Someone once wrote that everyone is entitled to three crackpot theories. I take full advantage of this maxim; in fact I have to rotate theories. In addition to crackpot theories, though, it seems to me that everyone should be entitled to three minor vices. One of mine is watching sports. Many of my friends are shocked when they find this out about me, as if sports were reserved for the semi-literate. There are, to be sure, too many people who reserve their best energies for cheering for a team whose success they have nothing to do with, but this kind of drunkenness doesn’t legitimate a kind of teetotalism.
For a long time I thought that football was my favorite sport. I’d watch every play with peeled eyes. Baseball, on the other hand, I’d “watch” while taking a nap. It was boring to me. This attitude has changed in the past few years with the success of the local team, the Philadelphia Phillies. This, along with the famous stand up routine of the late, great George Carlin, served as a beginning to my growing conviction that baseball is by far the superior of the two sports. I don’t watch hockey, and basketball is irrelevant to me: listening to shoes squeak on a hardwood floor for two hours would put me in a straight jacket.
The most general observation to be made about baseball is that the game and its rules are designed on a human scale. So much in the game depends upon judgement calls. The umpire calls balls and strikes, and the strike zone is based in part not on strict scientific measurements but on the proportions of the batter’s body. The same is true for scoring hits and errors: It’s up to the official scorer’s opinion, and the criteria involve a subjective evaluation of the fielder’s performance. Any ball that is not fielded successfully which could have been fielded with “ordinary effort” is scored as an error. Much debate can ensue about particular decisions, but the point I’m making is that this is all so human, based upon the given circumstances of the moment.
Anyone who watches football can already anticipate the difference I wish to highlight. Football has become obsessed with scientific exactitude. Even in “judgement call” situations there is a list of material requirements for the issuing of a penalty—grabbing a facemask or a jersey, or kicking a crotch, or something like that. Then there is the question of reviewing plays, which baseball avoids except for close calls in home runs. The football officials review tape obsessively in an effort to determine exactly what happened in a given play and on what molecule of the field the ball should be placed before the next down. It’s all a joke, really; it’s impossible to be scientific with this. And there is no way that the chain gang can be that accurate, either. There is a Scientism, or you might say Objectivism, at work here which is only slightly more hilarious than the work of August Comte or Ayn Rand.
A football game is run based on a clock. It’s like working in a factory: After the first quarter, there is the smoke break; after the second quarter, a lunch break, and at the Super Bowl this usually features some pretty execrable entertainment for the masses; after the third quarter is tea, and then at the end of the game, everyone goes home. Baseball is played until the requisite number of outs are achieved. It is based on attainment, but at the same time it is more leisurely and less regimented. ”Aw, hell, let’s have a beer in the middle of the 7th inning.” It goes along with something that happens in a park rather than a coliseum. There might be execrable entertainment, but only for as long as it takes to sing the Nationalist Anthem or God Bless America, two of the most poorly constructed melodies in the history of music. But I must add that baseball organizations seem to exercise at least marginally better taste in choosing performers than the football people do. In any case the focus remains on the game; even at the World Series the music is merely a side show, and not the reason that half the television audience tunes in.
In keeping with its desire to appeal to the masses, football plays into the envious and egalitarian tendencies of mankind. Corporate decisions are made in an attempt to “level the playing field,” which is Newspeak for making sure that no team ever has routine success. It is an athletic income tax. Penalties are issued for “excessive celebration,” which extend not only to tasteless mock moonings of the audience, but even to genuine expressions of delight at scoring. In celebrating, players are not to leave the ground, a ridiculous rule if there ever was one. This reminds me of the laughable rule in public school that you couldn’t bring in a snack unless you had enough to share with the rest of the class.
This obsession with fairness simply doesn’t exist in baseball. It’s just a bunch of men spittin’ their chew out onto the grass, like men are supposed to do, while they try to beat the other team in sportsmanlike but unapologetic fashion. Baseball allows for the full spectrum of human behavior: you can steal a base, but you can also hit a sacrifice fly ball on behalf of the team, and both are accepted as equally legitimate. You can even argue with the umpire a little bit and not get thrown out of the game. Criticize an official in the NFL, though, and you get slapped with a fine.
Finally, there is the issue of mascots. Football mascots, in the main, are about death and destruction; baseball mascots are about being a hero, or at least being innocuous. Football mascots are animals that eat flesh: falcons and panthers. Baseball mascots reflect local civic pride and virtue: the Mets (Mutts), Giants, and Angels. These appeal to the better nature of man. There are exceptions to this, of course, but no baseball team is called the Cowboys, which is the most violent and ignominious character of all. If you think this is an exaggeration, just consider the recent hullabaloo over helmet spearing in the NFL: players are indicating that they’d rather risk permanent, serious, life-altering injury rather than learn the good, traditional way to tackle. Part of this argument, I’m sure, is that “the game has changed” and that the old wrap-up method of bringing down a player is no longer valid and can no longer be made useful. It’s the Marxian view of history, dumb jock style.
It dawns on me now that society these days seems, unfortunately, to be built around the football model, a model of jealousy, violence, and bad entertainment. It’s the world view which says, “Be nice to America, or we’ll bring democracy to your country”; the outlook which blames the successful for the problems of the failures; and the practically religious belief that science can solve every problem known to mankind. What a mess of overpriced hot dogs!