Friday, August 17, 2012

Baseball, Hot Dogs, Apple Pie and Debates in Vain

I was 'bout to go LIVE on a related topic, but I quickly realized there was another matter that first needed to be addressed. 

I been prime beefin' on that lamestream sports media (read: Entertainment and Sports Programming Network) for a good while now. Don't get it twisted, though. I ain't even pretendin' like I ain't on myriad occasions lingered about on my couch, mucho crudo, and watched the same episode of SportsCenter repeat every hour for an entire day. Truth be told, that's kinda my thing. Nevertheless, there remains one bone left unpicked, and it is in regards to a very specific exercise the network conducts annually in early fall to ignite a week or two of vigorous debate among sports enthusiasts and tolerants alike. 

Let's flash forward: It's mid-October. Chlorophyll is ceding way to carotenoids (learn something), TBS is fucking up their coverage of playoff baseball, and Brett Favre is getting all ya'll balls blue with the mere mention of another potential post-training camp comeback. It's around this time that ESPN gathers their veritable pantheon of distinguished analysts around a common table to weigh in on the weightiest of burgeoning cultural issues: Has, in fact, baseball finally been displaced from its cherished role as our "national pastime." All branches of popular sport are represented here: Ron Jaworski or Merrill Hoge for the NFL, Buster Olney or Tim Kurkjian for Major League Baseball. For reasons that have always been unclear to me (perhaps because they pertain to political correctness), Stephen A. Smith and Barry Melrose are invited to participate as well. But make no mistake, the question posed is whether a sport as bygone as baseball has finally been eclipsed in popularity and relevancy by American football. Also understand that ESPN doesn't foster this notion because they actually believe the times they might be a-changin'. Very simply, they do it to remind you that, come the postseason, they are done broadcasting baseball for the remainder of the calendar year. Coincidentally, they also start airing Monday Night Football and 20 or 30 other programs dedicated solely to daily analysis of a sport that plays 95% of its games on other channels.

It's not, nor has it ever been, about the actual debate. The actual debate is stupid, though for whatever reason it strikes anyone with an opinion square on whatever nerve it's attached to. It's not as though there can ever be a resolution or a consensus reached. The entrenched biases of the participants in this argument ensure that the conversation always devolves into a shouting match between those who've already decided long ago which side they're on.  For me, it always hearkens back to the My-dad-is-better-than-your-dad-! arguments I used to get into on the daily back on the Hollyvale Elementary blacktop. Or, for all the regulars linking to this site looking for Adam Sandler dick pics, it might be more appropriately equated to the ever-enduring battle between Gatorade and H2O.

Real talk, though. The reason the debate is truly stupid is its preposterous premise, because if we're talkin' in terms of actual cultural worth, I'm tellin' you that American football will never supersede baseball. Ever. If you're a futurist jockin' hard for Team NFL, you are, in the words of the inimitable B. Boucher, drinking the wrong water.

I have on repeated occasion made the fateful and ill-advised decision to state this candidly within earshot of a baseball hater (or, God(?) forbid, a pace of them). It has in each instance caused histrionics and their reflexive recitation of a shopping-list of soft facts, rattling off Nielsen television ratings and ticket sales statistics for American football matches in chapter-verse format (though, had they first conferred with the Lutheran Church, they would know this has never been an effective strategy for convincing me or anything). Over time I've been exposed to a wide and diverse assortment of adversarial arguments. The pseudo-academic has enlightened me, for instance, that football caters to Americans' inherited interest in war and militaristic strategy. In contrast, the jock-bro has taken a path of persuasion more rooted in common sense, insisting that it's called the Super Bowl for a reason, bro! The fútbol moms have me assured that real men perform whether or not weather permits, and all have excoriated me for championing a sport that is so horridly boring.

While I would formerly go to great pains to rebut the rationalizations of these benighted souls tit-for-tat, as the sample size grew one basic trend emerged to render this practice pointless. It eventually became apparent that the suckas steppin' strongest with these misconceptions (and especially that last one) had never actually played baseball, organized or otherwise. And while I'm not normally an advocate for the idea that one must be able to do something to be able to critique it, personal experience in this instance so often stands as the definitive divide on the issue. For anyone who's spent even a half-season of Little League scratching their balls in left field knows empirically that much of what makes the game great, what elevates it above mere sport, lies in intangibles not immediately evident on television. Consequently, they're not the ones sermonizing on the mount from the teachings of 1 Lombardi or doltishly soapboxing to the laypeople about all the ways that baseball is boring. And that's because it's anything but.

There is plenty of action and about a metric shit-ton of strategy in baseball, to be sure. The difference that draws the blind ire of your prototypical football acolyte is that much of said action is subtle, and there is just as much (if not more) happening between pitches as there is when the ball is actually in play. I mean, come on. The sac bunt, the defensive shift, the goddamn double switch(!).. it's all right there. Hell, the preparative thought that goes into pitch sequencing alone is astounding. Try to explain the significance of any of it to a hater, though, and you'll watch their pupils dilate to a field of focus decidedly crimson as they lurch into a lecture on "General Patton and the Origins of the I-formation." All the impulsive repulsion to anything but established dogma has, over time, forced me to conclude that the baseball haters' real gripe is not the game's supposed disconnect with modern society, but is rather that to properly enjoy, understand and appreciate it, one must actually exert some basal level brainpower and pay. fucking. attention.

(It's worth noting that, for these people, there is no element of baseball more exasperating than the pick-off attempt. It encapsulates their entire argument in about 10 seconds: it's boring, it's pointless, it's a waste of time. Throw over twice in a row and watch the fuck out because an aneurysm is likely imminent...

Just watch this mess, though. This is not a waste of time. There's just so much more to this than that. This is, to be short, a storied but curse-stricken franchise picking up a mediocre, one-tool player at the trade deadline to sit the bench but for some hypothetical late-game situation wherein said tool becomes the only one that matters. It's cat-and-mouse at its finest and most potent, a smaller game within a larger and vastly more important one. The action is subtle, but not the strategy and certainly not the feeling. Everyone in Fenway, Boston and America knew dude was going to steal. And he still did it. And he was safe! Remove the geographic, historical and rivalrous context and it is still remains the most riveting moment in all of sports for at least the last decade. It's especially true given that it became the singular turning point in what would become the biggest comeback in playoff sports history.)

Liking American football is easy. Telecasts have been fine-tuned by the suits to ensure the biggest bang per neuron fired. The game is in your face, the excitement conspicuous and ubiquitous.Whatever nuance once existed has long since been culled so as not to detract from the overt and overly accessible. And what's left certainly ain't subtle: dudes do capital-W Work in the weightroom through the workweek and make love war on the weekend for the riled, indelicate hoards.While it's not a terrible leap from its source material, I suppose the NFL does a decent job of recreating the blood-laden battlefield of Colosseum lore (except that no one really plays defense, but whatever). The game, and especially the spectacle that is broadcasted, hone in on a few primordial vestiges of our time spent as quadrupeds that lay tucked away in the recesses of our double helices, indifferent to the best efforts of evolution or our continued, delusional assertions that we've since civilized. I wouldn't dare suggest that I don't see the draw or am any more immune to it than your average dude. Lord knows I get hard for some Kimbo tackle, and should a millionaire be on the receiving end of one, I usually take the initiative and schedule a visit with my physician 36 hours in advance.

There's just something about watching some poor fuck getting splayed out center-pitch that has universal appeal to everyone, not just the zealots. It's why everyone watches the Super Bowl. Yet, despite the ratings, I still contest that football isn't any more popular than baseball. That American football games are more widely watched might have something to do with the fact that baseball teams play 100 times the number of games that football teams play per season, a numerical inconvenience that more or less skews the absolute hell out of that stat. (I generally let it slide, though, given that most American football fans do not site math as a personal strength.) All that being said, last year was the first in our half-century love affair with the boob-tube wherein a sports program was the highest-rated show on television. That program was NBC Sunday Night Football. For the haters, that's not just a slam dunk. That's Jordan, tongue out, jumpman pose from the free-throw line (though let's be honest, Vince was better). However, I have to submit that the last entry on that list speaks volumes less than do the twenty that precede it. Case-in-point: from 1991 until 1994 the highest-rated program in the United States was 60 Minutes (presumably named after the maximum allowable weekly exposure to the television before the onset of rapid brain cell depletion). That a decades-old, content-and-character-driven news enterprise could generate any viewers, let alone continually maintain the most is virtually unfathomable today. It stands in starkest contrast to, say, each of the six years before American football rose to the ratings throne, a stretch dominated by American Idol and what I'm forced to pretend, in their conditioning viewers to reflexively dial toll-free twenty-five times post-production to vote for their favorite karaoke cover of a classic, is their intentional approximation of Pavlovian dinner-bell psychology. It's a definite devolution of quality and, certainly, of intellectual engagement.

And you know, I guess maybe in that sense football is more relevant to the life of the common man and woman in an age where we've largely eschewed interpersonal interaction and become increasingly content with our little box on the hillside, the requisite white picket fence and 2.5 60" LED flatscreens. We've been holing up, tuning in and tuning out for a minute now, stockpiling Facebook friends and substituting the time and energy necessary to cultivate healthy relationships with an hour's worth of ultra-intensive timeline and photo album stalking. In our seclusion we've gravitated toward interests, hobbies and programming that stipulate the minimum amount of emotional and cognitive investment required to make us appear fluent in normalcy during the regrettable moments around the workplace coffee pot when we are begrudgingly forced to mingle and exchange pleasantries with living, breathing people. I don't really follow football. I watch like six games every year entirely out of context. But you best believe I know on Monday how the '9ers did on Sunday, just so I'm not caught with my dick in my hand in the off chance that I actually have to talk to the hot girl in the office.

To return to my pre-tangential point, though, that American football is wildly popular or incredibly lucrative isn't at all apropos, anyway. We're debating something deeper and too difficult to quantify with a couple of superficial variables. Our self-professed national pastime should be a sport (or anything, I guess) through which we can rightly identify ourselves and others might try to identify us, in turn. None fit the bill more fully than baseball. The game predates the Civil War and has, over the last 150 years or so, sewn itself into the very fabric of our country. When baseball desegregated in 1947, the United States at least began to follow suit. As was the case throughout World War II, baseball carried on amidst the post-9/11 disorientation and was instrumental in blunting the stressors of war, standing as perhaps the only societal pillar intact in the wake of tragedy. The extent to which the game has melded into our language is unmatched, even, having spawned countless idioms pertaining to  success ("batting a thousand", "hitting it out of the park") failure ("striking out") and junior high era carnal awakening (the gradualist, base-by-base sexual progression analogy).

What ultimately makes baseball worthy of its heralded stature, though, are the quintessentially American values it exemplifies. I not typin' 'bout the cheap flag-waving, American Empire snare-beating brand of bravado you've come to misinterpret as patriotism. There's no chance you'll ever see Bud Selig sitting third base side at the All-Star Game jackin' that Don Cherry swag, for instance. What I mean is that there exists no better vehicle for instilling the coarse truisms of the American middle-class(?) and preparing an individual for what my father would nimbly call "the fucking Real World." Some of the most formative lessons I've ever learned have either been taught or reinforced through baseball, and I can be entirely candid when I say that I'd be nowhere near as successful or otherwise awesome as I am without having acquired them. So, in conclusion, I'll leave you with the two I've long found most important:

1. Fuck the Yankees.

Seriously. Fuck 'em. Yankee fans, too. Yankee fans from California the most.

(Insert a lesson about the perils of being a bandwagoner and an obnoxious ass.)

2. Life is not fair.

I have no idea how many times I was told this as an insolent youth, though if I ventured to guess I'd have to speculate that it's somewhere on the order of ten thousand. These four words were the instantaneous, de facto response shot back to me anytime I dared to decry something as unfair between the ages of four and nine (at which point I finally accepted the futility of pursuing that line of reasoning). It makes sense, though. It's essentially an alternative take on the timeless "shit happens" refrain for parents who want to remain G-rated in front of their children but still assure them that said shit will happen rather regularly for the 75-80 years (on average) immediately preceding death.

It wasn't until I moved out and was a couple years into college that I came to the abrupt realization that this is not a concept universally grasped. Specifically, it came whilst enduring the one-sided emotional catharsis of my first legitimate break up with a long-term girlfriend, during which I was told among other things that I wasn't being fair. My comeback came half-shrugged and looking away as I dropped the "life's not fair" line like it was an appropriate or wise response in such a situation. The ensuing disgust wrenched into her face was rivaled only by the bewilderment on mine  (bewilderment that was quickly supplanted when I caught a closed-fisted fade to the eardrum). Partially due to the two decades of indoctrination, but mostly due to the two weeks I spent with unilateral hearing, I still wince involuntarily every time someone bemoans the injustice of whatever unremarkable circumstances they're mired in. Of course life is unfair! You're going to get dumped. You're going to be passed up on promotions. You're going to spend a month cramming for your O-Chem final and end up on the fat portion of the bell curve while some jackass like me fucks around and gets the high score. It just happens, and while I think most people intrinsically know this is a part of life in a capitalist dystopia, many continue going about with expectations to the contrary.

Baseball cares not about fairness or providing illusions thereof. If anything, the game is decidedly and unapologetically unfair (look no further than the usurpation of its most prized record by arguably its most detested villain). Three things are guaranteed in baseball: the law of averages will ultimately prevail; adequate training, preparation and reverence for the law of averages will increase your likelihood of success; none of this will prevent baseball from absolutely fucking you if given the slightest opportunity. Regardless of how great a ball player you may be, you will at some point lose a pop-up in the sun or catch a bad-hop on the chin. You'll look like an ass. You'll feel like an ass. But God help you if you sulk about it for longer than five seconds and incur the back-of-the-dugout bark of J.A. Delaney. You'll move on and keep working hard, or your ass will ride the pine.

Even at its most basic level, at its very foundation, the game is centered around teaching people to cope with failure. The one concession the haters always make is that there is nothing in all of sports more difficult than hitting a baseball. And it's true! The 236 players in the Hall of Fame rock a collective batting average just over .300. If you are an American football fan or a recent graduate with an MFA in Screenwriting and dilapidated arithmetic skills that need to be brushed up with the help of your gifted, brilliant roommate so you can pass your CBEST, I'll make it easy for you: that means even the greats - the Musials, the Yastrzemskis, the Mantles - reached base safely on a hit only 3 out of every 10 at bats. More pertinently, they failed to do so 7 times in the same span. I suppose the argument could be made that no one really succeeds in baseball, but some men persevere. Those are the guys with their statues outside the stadium. Theirs are the careers we celebrate and immortalize in legend. In no other sport is this the case.

For example, here's Arizona Cardinal wide-receiver, 6-time Pro Bowler and all-around beast, Larry Fitzgerald, taking some batting practice with the cross-town Diamondbacks. Dude is very definitely one of the preeminent professional athletes of now, so you might notice something very peculiar about this video. It could be the dozen dropped-shoulder whiffs he takes before finally ripping one past the L-screen at the 1:17 mark. Or perhaps it's because you very faintly remember Prince Fielder's portly ass partaking in a similar exercise about a month ago when he launched 28 baseballs into Low Earth orbit at the Home Run Derby.  Either way, you probably caught yourself rooting alongside Kurt Gibson (confirmed traitor) when Larry starts to rally around 2:30 before realizing he was turning 60 MPH fast straightballs into tailor-made double-play balls (seriously, the guy's a machine).It's pretty tough to watch someone who has likely never been bad at anything in the athletic realm for longer than 60 seconds do so poorly at this. To his credit, he's a good sport about it; but you can tell dude thought he was gonna stroll in and be on that '97 Griffey Jr. grind. And that just does not happen.

So, the next time you start in on the inordinate extent to which you were wronged by getting cut during freshman baseball tryouts, take a step back and realize you're probably about to sound like a pantywaist  in front of whomever you're speaking to. Because it could be so much worse. You could have actually been talented, and you could have made that team. You could have been a stud and been inducted into the CIF Hall of Fame. And you could have been drafted by the Dodgers in the second round. After tearing it up in the minor leagues for a season or two, you could have been called up to The Show as a twenty-year-old. And then for the next twenty years, you could have had a remarkably solid, if not Hall of Fame worthy, career wherein you batted a respectable .289, amassed over 2,700 hits and even snagged a batting title, to say nothing of your .991 career fielding percentage.

... And you could be remembered for none of it. Because of one botched play, because of one soft hop, you could have negated it all and subsequently had your name reduced to a common noun synonymous with notoriously failing in the clutch. You could then spend the rest of your life being remembered (or in New England, hated) for that and that only.

You could be bill (fucking) buckner.

Know that Bill Buckner is the man. For 26 years he has been the only person to look at that play for what it ultimately was: an error. There was a lot behind it, sure. It was the World Series. They were one out away from winning their first since before your grandparents were a twinkle in your great-grandparents' eyes. The guy never deserved to be the scapegoat, though: he didn't blow the lead in Game 6, he didn't lose them the ensuing Game 7 (he went 2-4 with a run scored), and he damn sure didn't sell Babe Ruth to the Yankees. Buckner put forth a gritty and gutsy career, and he's internalized the mindset consistent with someone who has viewed most of their life through the prism of our national pastime. It's one that knows to err is unavoidable, but that how or how-often you do is less relevant than whether your missteps are rectified in due time through dogged effort and good deeds. For a quarter-century, Buckner's bore that undue burden and all-the-while been pretty unabashed about telling tight-assed, silver spoon crybaby BoSox fans to search their souls, find their inner bowls-of-dick and gobble up. 

And that's about as American as apple pie.

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