Sunday, July 26, 2009

What is it about baseball?

Over the past several days, baseball has been on my mind. On Thursday night, Mark Buehrle of the Chicago White Sox pitched a perfect game. (For those of you who don't know, a perfect game is when a pitcher in 9 innings did not allow a single runner to reach the bases). On Friday night, upon my return from my trip to Yakima, WA, I went to an Omaha Royals Game where the Royals won over the Express 4-0. Today, I watched Kevin Costner's film, For the Love of the Game where a 40 year old pitcher (played by Kevin Costner) pitches a perfect game against the Yankees. But, really, what is it about baseball? Why is this sport continually so popular even when a great deal of popular sentiment finds the game repetitive and absolutely boring?

When I was at the Omaha Royals game, the most fun I had was watching Natalie Manley go into near panic whenever a foul ball was hit anywhere close to our seats along the first base line. There was also the presence of fireworks after the game, which was especially nice since I did not get to see any fireworks several weeks earlier for July 4.

There is a Simpsons Episode (yes, there is a Simpsons anecdote for nearly everything in life; that's why it is such a great show. Well, it was a great show, but that is a debate for another time) where Homer gives up Duff Beer. He's at a ball game with his drunken pal, Barney. Everyone in the stands is drinking except for him. While he is trying to watch the game, the sports announcer says the following over the loudspeaker: "And the 0-2 pitch, but hold on, wait a minute, the batter has called for time. Looks like he's going to get a new bat. And now there's a beach ball on the field and the ball boys are wondering who's going to go get it." To which, Homer responds, "I never realized how boring this game is!"

So, why is baseball still America's great pasttime? Of all sports movies, those dealing with baseball are consistently the best ones. Such great and memorable classics include great movies like "Field of Dreams", "Major League" (none of the sequels though), "Pride of the Yankees", "The Sandlot", "The Natural", "Bad News Bears", "A League of their Own", "Bull Durham" (especially a favorite of mine), "Mr. Baseball", etc., etc.. There are some bad ones, no doubt. But baseball movies are just better. Basketball movies ("Hoosiers" and "Coach Carter"), hockey movies ("Mystery, Alaska"), football movies ("Longest Yard" and "Necessary Roughness") and movies about other sports consistently pale in comparison. The movies I listed for the other sports are good movies and very entertaining espeically "Mystery, Alaska" and "Hoosiers."

No one doubts that baseball has some legendary and picturesque locales in which to play. Who can argue against the beauty of such places like Kaufman Stadium? Or the historicity of Fenway Park or Wrigley Field? You can't. But, golf is also played in some great landscapes. Pebble Beach, St. Andrewes, Augusta, all great places and beautiful, but that doesn't mean more people are going to start watching golf!

So, what is it? And I think that the answer is related to two of the baseball moments of the past few days--Mark Buehrle's perfect game and the perfect game in Costner's "For the Love of the Game." Perfect games are rare especially in the major league. Perfect games are all about defense. There is the old saying that "offense wins games, but defense wins championships." But when is the last time ESPN or the sports section of your latest paper made a big deal about a football team shutting out their opponent or considered that as an event worthy of history? Although shutting out an opponent in a football game is rare, when it does happen, barely a mention is made. In basketball, defense is sacrificed so that there is more scoring. How many NBA games consistently go into the triple digits or very close for both teams? Too often. Defense has been sacrificed in both sports. In the NFL, in particular, so many more rules have been put in place over the past few years to actually increase scoring and to favor the offense. The 5 yard rule and the ridiculous scenarios which constitute pass interference has only allowed touchdowns to increase 30% which is why I believe Payton Manning's breaking of Dan Marino's touchdown record is a bit of a farce since Marino didn't have to deal with all of those rules which gave him the advantage! In basketball, John Chaney's style of defensive ball, which he perfected at Temple University, is nowhere practiced. Everything is about fancy style of scoring.

So, perhaps baseball is the last bastion where defense, good defense, is lauded or at least in America. Soccer, I'm not counting because really it is nowhere as mainstream as the other sports I have mentioned. But even in baseball, we still have our eyes glued on the TV for whomever is going to break the record for most homeruns in a season. Homerun derbys are the prelude for the All-star game. Perhaps, we still want some game where offense is not considered the sine qua non of whether that game is good. I don't know. I don't know why baseball is still appealing after all this time. Maybe we, as Americans, just are willing to do anything to keep our traditions ours especially one, which is now as cosmopolitan, as baseball.

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