Tuesday, October 02, 2007

Hardball and Hardware

I thought I would spare you all any more sports-related posts. But, it's still baseball season.

Crazy game last night. I watched almost all of it while half-heartedly scanning the readings for my Sustainability, Trade and Environment class tomorrow. Great thing about baseball -- it doesn't demand your undivided attention except at the most pivotal of moments. I made it through the end of the 11th inning, with the Rockies and Padres stil stuck at 6 apiece, at which point I had to go to training for the minor gig I'm taking watching the Ashdown front desk a couple hours a week. As soon as the learning concluded I bolted back to the big screen room, just in time to see the pivotal play at the plate.

He was out. In a panic of indecision, the home plate umpire called him safe. Perhaps if the correct call had been made, the Rockies would have won it anyway, or a person could argue that they'd have never been in extras had the home run call earlier in the game been refereed correctly. Perhaps not. As you might imagine, this prompted the talking heads on ESPN's afternoon talk shows to call out for instant replay, not for everything, but for calls of this nature, whatever "calls of this nature" are. After all, we have the technology.

I oppose its entrance. With so much money and regional self-esteem on the line, it appears imperative to get the call right. Get the call right, that's what people keep repeating, ignoring the reality that in football where every play is replayed, calls are still contentious. Comissioner Selig, appearing on Pardon the Interruption, opposed replay because he didn't want 4 or 5 minute game stoppages with pitchers standing around getting cold while umpires go to the computer. A nice political answer, which is what the office of commisioner demands, but not the truth; the game stops and starts all the time already, with lenghty ones when the manager comes out to kick the dirt or players come out to kick one another.

The real answer is that it violates baseball's aesthetic. Let me not go too far here. I don't want to suggest that baseball fans are not capable of the most intense emotional involvement with their team's. Failure is part of the lore that baseball is built upon. Bucky Dent drives a trident in the side of Red Sox fans 30 years later, but other people remember it because it's part of baseball history. A commentator might take note of the Cleveland Browns' struggles, that they haven't won a championship since 1964, but "1964" is not a number, not the way that "1918" or "1908" are baseball numbers. Bad calls are in there as well. A bad call made the Jeffrey Maier game, an otherwise forgettable Orioles-Yankees game, part of "the story."

Lore is huge. People seem to forget that professional sports affiliations involve much more than what's on the field. I constantly think of this in regards to soccer; the bigwigs of MLS seem to believe that if they put a decent product on the field, people would come. Soccer in America is no field of dreams. Those who have become true believers in the league grew that way as a culture grew up organically around the team. In Europe they have the best players, but that's not the only reason soccer is such an entrentched cultural institution. It's the songs and the colors and the history. The bad calls and the failures. If you tried to create Major League Baseball from scratch in 2007 America, it'd flop like no other.

In baseball, there is room for error. Football white lines never move, but every home plate umpire has a relative strike zone. You have to learn it. It's part of the game. He makes mistakes, you complain; sometimes you get make-up calls.

And then there's the fact that, especially in modern America, there are many folks who are simply baseball fans. People don't go to NFL games for a lark or something to do with the kids; nearly everyone in attendance stands stalwart partisan one way or the other. Winning or losing the game is absolutely everything, and replay is demanded. It's that way in baseball when it's all on the line, or during a big rivalry series. But there's a long summer of baseball games, and by God, people go to them. They are not all sellouts, but baseball keeps setting attendance records. Part of that is parity, and more teams are staying in the races longer, as the commish pionted out today. That's not it, though.

My parents go frequently to the independent league team in Lincoln. Madisonians so the same thing. If the hometowners make a push for the pennant the city gets behind them, and if they stink, they'll go anyway. Ballparks are cool. You get to sit outside on summer days. The field is beautifully manicured; the game proceeds at a leisurely pace. It doesn't inspire insanity unless you really, really care. And many people do. But many people don't, and what's important to baseball's financial future is that people who aren't fanatical will still show up for a game now and then, and bring the kids.

I can't get enough of James Earl Jones' speech at the end of "Field of Dreams." Mostly, I'm just a sucker for brilliant dramatic rhetoric, like President Pullman's address in "Independence Day." While anything like this is given to hyperbole, he was right about the aesthetic. People like to sit in the sun and watch this old game with no game clock, where the players don't do pompous endzone dances, and where machines don't intervene to settle things for us. I can yell drunkenly at the umpire as long as I like, because neither one knows whether they're truly right. And a crowd ragging an umpire for a bad call is great theatre.

So keep the replay machine. There are worse tragedies than human error, and they're aren't nearly as entertaining.

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