The so-called four major sports in the United States—baseball, football, basketball, and hockey—must now make room for a fifth—soccer. The emergence of soccer has once again brought home to me the stark differences between the national pastime and the other sports.
The others have obvious similarities. All are played on a rectangular surface (hockey having rounded corners) with offensive and defensive sides. The object of each game is to score by moving a ball (or puck) down the surface.
Football differs from its cousins by lulls in the action, which lends it a likeness to baseball, however remote. Soccer, basketball, and hockey are fluid sports, the action mostly non-stop. Possession of the ball or puck is tenuous, shifting from offense to defense and back in an instant, especially in soccer and hockey where the use of hands is restricted.
The fluidity of action puts the game and its outcome in control of the players. Certainly, coaches may prepare tactics and strategy, but once the action starts, the players take over.
This is where football and baseball depart company from the other three.
They’re marked by long pauses between short bursts of action. Ball control is less tenuous, and in baseball it’s controlled absolutely—by the defense. The pauses allow time for coaches and managers to change tactics and strategy. This situational nature of football and baseball appeals to the intellect (which is not to say the other sports do not).
By the way, those critics of football who dismiss its players as overgrown morons should read an NFL playbook—a document replete with complexity. I understand the concerns about violence, but the sport has taken steps to reduce it (outlawing spearing and other acts whose purpose is to inflict pain or injury).
I like all the sports. Each has its aesthetic appeal. But I fell in love with baseball in the 1940s, and while I hate the DH and interleague play, I’ve never abandoned the game.
Unique is a word often misused and abused. It means having no like, or singular. Each of the other four sports may have its unique aspects, but none is equal to baseball in its absolute singularity. The first thing that leaps out at you is the playing field—no rectangle here, no goal to conquer by penetrating the defense. The goal, as George Carlin put it, is to go home. The field fans out from home, foul lines extending to infinity. Home is the point of a 90 degree angle framed by the graceful arc of the infield.
Three other stark differences: The defense controls the ball; an offensive player is out if he touches it in play. There is no clock; each team has an equal opportunity to score, no matter how long it takes. The pitcher is unique; he stands alone on a hill, holding the ball.
But these are differences of dimension and rules. Baseball is unique in ways that transcend the playing field. Start with its long history. Rooted deep in the 19th century, the game as we know it was played shortly after the death of James Madison (1835). That history is intertwined with American culture, in ways both good and bad. Baseball’s stain of racism led to its redemption, however late, in the struggle of Jackie Robinson, who inspired the civil rights movement.
The game’s history of corruption—from gambling and fixed games to steroid cheating—mirrors the sordid scandals of American politics. Characters mean (Dick Nixon and Ty Cobb); absurd (Donald Trump and Charles Finley); saintly (Jimmy Carter and Branch Rickey); daft (Ted Cruz and Germany Schaefer); and inspiring (Jackie Robinson and Barack Obama) populate that history.
No sport can match the output of essays, novels, movies and poetry that the national pastime has inspired. The game has been a magnet for intellectuals from its very infancy, including Walt Whitman, Mark Twain, H. L. Mencken, Bernard Malamud, Phillip Roth, John Updike, and Robert Coover, among many others.
Finally, baseball is the quiet sport, conducive to conversation. It’s a balmy evening sitting in the stands, sipping a beer with a pal at your elbow as you discuss tactics.
Or it used to be that way. Unfortunately, loud music, artificial cues to cheer, and annoying public address announcers have turned conversation into yelling match. At least in this regard, baseball resembles the other sports.