STILL AMERICA'S PASTIME

(Originally featured in Arizona City Independent Edition, May 16, 2001)

The last weekend in April was traumatic for Jim and me, as our favorite teams went head-to-head at the BOB (Bank One Ballpark) in Phoenix. The Braves played the Diamondbacks to what was essentially a draw, two victories for each team. The trouble is, I didn't know when to cheer and when to boo. It looks like I'm turning into a genuine AZ fan!

The first game was great as Gonzo (Luis Gonzalez) matched Junior's (Ken Griffey, the younger) Major League record of 13 home runs in the month of April, while the 'Backs trounced the Braves 13-6. Next day the Braves shut out my new hometown guys, 9-0, and I was kind of down about it. On Saturday I watched TBS for the Braves' slant on the game, and I was really up for their win; then as ESPN called the action on Sunday, I cheered for Arizona's victory.

Baseball is the only team sport I truly enjoy. I'm a real nut about the game. I like golf too, along with many sports associated with winter, especially those performed individually--as much for the grace and athleticism of the actors as for the competition involved.

But let's get past the hard part here: The reason I love baseball but don't watch other team sports is . . . Well, don't bother to send hate mail when you read this. I know what you're thinking, and I really don't care. You can watch your XFL, but I'll stick to baseball, because . . .

While baseball is a combination of chess and ballet, just about every other team sport popular in this country is pretty much a formalization of the worst kind of playground behavior. Sort of ritualized forms of keep-away. Now, while I dodge the brickbats (bats--get it?!), let me assure you, I do admire the athletic skills necessary to play any sport well.

The most awesome phenomenon of baseball is the amazing way fielders calculate precisely where to position their gloves--not to mention their often hurtling bodies--in order to catch a small white object speeding toward them at lightning speed. I respect the fact that football players manage to do this while being chased by a herd of beefy goons, which doesn't happen in baseball. But football players are aiming for a larger brown object that isn't even a ball. Balls are supposed to be round, not sort of squared off and with points at both ends. Heck, real balls don't even HAVE ends!

But really, how can one even think of comparing an ungainly pile of steroid-engorged gorillas heaped atop an itty-bitty (comparatively speaking) quarterback to the pure grace of a well-turned double play?

No contest! Baseball is better!

In a recent conversation, my editor (Hi, boss!) said he prefers football to baseball because the "boys of summer" don't all rush toward the action as they do in other team sports. Well, he's exactly right. What he's talking about is the "chess" part of my favorite game.

In baseball, each player on the diamond guards a particular zone, unless he must help another guy do his job. For instance, if a grounder pulls the first baseman off the bag, the pitcher will rush to first base to catch the ball his teammate fields so he can tag the runner out. Otherwise, the pitcher will stay near the mound and direct the other infielders in their defensive play.

Besides calling to mind the arrangement of pieces on a chessboard, this trait can be likened to the separate but integrated tasks of the various parts of a machine. This analogy reached its glorious zenith during the 1970s when Cincinnati boasted the "Big Red Machine," because of the presence of so many superstars who performed so well together. It's that sort of teamwork that all other groups of nine strive to emulate.

Another quality I like about baseball as opposed to other team sports is the fact that baseball is ultimately fair. The primary strategy of most team sports is to keep the ball away from the other team as much as possible. The team that controls the ball most of the time has more chances to score. In baseball, each team has exactly the same number of chances to put the ball into play, so the runner can try to cross home plate and score.

And while gridders, cagers, and other athletes are expected to do everything legal (and often more!) to keep opposing players from doing their jobs, on the diamond such overt defensive behavior is frowned upon. That's why pitchers can no longer apply foreign matter to the balls, and anyone caught with a non-regulation bat will receive a serious fine and suspension.

Early in this century, these were the tamest of the dirty tricks some players would employ. Belying his benign epithet of "Georgia Peach," Ty Cobb was reputedly a master in that area. It's a pity Cobb, and a few others of his era, sometimes felt the need to employ underhanded strategies, since historical data show them to be such powerful performers when they did play by the rules.

In fact, most of the superstars of yesteryear might actually have been better players than their official stats indicate. Imagine the home-run records Babe Ruth and Mickey Mantle might have rung up if they'd concentrated on scientific weight training, balanced diets, and vitamin supplements instead of booze and women. There'd be no way Mark McGwire or Sammy Sosa could ever match their numbers--much less beat them soundly--two years in a row!

Another difference between baseball and other team sports is the absence of a time clock, a natural offshoot of the aforementioned fairness factor. This situation has the happy effect of enhancing the suspense of the game. In football, basketball, etc., teams win games by keeping the ball away from opposing players till the clock runs out. In baseball, both teams get the same number of chances to score before a player is put out. If enough batters cross home plate before they're called out, the game can go on for a very long time--especially if your team is the one with the lower score.

A skilled pitcher who "paints" himself into a corner by loading the bases, then pitches out of it (with the help of his teammates, of course) is both a joy to watch and hard on the nerves. Closing pitchers who habitually pitch that way make for such suspenseful ninth innings--the best kind--that I like to call them "drama queens."

Despite the theatrics of pitching and batting, fielding is the real "ballet" of the game. Besides the grace of an elegant catch, I'm awed when a fielder moves into position to catch that small white object hurtling toward him at a dizzying speed, then pivots to deliver the ball to another fielder as opponents are caught in their defensive web.

The pitcher may get the glory and stats for games won or lost, but no hurler is worth his salt without a good catcher backing him up and directing his pitches. The catcher spends most of the game crouching behind home plate, but his "zone" is the entire field as he tries to keep opposing base runners from stealing the next base. As it is on a ship, the catcher is the "pilot" of a baseball game.

With all the earthly minutiae of baseball, the numbers three (outs) and nine (innings) are considered by many to have a certain spiritual significance, which may explain why fans like me are so devout about the game. The night before I finished this column, Randy Johnson racked up a record-matching 20 strikeouts in a nine-inning game, then the folks at Elias Sports Bureau said it isn't an official record because the game actually went 11 innings.

Well, give the guy an asterisk if you must, but Randy's still the "Big Unit" to true believers. If I light a candle, maybe it'll sway the folks who keep the record books, in baseball heaven.


Debbie Jordan