Monday, March 31, 2008

Baseball?...the best sport?...yeah, well...sez you.

For those of you with a political commentary bent, you are probably familiar with the commentary of E.J. Dionne of the Washington Post.

In this silliest of seasons in which the Republic is desperately trying to figure out who shall stand as the major parties' candidates for its highest office, E.J. takes a turn down another road in his "Precinct" discussion at the Post. He forms his thesis in a question...

To wit..."Is baseball the best sport?"
The baseball season dawns, a great thing for many of us. I disgree with my colleague George Will on many questions, but I love his baseball writing and his partisanship on behalf of the sport. "Baseball, which provides satisfying finality and then does it again the next day, is a severe meritocracy that illustrates the axiom that there is very little difference between men but that difference makes a big difference," he writes in a delightful column on the new season. (By the way, is that a conservative thought?) It's a risky question while so many are watching the Final Four -- though the four consist of four No. 1 seeds. (Is that a bad thing?) So please grapple with any of the questions offered in the course of this post, and the basic one: Is baseball the best sport?
Once upon a time, I would have answered in the affirmative. Baseball -- in its purest form -- is a remarkable combination of individual and group activity. A unique example of some of the most difficult skills to master in all of sport played at a leisurely pace that invites contemplation and reflection.

But that was then...

Today? No, it's not the best sport. The major league flavor of the sport is a bloated, corrupt, money-addled melodrama where as much news is made outside the diamond as on it, little of it good. It is played by too many individuals with too large a sense of entitlement, managed by too many individuals with too little imagination, chronicled by too many individuals with too little love for the game.

It still draws many -- millions, in fact -- to the stands, but perhaps more out of a sense of its grand history that its scandalized present.

Nope...even with the thrilling grand opening of Nationals Park last night, we'd still choose our "adopted" sport of ice hockey.

Skill? Hitting a round ball with a round bat, squarely, might yet be -- as Ted Williams professed -- the hardest single thing to do in sports. But we'd be hard to convince that the average major league baseball player is a superior athlete to the average NHL hockey player. While baseball requires superior hand-eye coordination, reflexes, speed and quickness, and occasionally strength, hockey requires these magnified. To that add "anticipation." Whether one thinks of it as "vision" or "hockey sense," the ability to think ahead quickly separates the hockey player from the baseball player.

There is the game itself. Both are played in the context of ever-changing geometries...the curve of a pitch, the ball played off the wall...a one-timer, the angling of a skater off the puck. But hockey is played at such a ferocious pace compared to that of baseball. Even in its slower moments, the pace of the action dazzles compared to the every-fifteen-seconds of action pace of baseball.

There is the aura of mystery that surrounds baseball that is more pretentious than it would admit. "Seamheads" who can spout obscure statistics as measures of a player's or team's effectiveness..."on-base plus slugging percentage"..."batting average with runners in scoring position after the sixth inning"..."quality starts"...the whole "Sabermetric" fog that separates the "real" baseball fan from the great unwashed. It has the clarity of pudding and divides its fans into the knowledgable and the not so.

Hockey is more egalitarian (although it is seems to be moving into its own "Sabermetric" dimension). Even the most casual fan can appreciate a big hit, an end-to-end rush, a cross-ice pass.

Once upon a time, baseball had personality. Dizzy, Pee Wee, Three-Finger, Big Train, The Scooter. It had players that dazzled on the field -- and off -- and did so leaving their own imprint of character (and they certainly were characters). These days? Players that aren't finding themselves as the subject of lurid tabloid stories suffer a cookie-cutter sameness...Alex Rodriguez is a sublime talent, and is (well, maybe) a pillar of the baseball community, but he has all the programmed personality of an animatronic display.

Hockey still has its odd balls. Goalies as a class could probably qualify (ok, you go stand in front of a net throwing yourself in front of 100-mile-an-hour pucks).

You, no doubt, could think of a dozen reasons why hockey is better. We'll boil it down to one. Baseball is the best sport one day a year -- Opening Day. Hockey has the Stanley Cup tournament...two months of unrelenting suspense and drama.

Case closed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I couldn't agree with you more, Peerless. I used to love baseball...went to many games at DC stadium as a kid, and saw hundreds of Orioles games at Memorial stadium and even Camden Yards. Loved the Prince William Pirates and all their later iterations. But I haven't been in years and don't watch it on TV. Who cares? Home runs are boring. All the players got bigger but not particularly better. Once Cal Ripken retired and Mike Mussina was traded I totally lost interest. I don't think I could name one person playing in the major leagues these days. All the MSM like George Will with their romantic notions of baseball, like all nostalgia, draw from a time that never existed, or has long been extinguished. Hockey is fast, rough, played by NFL-sized linebackers and wide receivers, and the action does not stop (much). Huddles? Endless timeouts? Save it for the wimps.

Paul R