The long-term prospects for the national pastime often seem dismal.
A slow game in an era noted for speed, baseball today is struggling to stay relevant, with Little League participation in the midst of a seven-year slide and the passions of many potential sluggers diverted by soccer, lacrosse, skateboarding and video games.
But assembled at the Washington Nationals game yesterday at Robert F. Kennedy Memorial Stadium was, baseball officials hope, a healthy slice of the sport's future.
It was the first Youth Baseball Day for Washington's new team, and about 4,500 players and coaches from throughout the region turned out for a parade around the field and a chance to watch the team climb back into first place. The Nationals won, 6-3.
"This is the future generation of fans -- and players," said Brian Brantley, who coordinates youth baseball groups for the Nationals. "People say the numbers are down, but baseball is not going anywhere anytime soon -- and today proves that with 4,500 kids walking around the field. Youth baseball is alive and well."
That's the hopeful view. International statistics from Little League Baseball show that participation has dropped every year since 1997. There were about 2.65 million players last year.
"Chief among the reasons [for the decline] is the fad of individual non-traditional sports, and indoor non-sports, like Nintendo baseball," said Lance Van Auken, a spokesman for Little League in Williamsport, Pa., who has written a book about the league's history. "It's a lot easier to fail on Nintendo than a baseball field. You're letting your whole team down when you strike out."
Van Auken contends that learning how to handle failure is best learned on a baseball field. And he said preliminary figures show that participation levels may have stabilized this season.
To judge by some of yesterday's spectators, moreover, the game's immediate future certainly seems safe.
Players bought or won $7 tickets and feasted on $4 hot dogs and snacked on the $3.50 peanuts and Cracker Jack, bolstering at least for now Major League Baseball's business fortunes.
Youngsters such as 12-year-old Jeff Davidson of the Germantown area, who carefully scored the game while clutching a glove in hopes of nabbing a home run ball, or 9-year-old Jacob Fusco of Derwood, who fields the newspaper for his parents each morning to get the scores, seemed to testify to the game's lasting appeal.
"Baseball is the best," Jacob said. "You have to think ahead -- if this thing happens, what are you going to do, and if another things happens, what are you going to do?"
Ansh Chaudhari, 6, of Ashburn has picked up enthusiasm for the game from his dad, Suresh Chaudhari.
"In India, we played cricket, and I prefer it, but I like baseball," Suresh Chaudhari said. "Actually, I'm a big Yankees fan."
Although the kids seemed enthralled by the game, if occasionally restless, some parents and coaches sounded cautionary notes, pointing to the competition posed by other sports and, more darkly, the fraying of the game's moral fabric.
"It's hard to explain a very intricate game to a 5-year-old," said Bill Bryson of Ashburn, who coaches two teams. "Soccer is a mob running around with a ball. The kids get that."
His kids' favorite game is now football, he said, remarking that his own infatuation with baseball has been strained.
"Years ago, I would have said baseball was my favorite," he said. "But I was just so turned off by the [labor] strikes. It made me sad."
Other parents complained of the pros who jog instead of sprint to first base, despite the huge salaries. Or of how much harder it is to get autographs from today's stars compared with the accessibility of such old-time sluggers as Roberto Clemente and Ernie Banks.
None of this seemed to register with the kids, who swooned with the thought of treading in the footsteps of the big leaguers. After the game, the Nationals allowed the Little Leaguers to run the bases.
"Being here is sort of a big deal for me," said Sean Hughes, 11, of Germantown. "But it's a really big deal to be able to run the bases down there."