As a kid, finding a baseball diamond is never more than a mile or so away. You grow up with it; it’s both a landscape of childhood and a landmark on the American topograhy. And the relationship a boy has with his mitt, my God! Reams of poetry can be written about it. Sheer memoirs can reflect back upon it. Not everyone can have a pet dog, but a well-oiled and broken in mitt – there are few unions in life so holy. Nobody feels that way about footballs or helmets. Regardless, you can’t really just invent a football field – how do you determine ten yards or out of bounds? You can play catch, which is fine, but it’s as far removed from the real thing as two guys talking about picking up chicks than actually being in bed with the women the night before.
Meaningful semantics: the object of baseball is to go home – and do so in a safe manner. For football it’s some sort of weird, intergalactic area called “the end zone.” This is wonky jargon better suited for astrophysicists, the likes of “event horizon” or “reentry interface” than the pursuit of boyhood romps. But before that lies a precisely measured out, zero-imagination rectangle – coldly called “the gridiron.” Baseball fields, by contrast, can vary with considerable variety – between 302’-355’ on the foul lines and 390’-435’ at center field; they’re creative and harmlessly mischievous like that. In other words, football is for squares, but baseball is puckish.
(And if you wanted to extrapolate sexuated symbolism, the baseball diamond, up to and including the infield and home plate, is not so far off from a woman’s womb. From there it’s easy to think of bats and balls and homeruns…)
If the score is tied — everyone gone home the same amount of times, resulting in “extra innings” (which sounds like a fun bonus in and of itself, like extra sprinkles or chocolate syrup) — it’s not, as in many sports, some sort of drastic sudden death do-or-die scenario. No, as usual in this the great pastime in the land of democracy, both sides receive equal opportunity, fair play with no favors. If one side gets a run, the other side has a chance to do the same.
One thing football has over baseball, when you’re a kid, is being able to play by yourself, insofar as being at one and the same time quarterback and receiver. With baseball you need a whole group of pals for it to work. I’m sure I spent whole accumulated years being quarterback/receiver as a boy in my front yard of my mother’s suburban New Jersey Cape house. The line of scrimmage was the driveway, preferably with mom’s Datsun out of the way, the end zone the property line of my next-door neighbor (whose cages of rose bushes I had to avoid trampling upon). Each throw had to be carefully threaded through the space between the electric and telephone wires and arc from driveway to neighbor’s yard, allowing me enough time to tear after it. When I think about it, I can still smell the dried grass scent of doing this a billion, billion times with a hot pink-and-black Nerf football, for each catch required the greatest of gravity-defeating leaps, each leading to me land in a tumble to the ground below, ball tucked into my craw like a mama bear with its cub (and no roses disturbed). It was always in overtime, the caught ball the winning touchdown, the super bowl, whatever it took. As fun as this sounds, my point actually is I spent A LOT of time alone doing it. I am certain that my awkward social skills and discomfort meeting new people today would have fared a far different outcome had I played more baseball as a kid.
You can still be actually good when you’re in your 40s in baseball. If you tried this in football you’d leave the stadium on a stretcher.
Baseball has the Cubs. Football the bears. And when you go to Wrigley Field (named after gum, by the way), you don’t really care if the Cubs lose; you expect them to; but still a great time is had. You sit in the sun and drink beer — even if it’s shitty, overpriced beer, it still tastes pretty good. Because it’s summer. If you can afford to attend a Bears game at Soldiers Field (which name automatically sounds menacing), you’re gonna be plenty pissed off if you sat in the freezing cold and wind just to watch the team lose. (And here the beer, together with the cold, just makes you have to pee a lot — and good luck waiting on restroom lines.) Also in football you have a team called the “Redskins.” Unless there’s a farm league outfit called the Honkies or the Wetbacks I don’t know about, it just doesn’t get more racist than that! The Washington (i.e., D.C.) Redskins, representing the capital of the USA. And their archrivals are the Cowboys, from Dallas, Texas, aka “America’s team.” Cowboys and Injuns. Baseball’s got the Yankees and Red Sox, the curse of the bambino. Period.
Baseball has Bob Uecker. Football had Brent Musburger. And I’m pretty damn certain Bob Uecker would never call two Olympic medallists “black-skinned storm troopers,” as Musburger had in reference to the ‘68 Games when Tommie Smith and John Carlos took to the podium (gold and bronze medals respectively) with their fists held high, their heads bowed down.
Moreover, baseball has play-by-play announcers whose rich, crisp voices rival that psst-kuh-tuh! sound of a cracked-open beer on a hot summer day. Here’s Walters with the one-two pitch… Or Riviera lines one deep into left field, and it’s going, going…gone, that baby’s outta here! Even when not on the radio, but TV, still that electric voice carries the air. What does football have? A bunch of grown-up frat boys – that is, if you can hear him over the roar of the collective mass thirsting for the blood of either the Christians or lions. And you can still listen to a ballgame on the radio, whether you’re making a pie in the kitchen or working on an engine in the garage. It’s still great. You just don’t do this with football.
The halls of fame. This one is so obvious it almost hurts. The one for football is located in Canton, Ohio, a small city of some 73,000 (that is home also to the burial site of President William McKinley). The hall of fame is about five feet from a fast-paced major highway, the busy, blurry I-77. Here is a picture of the place:
The ugly damn thing looks like a cross between a failed rocket launch, a poorly designed homage either to the Pope or the Coneheads, some fulsome phallic-Masonic temple, and rec hall of a church. Next door is Fawcett Stadium, where the pro forma Pro Football Hall of Fame Game is played, a meaningless event that signals the beginning of pre-season.
By contrast, the Baseball Hall of Fame is plumb in the heart of Americana — Cooperstown, a village of under 2,000 in upstate New York — and 90 miles away from the nearest airport.
Incomparable. It calls to mind a hallowed lecture hall of an Ivy League school. As you should expect, it is located on Main Street and sits two blocks from a picturesque lake that is the source of the Susquehanna River. Also two blocks away is Doubleday Field, which was reconstructed by the Works Project Administration. What heralds the beginning of baseball? Spring, the eternal return of light and warmth, rebirth and bliss. And people refer to the Hall of Fame simply as “Cooperstown,” the way you do “The White House” when referring to the President. No one calls Canton anything.
Let’s face it: the refs in football look ridiculous, like some kind of tiny stock creature from The Wizard of Oz. It’s simply impossible to take seriously or have respect for any profession in white pants. (They’re knickers for crying out loud!) By demonstrable contrast, the umpires in baseball are the real deal: sports jackets and crisply pressed trousers, plus they’re big, burly men. They could be mobsters. Or the Judges from the Old Testament. They’re colossuses, patriarchs, flinty and Sphinx-like. They’re impressive, they’re formidable, they’re not to be fucked around with. The refs in football stick their arms out in the air like mechanical toys when there’s a touchdown. It’s pretty wimpy. What’s cooler than calling a man out with that knock-’em sock-’em arm motion? Or getting to say, “Steeee-RIKE!”
And in baseball you sacrifice fly or bunt with the sole purpose of advancing another teammate already on base further to home. Or get credit for earned runs average, where thanks to your effort another team member goes home!
Also, if only three out of ten throws are completed, you’re incompetent. In baseball, you’re a damn good hitter. Consider this with any club or bar or cocktail party or whatever in terms of flirtatiousness. A man will strike out pitilessly trying to buy drinks or court any number of women til he’s finally successful with one. And now apply the basics with which we all came to terms since puberty: 1st base, 2nd base, 3rd base, or a home run. The dynamic between pitcher and batter is so headily nuanced, it’s positively thrilling, with more wiles than the natural world. Not even rutting elks or blue-footed boobies have such elaborate courtship rituals. Chess is not without its fake-outs, bluffs, snares, and stratagems, but that’s all daycare play next to three balls and two strikes with a man on second, one out, bottom of the ninth, visiting team up by one; throw another ball in hopes of luring the batter to swing, or a calculated risk to walk the guy and force two men on base? Or throw one down the middle because the batter wouldn’t expect that? But what if he swings? So much at stake, so many, many variables. It’s like that actuarial predicament the “inconceivable!” guy in The Princess Bride faces when there are two goblets he can choose to drink from – one (he’s told) with poison, the other not – and he spends what seems like an eternity ratiocinating the pros and cons, logical and counterintuitive, predictable and random, so forth and so on. (Both are poisoned, in the end.)
Together with this is the bond between the catcher and the pitcher, like that of two girlfriends: the former looking out for and trying to advise the latter against the intentions of the suitor-batter. (The catcher, meanwhile, hovers in the background quietly, contemplatively, like a bouncer in a club.) And like a slapping a man who gets too fresh, the pitcher can always hit the batter with the ball…
As literature, a football game is like a book of Hemingway short stories: very linear, short, manly, and truncated, with a direct, sequential goal towards a fleeting climax. Baseball’s like a whole Tolstoy novel or Shakespearean play, with countless subplots and subterfuges, legendary figures, minor roles, digressions, asides, back and forth he-said/ she-saids, critical moments, denouements, the whole package. (Basketball’s poetry, and soccer an epic poem, but those are other stories for another time.)
Or think of the relationship between bullfighter and bull. The matador flicks his wrist to twist the cape/ball, enticing the bull/batter to swing its head/bat this way and that, in the end exhausting it, so that the inning/corrida can be retired. It’s quite simply the most romantic, most coy con game in the history of humankind. But sometimes a bull/batter gets the better of the pitcher/matador, swings for one of the arced tosses with horn/bat making deadly contact, and wounds the pride of him who wears tights whose face is half-veiled (by glove or cape), who now prances around the dirt as the crowd goes wild.
As for the actual game of football, there is absolutely no scenario in real life – except warfare – where the lessons on the gridiron offer anything, sorry. Chess offers the same (and then some) without all the gratuitous violence or corporate sponsorship.
How many good football movies are there? How many movies — in any sport — come close to The Natural? (OK, OK, there’s Slap Shot; and if anyone can oust Robert Redford in rugged handsomeness it’s Paul Newman.)
And with The Natural in mind, there is quite possibly nothing on earth so magnificently spectacular, so absolutely fantastic — the utter stuff which boyhood dreams are made of — than a home run, on a full count, with two outs, in the bottom of the ninth or in extra innings, when your team is down, and you’re playing at home. To be fair and sure, Hail Mary completions that win a game are quite stupendous; but let’s face it: they’re largely a matter of luck (they’re called Hail Marys for a reason), and they’re predicated on desperation besides. A home run, however, is nothing less than an act of sublime glory. Indeed, it is something holy, even salvific. Heroes are made of it — those lone warriors who saved the city from ruin. Football, along with its meaty collisions of crunched flesh, helmet anonymity, and blurred lines between men and metric yards, displays little individuality, which makes it hard to relate to. Without that ability to relate to the person, being a spectator becomes a more intellectually mimetic experience. Hide Hamlet in full football regalia, and you wouldn’t give a damn about what’s so rotten in Denmark. The audience — which is what fans are in the end — need to personalize the passion, need to feel it emotionally. Baseball is a pageant of the individual, and there is no finer proscenium for this than rounding the bases with that gallant’s gallop.
But the man who said it best, of course, is the late, great George Carlin. Enjoy!
Second to Carlin only is the wonderful, witty sports columnist for the Washington Post, Thomas Boswell, who in 1987 penned a piece entitled “99 Why Baseball Is So Much Better Than Football.” Below is an abridged list.
# 1 Bands.
# 2 Half time with bands.
# 3 Cheerleaders at half time with bands.
# 9 Baseball has a bullpen coach blowing bubble gum with his cap turned around backward while leaning on a fungo bat; football has a defensive coordinator in a satin jacket with a headset and a clipboard.
# 11 Football players and coaches don’t know how to bait a ref, much less jump up and down and scream in his face. Baseball players know how to argue with umps; baseball managers even kick dirt on them. Earl Weaver steals third base and won’t give it back; Tom Landry folds his arms.
# 13 Football coaches talk about character, gut checks, intensity and reckless abandon. Tommy Lasorda said, “Managing is like holding a dove in your hand. Squeeze too hard and you kill it; not hard enough and it flies away.”
# 20 Eighty degrees, a cold beer and a short-sleeve shirt is better than 30 degrees, a hip flask and six layers of clothes under a lap blanket. Take your pick: suntan or frostbite.
# 21 Having 162 games a year is 10.125 times as good as having 16.
# 22 If you miss your favorite NFL team’s game, you have to wait a week. In baseball, you wait a day.
# 23 Everything George Carlin said in his famous monologue is right on. In football you blitz, bomb, spear, shiver, march and score. In baseball, you wait for a walk, take your stretch, toe the rubber, tap your spikes, play ball and run home.
# 24 Marianne Moore loved Christy Mathewson. No woman of quality has ever preferred football to baseball.
# 28 All gridirons are identical; football coaches never have to meet to go over the ground rules. But the best baseball parks are unique.
# 30 The coin flip at the beginning of football games is idiotic. Home teams should always kick off and pick a goal to defend. In baseball, the visitor bats first (courtesy), while the host bats last (for drama). The football visitor should get the first chance to score, while the home team should have the dramatic advantage of receiving the second-half kickoff.
# 32 Face masks. Right away we’ve got a clue something might be wrong. A guy can go 80 mph on a Harley without a helmet, much less a face mask. And # 33: Faces are better than helmets. Think of all the players in the NFL (excluding Redskins) whom you’d recognize on the street. Now eliminate the quarterbacks. Not many left, are there? Now think of all the baseball players whose faces you know, just from the last Series.
# 38 What kind of dim-bulb sport would rank pass receivers by number of catches instead of by number of yards? Only in football would a runner with 1,100 yards on 300 carries be rated ahead of a back with 1,000 yards on 200 carries. Does baseball give its silver bat to the player with the most hits or with the highest average?
# 40 Baseball has one designated hitter. In football, everybody is a designated something. No one plays the whole game anymore. Football worships the specialists. Baseball worships the generalists.
# 41 The tense closing seconds of crucial baseball games are decided by distinctive relief pitchers. Vital NFL games are decided by helmeted gentlemen who come on for 10 seconds, kick sideways, spend the rest of the game keeping their precious foot warm on the sidelines and aren’t aware of the subtleties of the game. Half of them, in Alex Karras’ words, run off the field chirping, “I kick a touchdown.”
# 44 Wild cards. If baseball can stick with four divisional champs out of 26 teams, why does the NFL need to invite 10 of its 28 to the prom? Could it be that football isn’t terribly interesting unless your team can still “win it all”?
# 45 The entire NFL playoff system is a fraud. Go on, explain with a straight face why the Chiefs (10-6) were in the playoffs but the Seahawks (10-6) were not. There is no real reason. Seattle was simply left out for convenience. When baseball tried the comparably bogus split-season fiasco with half-season champions in 1981, fans almost rioted.
# 47 Baseball has no penalty for pass interference. (This in itself is almost enough to declare baseball the better game.) In football, offsides is five yards, holding is 10 yards, a personal foul is 15 yards. But interference: maybe 50 yards.
# 48 Nobody on earth really knows what pass interference is. Part judgment, part acting, mostly accident.
# 49 Baseball has no penalties at all. A home run is a home run. You cheer. In football, on a score, you look for flags. If there’s one, who’s it on? When can we cheer? Football acts can all be repealed. Baseball acts stand forever.
# 59 Football has the Refrigerator. Baseball has Puff the Magic Dragon, The Wizard of Oz, Tom Terrific, Big Doggy, Kitty Kaat, and Oil Can.
# 60 Football is impossible to watch. Admit it: The human head is at least two eyes shy for watching the forward pass. Do you watch the five eligible receivers? Or the quarterback and the pass rush? If you keep your eye on the ball, you never know who got open or how. If you watch the receivers . . . well, nobody watches the receivers. On TV, you don’t even know how many receivers have gone out for a pass.
# 62 In the NFL, you can’t tell the players without an Intensive Care Unit report. Players get broken apart so fast we have no time to build up allegiances to stars. Three-quarters of the NFL’s starting quarterbacks are in their first four years in the league. Is it because the new breed is better? Or because the old breed is already lame? A top baseball player lasts 15 to 20 years. We know him like an old friend.
# 63 The baseball Hall of Fame is in Cooperstown, N.Y., beside James Fenimore Cooper’s Lake Glimmerglass; the football Hall of Fame is in Canton, Ohio, beside the freeway.
# 64 Baseball means Spring’s Here. Football means Winter’s Coming.
# 71 A typical baseball game has nine runs, more than 250 pitches and about 80 completed plays — hits, walks, outs — in 2½ hours. A typical football game has about five touchdowns, a couple of field goals and fewer than 150 plays spread over three hours. Of those plays, perhaps 20 or 25 result in a gain or loss of more than 10 yards. Baseball has more scoring plays, more serious scoring threats and more meaningful action plays.
# 72 Baseball has no clock. Yes, you were waiting for that. The comeback, from three or more scores behind, is far more common in baseball than football.
# 73 The majority of players on a football field in any game are lost and unaccountable in the middle of pileups. Confusion hides a multitude of sins. Every baseball player’s performance and contribution are measured and recorded in every game.
# 77 Unbelievably stupid rules. For example, if the two-minute warning passes, any play that begins even a split second thereafter is nullified. Even, as happened in this season’s Washington-San Francisco game, when it’s the decisive play of the entire game. And even when, as also happened in that game, not one of the 22 players on the field is aware that the two-minute mark has passed. The Skins stopped the 49ers on fourth down to save that game. They exulted; the 49ers started off the field. Then the refs said, “Play the down over.” Absolutely unbelievable.
# 78 In baseball, fans catch foul balls. In football, they raise a net so you can’t even catch an extra point.
# 79 Nothing in baseball is as boring as the four hours of ABC’s “Monday Night Football.”
# 81 Football players, somewhere back in their phylogenic development, learned how to talk like football coaches. (“Our goals this week were to contain Dickerson and control the line of scrimmage.”) Baseball players say things like, “This pitcher’s so bad that when he comes in, the grounds crew drags the warning track.”
# 82 Football coaches walk across the field after the game and pretend to congratulate the opposing coach. Baseball managers head right for the beer.
# 83 The best ever in each sport – Babe Ruth and Jim Brown — each represents egocentric excess. But Ruth never threw a woman out a window.
# 84 Quarterbacks have to ask the crowd to quiet down. Pitchers never do.
# 87 Football has two weeks of hype before the Super Bowl. Baseball takes about two days off before the World Series.
# 88 Football, because of its self-importance, minimizes a sense of humor. Baseball cultivates one. Knowing you’ll lose at least 60 games every season makes self-deprecation a survival tool.
# 89 Football is played best full of adrenaline and anger. Moderation seldom finds a place. Almost every act of baseball is a blending of effort and control; too much of either is fatal.
# 90 Football’s real problem is not that it glorifies violence, though it does, but that it offers no successful alternative to violence. In baseball, there is a choice of methods: the change-up or the knuckleball, the bunt or the hit-and-run.
# 92 Turning the car radio dial on a summer night.
# 93 George Steinbrenner learned his baseball methods as a football coach.
# 94 You’ll never see a woman in a fur coat at a baseball game.
# 95 You’ll never see a man in a fur coat at a baseball game.
# 96 A six-month pennant race. Football has nothing like it.
# 98 When a baseball player gets knocked out, he goes to the showers. When a football player gets knocked out, he goes to get X-rayed.
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So, yes, even though both the Brewers and the Tigers lost in the post-season, baseball remains the best game in town. Go Cardinals!