Saturday, September 18, 2004

This is Not a Post about Football

I am reminded of Rene Magritte’s famous painting of a pipe with the words “This is not a pipe” appearing on the canvas.

This is not a post about football.

Nearly all sports fans, rabid and casual divisions included, will agree professional football has supplanted baseball as the national pastime. In Philadelphia, the buzz in anticipation of the Eagles’ opener was nothing less than extraordinary. Sold-out preseason games (including the final one in which it was announced beforehand not a single projected starter would see any action), pep rallies, and pilgrims by the thousands trekking to the team’s training facilities at Lehigh University (a two and half hour roundtrip from Philadelphia) testify to the unbridled mania that has taken hold.

Football fever reached such epidemic proportions here that even had the Phillies been in the pennant race the Eagles would still be the overwhelming choice among sports fans. (In the clearest sign yet that the Phillies season is all but officially over, the Philadelphia Inquirer has not placed game coverage on the front page of its Sports section for several days. In today’s edition a profile does appear on the first page about the Eagles' middle linebacker Mark Simoneau and focuses in its opening section on his baseball card collection. Talk about your ironies.) Meanwhile, over at the NHL, which locked out its players Wednesday night, the Flyers John LeClair was quoted as saying no one in Philadelphia would particularly miss the team given how obsessed everyone is with the Eagles. Mind you, Philadelphia is a very good hockey town by any standard. LeClair’s remark didn’t contain a hint of animosity or jealousy; he was merely stating the facts.

Against this backdrop I cannot figure out how this shift came to pass because, frankly, football is not nearly as interesting a game as baseball. (Pardon me while I remove my cap and don a helmet in anticipation of the responses I am about to receive.)

The usual explanations for football’s popularity – the appeal of its violence, the fewer number of games played, the notion there is more action – don’t convince me altogether but have some merit. Of all these, the number of home games in a regular season, eight, is the most compelling. Eight makes for a much more precious commodity than eighty-one. Still, I’d sooner believe the argument that a passion for pre-game tailgating is the pivotal reason. (I have no doubt the pre-game tailgating party replete with elaborate barbeque grill and free-flowing beverages of a questionable persuasion followed by a game of big hits makes the entire Sunday outing a special occasion for many.)

Then there is television, which has played a huge role in making football what it is today. With football tickets extremely difficult to come by, television remains the access point for an overwhelming majority of fans. Though I haven’t been to a professional football game since Johnny Unitas was in his prime, I do recall feeling the action always seemed too far away most of the time to really enjoy the game in person. Television coverage does a far better job of following the action and showing us angles, details and, of course, instant replays that would never be visible to spectators in the stands. Indeed, television is the preferred observation post for watching football. Even the rules-makers love television having incorporated replays into the game itself with official challenges and on-field reviews by the referees. The medium has also spawned its own football institutions, the most visible being the Monday Night Football phenomenon.

While television plays an important role in baseball as well, if a fan is truly interested in seeing the alignments before, during and after a pitch and the resultant realignments depending on what transpires, there is no place like a seat at the ballpark to do so. Some may prefer to see the strike zone from the normal just off dead-centerfield perspective baseball broadcasts favor but one cannot fully appreciate a stolen base, triple or outfield assist (including relay) unless they are present.

As for the relative amount of action in each sport, television again reveals a huge difference. In football, the stoppages on the field for referee times out, injuries, to move the chains, times out by coaches, change of ends, breaks between scoring and subsequent kickoffs are all transformed into endless commercial breaks. The game is chopped up into hundreds of segments. Baseball, to be sure, has its commercial breaks between innings or when there is a pitching change, but the camera stays with the game for longer stretches than in football and offers something of a flow.

The argument I hear most often concerns the amount of action in the two sports, and on the front many critics argue baseball is boring, that too much time is spent peering in for signs, stepping out of the batter’s box or the like. A parallel argument these critics make is that there is proportionally too little action in baseball for total amount of game time compared to football. Some people want the game speeded up (which baseball itself has addressed over the years); others couldn’t care how much faster the games are played; they still find it boring.

The counter offensive argues that all of the strategy and gamesmanship of baseball occurs during these intervals and that the true nuances of the game are to be found in the moments of inaction just before things happen. Nuance, of course, is not real big in our culture any longer. It went out sometime around the period when patience and tolerance were also lost.

From my perspective, the intervals in baseball promote commentary and comparisons of players in a game whose statistics and individual performances are both richer and more embedded in the collective consciousness than with football. How many people can cite the quarterback with the greatest number of TD passes (game, season or career) and the actual numbers? Beyond the magical 1000-yard rushing figure, who can name the runners who hold the records and state with certainty the exact totals? Baseball, on the other hand, has too many magical numbers to list. Let sixty, then seventy, then seventy-three home runs suffice, not to mention 700, 714 and 755.

But where baseball really stands out is in its ability to involve the fan in its strategies. The football fan looks at a baseball field and sees a lot of guys standing around who, every once and a while, break a sweat. The informed baseball fan sees much more. Take the following example: An excellent base-stealer is on first, a right-handed pull hitter is at the plate, there are less than two outs and the team at bat trails by one run in the late innings playing on the road. What do the managers do? Play for a tie on the road? Start the runner and if so on what count? Hit and run? Hold the runner? Ignore the runner altogether and concentrate on the batter? Pitch out? Is the batter a good contact hitter or is he a free-swinger? Since the second baseman is the obvious choice to cover on an attempted steal (remember, the batter is a right-handed pull hitter), can our batter be counted on to hit behind the runner? And what about the pitcher? Is he a fastball pitcher (good for the catcher, bad for the runner) or does he rely on his breaking ball (bad for catcher, good for runner)? All of these possibilities and more may not constitute action to the football enthusiast, but they create tension and expectation and will all come together simultaneously as the pitcher takes his sign from the catcher, the runner takes his lead and the batter digs in at the plate. To appreciate all these subtle actions and reactions is to revel in baseball’s peerless ability to involve the spectator in the game’s fundamental progress and outcome.

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