Tuesday, February 5, 2013

Top Ten Reasons Baseball is Better Than Football

The Super Bowl is over, and the 2012 NFL season is finally finished.  Good riddance.  Pitchers and catchers report in less than a week, a fact that gets my blood racing and brings a smile to my face.  Despite the cold weather here in New Jersey, I am getting in the mood for baseball.  I am about to pre-order the Baseball Prospectus guide to the 2013 season, a now yearly ritual for me.  I am also about to tear into two other baseball books I've been saving for this occasion.

Why the NFL continues to be America's most popular spectator sport is beyond me, I'd much rather watch basketball (pro or college), college football (which is much more interesting), soccer (especially the international variety), hockey, and of course, baseball.  America's past-time gets put down all the time for its supposed boring and slow nature -most famously by George Carlin- but I can come with several reasons for baseball's superiority, of which I will only list ten.

1. The Ballpark. Going to the ballpark is a total experience and much more fulfilling than going to the gridiron for a football match. In the first place, the weather is better, warmer, and certainly more condusive to sitting outside. (Baseball's seasonal arc is certainly more compelling: it begins in Spring when life returns, continues through the hot summer, and ends in October when the leaves fall and nature goes dormant. It's the one sport whose season mimics the human life cycle which might be why it produces so much good literature.) The food is invariably better, and you don't have to try eating your hotdog with gloves on. I can't quantify it, but the atmosphere at the ballpark always seems more relaxed, more welcoming. Perhaps it's the rhythms of the players warming up and throwing the ball to each other, or the satisfying crack of the bat during BP that creates such a vibe. And yet this experience is considerably more affordable than going to an NFL game and watching a bunch of genetic (and pharmacological) freaks beat the living crap out of each other. Also, unless you're in the press box, it's impossible to see all the action on the field at a football game.

2. Artistic Inspiration. Baseball has fired the imaginations of great and lesser artists, whereas football seems to deaden them. It would be impossible to list all the great books, films, and songs that have been inspired by baseball, but here's just a few: Field of Dreams, Ladies and Gentlemen, the Bronx is Burning, Bull Durham, The Natural, Eight Men Out, The Bad News Bears, The Bad Guys Won, Major League (very funny and under-rated), Ball Four (the best first hand account ever written by an athlete), Moneyball, "Centerfield," "Casey at the Bat," Cheers (Sam Malone was a former pitcher, after all) and  Eastbound and Down, I have an anthology of baseball writing from the American Library that also has great passages inspired by baseball from top-flight authors such as Philip Roth, Don DeLillo, Nelson Algren, James T. Ferrell, John Updike, and Amiri Baraka. On his radio show, Bob Dylan managed to get a whole hour out of songs with baseball themes. Could you fill a literary anthology or a theme-time radio hour with artistry inspired by football? No way. Only boxing comes close in this regard.

3. History. Baseball has a sense of history irresistable to yours truly. Its history is inextricably tied to that of the nation's, whether that history be honorable or shameful: the 1919 Black Sox with the corrupt Harding administration, Jackie Robinson with the civil rights movement (which his efforts helped inspire), the "Gentleman's Agreement" and turn of the century racism, American imperialism and the spread of the game, Curt Flood and sixties rebellion, the Dodgers, Athletics, Braves, and Giants moving south and west with the postwar Rust Belt etc. Its rich history is also just a pleasure to delve into and explore, perhaps why it generates much more interesting books than any other American sport.

4. Player Treatment. Yes, it is ridiculous that left handed middle relief pitchers can get paid millions of dollars, but less of a travesty than the NFL players who have been debilitated and physically wrecked by their playing experience are told "let them eat cake" by their OWN UNION! These players risk life and limb without even guaranteed contracts, get sent out to play after suffering multiple concussions, and on top of it, their average career lasts about four years. All the while that it pleads poverty in paying better pensions to physically mutilated veterans, the NFL has mastered the art of funneling massive sums of money into the pockets of its owners.

5. The World Series. Let's face it, the Super Bowl sucks ass. The most exciting thing to happen at a Super Bowl in the last ten years was Janet Jackson's boob coming loose during the half-time show. Is there any other sport where the championship is such a consistent let down? And yet is there any other championship so cravenly hyped and laden with media overload? The World Series, on the other hand, occurs right after the playoffs and goes on for two weeks of high tension and high-stakes competition. Even a seven game series is over in less the time it takes for the NFL to stage its bloated event after the conference championship games. On top of all that, the games are just more exciting. I can probably think of five "classic" Super Bowls in my lifetime, there were at least as many classic games within the 1986 or 1991 World Series alone. No Super Bowl moment even touches things like Carlton Fisk's homer, Bill Buckner's error, Joe Carter's homer, Jack Morris' 1991 game 7 pitching performance, Paul Konerko's 2005 grand slam, or (especially) Kirk Gibson's homer in game one of the 1988 series.

6. The Seventh Inning Stretch. Speaking of halftime shows, they are ALWAYS lame, and halftime itself is just the longest of several breaks in the action in a typical NFL game.  It's yet another opportunity for advertisers to make their pitch, and for fans to keep gorging themselves on junk food.   There's no halftime in baseball, and the lack of a clock might also contribute to the more relaxed vibe at the ballpark, a place where the people of the world can forget about the demands of time for awhile. Instead, baseball has the seventh inning stretch, perfectly placed about the time fans' asses are getting sore. The communal ritual of singing "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" never fails to lift my spirit, instead of passively watching "entertainers" on the field, the fans themselves participate and sing a song that celebrates the fun they're having at the ballpark.

7. Umpiring. Though the NFL sits atop the American sporting hierarchy it chooses a bunch of near-sighted geriatrics to referee its games, and then constantly throws their authority into question with interminable instant replay judgements. (Based on these frequent stops in action how can anyone say baseball moves slowly in comparison to the NFL?) The majors, on the other hand, have a highly professionalized cadre that it recently has done much to improve by purging bad umps a few years ago and using computer technology to enforce a more consistent strike zone. I also like that the umps are a real presence in the game: they prepare the balls and hand them out in the game, they let the managers engage in arguments with them, they are more likely to throw someone out of a game etc. This is only tangentially related, but the cumbersome and multifarious NFL rulebook (which must be about as thick as the tax code) doesn't help things either. It creates a legalistic environment and constant useless arguments over things like the "tuck rule."  The NFL's lockout of the refs this year also showed how little the league values quality officiating.

8. International Players. Baseball has profited greatly from its international appeal, many of the league's best and most beloved players hail from Japan, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Mexico, Venezuela, and many other nations. This means that the general talent pool in baseball is much stronger, and it gives the game a more cosmopolitan character utterly lacking in football. (It should come as no surprise that Chevy used to run its ridiculously nationalistic "This is Our Country" ads primarily during football games.) It also makes it much more representative of the society that America is becoming.

9. Fantasy Baseball. Yes, this marks me as a bit of a sports dork, but I much prefer fantasy baseball over fantasy football. For one, I get to follow fantasy baseball each and every day of the season, it literally gets me out of bed in the morning so I can see how my team is doing. (hey, whatever it takes to get me moving!) Fantasy football infuriates me to boot, mostly becuase of the NFL's arcane injury rating system ("probable," "doubtful," "questionable") which often makes it impossible to know which players will start. On top of that, touchdowns determine the fate of fantasy football teams which rewards players who happen to be lucky. Finally, fantasy baseball requires better skill; it takes more than just one Adrian Peterson to win, and I've seen teams with players in the Top Five finish low in the standings because a fantasy baseball owner needs to build a complete team to compete.

10. Violence and its Consequences.  Football is a violent sport, and the awful toll of that violence is becoming much more vivd these days.  Football has always caused the kinds of horrific injuries that ruin lives at a rate far surpassing baseball, or any other sport aside from boxing and UFC. Many of the players suffering permanent brain damage don't even make the pros, they have their futures ruined playing for college teams that make plenty of money but only have a marginal interest in those who generate it for them. The concussion issue is much, much, more serious than steroids; we should stop holding football to a lower standard than baseball because of our misbegotten notions about the "purity" of the latter sport.  Plenty of other players, who do not suffer the suicidal depression of Junior Seau after getting their brains turned to mush, end up barely able to walk, or with their lives cut short.  Should we really expect other people to endure these things for our amusement?

No comments: