visas for ordinary employment, the P-1 visa rules are twisted to allow foreigners to take jobs away from Americans despite how that was not the original intent. P-1 visas were supposed to be limited to athletes who want to come to the United States "temporarily to perform at a specific athletic competition," such as the Olympics, explains the U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services website.
But later the same website says that P-1 visa holders can stay for a whopping five years in order to "complete the event, competition or performance," even though no athletic events last anywhere as long as five years. Even worse, the government website explains further that the total stay can actually be up to ten years, by which time the professional baseball player will have found another way to stay here permanently.
Baseball was a fabulous way to inspire multiple generations of boys to play a healthy game that emphasizes the virtues of teamwork, patience, discipline, and following rules. But something is lost in the translation, and the motivation is lost, when the visa program is abused to reward foreigners rather than American youth.
John and Andy Schlafly are the sons of Phyllis Schlafly (1924-2016) and lead the continuing Phyllis Schlafly Eagles organizations with writing and policy work.