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The Crack of the Bat's Not as Sweet a Sound for Kids

The game of baseball was the undisputed national pastime for more than a century, until American football overtook it as the nation's most popular and profitable sport.

Top-level pro baseball teams still draw big crowds and make millions of dollars a year. And plenty of other professional, collegiate, and amateur teams still play the game.

Yet many of the vacant spaces that Americans call sandlots, where kids by the millions once brought their own wooden bats, leather gloves, and cowhide-covered balls — and picked teams among themselves — are eerily empty. And this worries those who look to the future of the sport. They remember when boys of all abilities who played sandlot ball — and most were boys — remained fans and paying customers for life.

Today's baseball is highly organized, focused on winning rather than having fun, and — some say — over-coached. Only highly skilled players get much chance to play. Ordinary kids have other playtime options, including sedentary video games. And as housing developments have filled in the open spaces, there are fewer sandlots.

Major-league baseball is funding outreach programs to re-introduce the game to kids in the inner cities, where basketball — which is cheaper and faster — is now the overwhelming game of choice. Baseball's heavy recruiting in Latin America and Asia has increased its international appeal but done nothing to bring small-town and rural American kids back to the sandlots.

One day, say the worriers, baseball's decreasing grassroots appeal could hit the game where it hurts — in the columns marked attendance and profits.