Ah, the great American Pastime has nearly arrived. The warm breezes, the hope and confidence of a new season are all thrown together with warm beer in the one fabulous season that is Spring. The crack of bat against ball, as well as the sound of barley beverage cans being popped open lift the spirits. The two sounds become indistinguishable after a while sitting in sunshine consuming the contents of several of these containers. And perhaps that is the point.
Baseball is relaxing if not always entertaining. After a long winter, it is great to hang outside, drink in the sunshine and order $10.00 beer. It strikes the Sage that sitting on the patio would provide the same value and the patio's proximity to the fridge ensures that the beer would be colder and cheaper. That isn't the point. Baseball fans seem to like to do this together. Elbowing your way into Wrigley Field to juggle nachos and pretzels and beer (oh my), watch their team and not go to their jobs is their part of the American dream..
Your humble author has tried to understand the allure baseball has over the great US of A. After all, we are a society of doers and thinkers. Baseball makes us sitters and drinkers. Baseball players then are combined sitters and drinkers that want to be the doers but don't have the life skills most of us have - like for cutting grass. Running around on a lush grass surface that one doesn't have mow is simply Nirvana. And, if you can solidly connect wood with cowhide one time in three turns, you will never have to do your own yard work again.
Players get big bucks to attend a garden party almost every day where they are the entertainment. And charging people a bunch of money to watch 45 seconds of actual activity spread out over a 3 hour period is solid business. Cities invest millions in their stadiums and fans heap adoration and megabucks upon guys who wear pajamas to work. Your author is sensitive to the fact that even though baseball players wear pajamas to work, they carry really big sticks and are pretty good at swinging them.
So what is it about America's pastime that keeps it America's pastime? Here are a couple theories.
1. Watching Baseball really is a "pastime." Just look at the number of Chicago business people ditching work to bag a beer at Wrigley.
2. People relate to baseball players. They can really be seen when they step onto the field. Their uniforms offer no protection other than the hat visors from sun glare. They don't worry about getting dirty and are really good spitters. Baseball players are true Americans - they are free and they exercise that freedom for all to see.
3. There is no time limit in baseball. If you are hanging out at the park drinking beer, would you be in a hurry to get back to work?
Whether your team is a winner or a doormat is secondary to the excuse a baseball game provides to those that want to shirk their responsibilities. Baseball is very open about this. Dodging work in Los Angeles may be done with the assistance of the Dodgers. And this, too, is the American way. Our society has invented and refined a socially acceptable way to play hooky.
Winning teams revel in their success and enjoy the excessive media attention. The losers make excuses and don't enjoy the excessive media attention. Attention focuses on the best in Baseball, but the losers are so much more interesting! Baseball is loaded with odd events, weird plays and ironies. So... here are the top picks for the weirdest and worst things about our national game.
1. Incredibly Weird Statistics
Since baseball is largely devoid of intense action, viewers have invented ways to make it more interesting. A personal favorite statistic is players hit by pitches. Craig Biggio's (modern) MLB record of being 'plinked' by no fewer than 285 projectiles is something no sane player should attempt to achieve. Fans are no help. Locals once complained when Biggio failed to increase his count at all during the month of July in his last season. This mark causes one to seriously question the sanity of the record holders. True, the record holder gets his name in the record book, but names are also applied to toe-tags at the local morgue.
Did Biggio incessantly crowd the plate, or did he really do things opposing pitchers don't like? Did he insult them? How did he survive being hit that many times? Did he keep the ball from the 285th smack? These had to hurt! Don Baylor, the American League 'plink' record holder with 267 says never charged the mound or got angry about getting whacked. He professed that he was happy to take first base and never retaliated. You can really get hurt taking your turn at bat. Shouldn't the opposing pitcher get hauled into court and forced to fork over a bunch of dough? Biggio should keep every ball he gets whacked by.. The last one should be in the Hall of Fame, although it would be difficult to determine whether the tribute would be to accurate or horrible pitching.
2. Chicago Cubs Fans
Chicago's north side boys spend their summers watching visiting teams blast fly balls into Waveland Avenue. They then blame it on the wind. The wind stops when the Cubs take their turn at bat. These poor clods haven't won a championship since 1908. There is no 'Curse of the Bambino' to blame this on, so why the record of futility? Perhaps the local fans have made losing such a part of their local culture that a championship would be looked at like a good Cabernet served with an overcooked hot dog and onions - they just wouldn't go together (although the Scholarly Sage must confess to enjoying good Cabernet straight from the bottle).
Cubs fans really hurt for attention. They revel in their futility and no matter how bad the team is, fans still show up for the games. (Granted, the Cubs enjoyed a decent 2007-08 season and bagged their division flag. But don't worry for this season. They always disappoint their fans because it is their way of life.) Aging Wrigley field is loaded with history - mostly of losing. And the weather in Chicago is frequently nothing you'd sit out on your deck to enjoy. Still folks keep filling the stadium. Is work in Chicago really that bad? The Sage can't imagine that Wrigley is a great pick up joint, but would be willing to be proved wrong.
These fans wear their futility on their sleeves as well as on their heads. They wear all manner of team gear and endeavor to record for history, all players who have been a part of the losing tradition. When journeying for his morning Starbucks, the Sage passes the hotel where visiting teams stay before beating up on the home team. On days the Cubs are scheduled, the place is packed with people of all ages waiting on the team bus to snag autographs and photos. No other team draws this level of attention - regardless of how their season is going.
Cubs fans aren't completely obnoxious. They inspire pity more than contempt. Grown Chicagoans using the term "Cubbies" aren't referring to their child's locker at pre-school. And they easily part with hard-earned money to get baked in the stands at Wrigley and listen to an overpaid celebrity leather-lung his way through "Take Me Out to the Ballgame."
Wrigley fans have their own unique traditions - like throwing home-run balls back onto the field. Fortunately for Cubs outfielders, many of these home runs exit the stadium entirely. A throw from Waveland Ave. back onto the field takes a decent arm and the only relatively decent arms in Chicago are probably on the field.
What would happen if the Cubs ever won a World Series title? It finally happened for the Red Sox. The woeful Cubs are hitting the century mark for failure. Chicago Cubs fans however, have developed a usable methodology for handling futility - they simply celebrate it.
3. Foul Territory
All baseball venues have different field configurations. Like hockey, where ice rinks are not necessarily the same dimensions, baseball fields have some really strange features. The Green Monster at Fenway is an aptly named reason for lowering the amount of real estate the original developers of the ballpark needed to acquire to build a stadium. One can understand the need to shorten and shrink the playing field. There is only so much land you can buy to build one of these things. But why is there foul territory? McAfee Coliseum in Oakland has foul territory the size of Central Park. The A's set up picnic tables during nicer afternoons to get a first hand view of the game over lunch.
Foul territory is that part of the field where no damage can be done. The defending team can make a put-out if a ball drifts outside the 90 degree field of play. But the offense can't advance its cause. Only the defenders can make use of this ground. If this area is legal play for the defense, it should be legal for the batting team to make use of it as well. This would get really interesting, with all the unusual obstacles including rain tarps, dugout rails and third base coaches. This also begs the question, why can't the team at bat have players in the field too?
In a game that hurts for actual action and excitement, this could be a breakthrough. Balls hit anywhere on the field should count. The game would then be a cross between miniature golf and cricket. The crazy bounces would make each play much more interesting and greatly increase the scoring. You could even have a fake windmill or wishing well to liven things up.
The most exciting play in baseball is the foul ball that goes into the stands. This is the one thing that truly engages most fans. If they are not engaged by this, they risk a serious and extended headache. Contrary to the scoring on the field, where a foul hit out of the field of play just counts as a strike (or nothing), to the fans, this is a moment of great intensity. In this instant, 5 year olds are thrown into competition with Senior Citizens and all ages in between to retrieve the four-dollar souvenir. The chase for a souvenir involves skill, speed, perseverance and a good bit of luck. You are one of the lucky ones if you can avoid being trampled. The foul ball is the Chinese Downhill of baseball - everyone competes any way possible for the same thing at the same time.
Balls hit into the stands with any velocity become projectiles that can quickly change direction after striking part of the stadium superstructure, chairs or spectator body parts. This only increases the excitement. There are also no rules to foul-ball retrieval. Seeing a 50 year old smack down a little-leaguer to gather in the ball after it ricochets off the second deck, is more exciting than seeing A Rod chip a blooper to center. The ensuing exchange between said Senior Citizen and little leaguer father is also quite exciting.
- the intentional grounding of Baseball. Surrendering first base to a batter without an attempt to make a put-out is boring and a cop out. If you don't want to pitch to a Barry Bonds, tough! Throw one down the pipe and duck! That would be exciting.
But what would one do with a pitcher that wouldn't throw strikes? Perhaps after four tries and failing to get a strike, the pitcher would be compelled to give up a thousand dollars a ball. That should be incentive to throw strikes. After all, hitting the ball is part of the point of baseball. Walking a batter cheats the batter as well as the fans.
Admittedly, walking Barry Bonds would be preferable to watching him park another one the Bay, but that is the nature of the game if pitchers have the courage to play it. Make your best pitch and the batter will make his best attempt to hit it. Whatever happens, happens. Too much strategy is boring. What baseball really needs is a way to make walks more exciting. Watching a batter slowly plod down the first base line is the cue to look for the Budweiser guy - or hit the head and then look for the Budweiser guy.
5. Last Place
What in the world do you do with last place teams? Last place teams have to find meaning in their games. By early July, most last place teams already know who they are and the pink bubble-gum bubble of hope that rose from the fresh breath of the off-season has popped all over their noses. Teams look for ways to add hope to their season by bringing along unseasoned players, attempting a blockbuster trade that makes the team better for three weeks but worse for three years, or installing DiamondVision. Most last place team owners use this opportunity to kick off the campaign for taxpayer funded stadiums.
Recently, the world sports network covered a season-ending soccer match between the two lowest ranked teams of the English Premier league. The stands were packed. The crowd was enthusiastic and fully filled with antifreeze in the steady English rain. It was all thoroughly depressing except for the fact that the fans of both teams were in a frenzy, singing "God Save Whatever" and all other manner of unprintable songs. Was it tradition that caused an exceptional number of sun-starved Englishmen to sit for hours in the rain? These two losers slugged it out in a very entertaining match under rotten conditions to throngs of well lubed fans. So why can't Baseball generate this level of enthusiasm among its fan base of losers? The answer was provided in a single word "relegation."
Relegation demotes the worst teams in the league and promotes the best teams among the lesser leagues. What a great idea! This could really work for baseball. This would also punish owners for not investing anything in their teams and who just ride out the season, keeping payroll to minimum wage. And those not making the cut would be removed from the league to make room for minor league teams that are successful. Imagine the intensity this would bring to the season. Winning teams head for the playoffs and losers desperately try to avoid the axe. It would be highly entertaining for the Royals to be taking on the Rockies for the privilege of continuing to play in the big leagues! Fans would come out even though the teams are losers. Getting busted from the league is quite an incentive to play hard.
This could set up some brand new rivalries - such as Evansville Indiana (home of the Triplets) playing in Comisky Park against the storied White Sox. Or Tidewater against the Yankees! It would also generate great interest in the third world of baseball - in places like the Quad Cities.. It would also give the Oklahoma City 89ers a dream shot. But because it would be a good thing, it will never fly among the Baseball powers.
Enjoy spring training this year. The Grapefruit and Cactus League towns are prepping for swarms of snowbirds using baseball as an excuse to get out of shoveling the driveway. And look to the bottom of the heap for the entertainment value that makes up America's Game.
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