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Andy Furillo: Baseball fighting to rise above the sports clutter

Former baseball great Leon Lee joins Johnny Doskow in the Sacramento River Cats radio booth for home games at Raley Field in West Sacramento.
Former baseball great Leon Lee joins Johnny Doskow in the Sacramento River Cats radio booth for home games at Raley Field in West Sacramento.

Here we are, more than halfway through the season, and finally, baseball almost gets the American spectator sport landscape to itself.

The NBA Finals cut in on baseball as late as June 16. The women’s World Cup soccer tournament reached its own spectacular conclusion July 5. This weekend, there’s still the British Open, but that’s it – until the end of the month, when the NFL goes to camp.

“I think a lot of leagues have the same challenges,” said David Carter, executive director of the USC Sports Business Institute, of sports seasons running into each other. “The more they can go out of their way to promote themselves with truly special events, the more of a chance they have of not being lost in the clutter.”

Baseball put on a pretty good show in Tuesday night’s All-Star Game in Cincinnati, a game won by the American League 6-3. But the TV numbers show the national pastime has a little problem.

10.9 million TV viewers of the All-Star Game, a 3.5 percent drop from last year

According to the overnight ratings, an estimated 10.9 million people watched the game, or 3.5 percent fewer than last year and more than 15 million below the 26 million Americans who watched the U.S. women win the World Cup.

Meanwhile, the TV listings on Wednesday showed more competitive pressure for baseball. They included show times for the Tour de France, two CONCACAF Gold Cup soccer games, the WNBA, a British Open preliminary, the Pan American Games, MMA and four NBA summer-league games.

For sure, the squeeze is on baseball from every angle, but now it’s time to shove everything else aside and take advantage of what the All-Star break is supposed to provide – a speck of time to look at a season that’s slipped halfway into the past and see what it portends for the fall.

A call for analysis went out to Leon Lee, who has attained the title around town as Sacramento’s “Mr. Baseball.”

In Milwaukee, the designation belongs to Bob Uecker. But at The Limelight on Alhambra Boulevard, which has refashioned its dining room into a baseball museum, and where Lee sat down for lunch the other day to talk baseball, the title belongs to Leon. He helps run a baseball academy and also is the father of one former major leaguer, Derrek Lee, and the younger brother of another, Leron Lee.

I’ve got all the confidence in the world in (manager) Bruce Bochy. I just don’t think he’s got the guns to work with.

Leon Lee, Sacramento’s “Mr. Baseball,” on the Giants’ chances in the season’s second half

Leon also works as the analyst on the radio broadcasts of the River Cats, the Giants’ Triple-A affiliate. The vantage point has allowed him to observe the rehabilitation work of pitchers Matt Cain and Jake Peavy at Raley Field and it has left him doubtful the Giants can make up their 41/2-game deficit to the first-place Los Angeles Dodgers in the National League West.

“I’ve got all the confidence in the world in (manager) Bruce Bochy,” Lee said. “I just don’t think he’s got the guns to work with.”

Across the bay, Lee doesn’t see the last-place A’s making a move in the American League West. The Los Angeles Angels just passed upstart Houston for the division lead, but he thinks the Astros will stay close with their young talent coming up from the organization’s talent-laden Triple-A club in Fresno. The Astros recently called up shortstop Carlos Correa, who has seven home runs in his first 141 major-league plate appearances.

Lee calls Correa, 20, “a generational guy,” along the lines of the Angels’ 23-year-old Mike Trout, who has 26 home runs and 55 RBIs. Trout’s opposite-field, leadoff homer in the first inning got the A.L. going Tuesday.

In the A.L. Central, there’s a reason attendance is up 458,736 so far in Kansas City. According to Lee, it’s because the defending A.L. champs are loaded.

“They’ve got depth, they’ve got youth, they’ve got arms, they’ve got speed, they’ve got power,” he said. “They’ve also got a little bit of cockiness. I think that goes a long ways.”

In the N.L. Central, St. Louis and Pittsburgh are building toward what could be the best divisional race in baseball. The Pirates closed to within 21/2 games at the break. Pittsburgh’s Andrew McCutchen showed America what he’s all about in the All-Star Game with a towering home run. Leon Lee mentioned “Cutch” in the same breath as Willie Mays and Mickey Mantle in terms of pure ability.

Lee likes the Cubs to challenge for a playoff spot but likes them more to remain vibrant and exciting and athletic for at least the next half-decade with young players like Kris Bryant and Addison Russell.

Washington, with another “generational guy” in Bryce Harper, 22, should win the N.L. East fairly easily, Sacramento’s Mr. B said.

In the A.L. East, Lee thinks Baltimore will get it together and give the Yankees a strong run for the division title. The 10.9 million All-Star viewers know one reason why in the person of Manny Machado, 23, whose All-Star performance included an RBI double and a couple of smooth plays at third.

Machado could be another one of those “generationals” Lee talks about, like Harper and Trout and Correa, who, along with older guys such as McCutchen and Jacob deGrom and Aroldis Chapman, are trying to keep baseball from getting lost in the clutter.

Andy Furillo: 916-321-1141, @andyfurillo