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Category: Sports

Inscrutable Symmetry
In some parallel universe, I was rooting for the Kansas City Royals in the World Series. The San Francisco Giants would not have been in such a Series, of course; there is no universe in which I would root against them. In this imaginary parallel cosmos, though, the Giants would have been eliminated at one turning point or another along its timeline, and they would have failed and fallen away like all the other teams did this year — as must be if there is to be one champion.

The Royals, after all, were a Cinderella team, and I have no doubt that most baseball fans around the world were pulling for them. Hey, no hard feelings. Those fans were not rooting against the Giants, so much, as for the brash, exciting team from a city starved for a title. Indeed, the Royal Blue seemed marked by destiny this year. They had been red hot since the All-Star break, using a combination of speed and daring on the base paths, dazzling defense, and a ‘pen of fireballers to best the opposition. They came into the Series with an unprecedented eight straight postseason victories. It was hard not to like them.

They had great fans, too. They were led by George Brett, the great All-Star and leader of the 1985 team that last won for Kansas City, and they rooted for their team with a pure love. Newborns were named for players, and the team itself was treated like family by the KC faithful. There was no doubt, no second-guessing, no recrimination over small failures. A tanned Brett looked like he could still play, even after the twenty-nine year wait for a championship. “Let’s party like it’s 1985,” he kept saying, and the baseball world seemed ready to join in.

The fans, the city, the young, confident juggernaut of a team all seemed to be doing everything right. It was as though there was some grand symmetry of baseball history lining up to bring that fate to pass.

But it was not to be. The Giants, and history, had other ideas. There was Madison Bumgarner, of course, who made brilliance seem effortless, but there was also that game-stopping double play — Panik to Crawford to Belt — in the third inning of Game 7. It stopped the game for two minutes because the Giants challenged the safe call at first. It was the first time this kind of challenge had been used in the World Series because this was the first year that such video challenges were allowed. It went the Giants’ way, as we know, and the Royals’ promising rally was snuffed out.

If video challenges had been around in 1985, they might have changed that series, as well. In game 6, the Cardinals were up three games to two and had a 1-0 lead in the ninth. That’s when umpire Don Denkinger made perhaps the most famous blown call in baseball history. KC’s Jorge Orta grounded softly to the right, the Cardinals’ defense handled the routine play, but Denkinger ruled the runner safe at first. Replays showed Orta out by a yard, but there was no video challenge in 1985, and the Royals went on to take the game and the Series. It was a stunning turn of events, and it is my belief that it left the baseball universe badly out of balance.

And so, the baseball universe needed to right itself. It is unfortunate that the Kansas City Royals of 2014 suffered for a mistake made so long ago, but we can’t help that. It is the baseball gods alone who maintain the delicate clockwork of baseball history. Fans may have thought they saw a different fate unfolding this October, but we make such projections at our peril.

Now begins the long winter of introspection and rejuvenation. In Kansas City, fans may turn their attentions to the Chiefs for solace from their loss. So it is for those who follow the Detroit Tigers, who have already turned to the Lions, and the Nationals fans to the Redskins, and so on throughout baseball. For Giants fans, however, there will be no change of focus. We have what we wanted most, and it demands our undivided attention. Our time of contemplation is already underway, and we will have until spring to reflect on the meaning of our victory.

During this time, I expect, my thoughts will often return to the Royals faithful. They did everything right. Their team competed hard and fair and carried themselves with honor. The season was filled with heroism and high drama. The fans modeled the very best in rooting behavior. They believed in their team and supported them without question. And yet, they lost. So be it.

I honor Kansas City and her people. I know not what fate the inscrutable symmetry of baseball history may yet hold for them, but for now, the San Francisco Giants are World Champions.
Season In, Season Out
If you believe, as I do, in American exceptionalism, then you probably also believe that God has granted us our own, all-American afterlife. What other reward could there be for such an exceptional people than a special U.S. of Heaven?

And if heaven is truly the joyous place we have been promised, then there will surely be abundant opportunities to root for our favorite teams while watching them on eighty-inch HDTV screens. That is the very least we can expect.

Ah, but which sports? Here, the theologians disagree, but to me the answer is clear. Baseball is what people watch in American Heaven. Football is only available in American Hell.

I am sorry if you are disappointed by this news, but I don’t make the rules. Football, with the violence, and the murders, and the wife-beating, and the gun-running…I could go on, but you can see where this is heading. God is a stickler on these kinds of things, so if you want the NFL for all eternity, you’ll just have to burn in hell to get it. On the bright side, it would be an American Hades, and the hot wings would be great.

For the record, I do watch football. I take as much pleasure in watching others being brutalized as the next guy. I only tune in, however, when baseball is not available. Baseball, you see, is not a violent sport (unless you count the occasional beanball fatality), and its pace is much better suited to the life eternal. This doesn’t mean I am destined to go to heaven, you understand, only that I would prefer to go there.

It is possible, I suppose, that no sports at all are played in American Heaven. If that is the case, then I prefer not to die at all. And if that turns out to be impossible, I’ll have to cross my fingers and hope I’ve got the grades to make it into Limbo. I realize that Limbo is anything but exceptional, and that English is not the official language there, and the only sports they have is water polo on the radio. With any luck, though, after the polo match they’ll announce the late scores out of the National League West.
Baseball vs. Soccer
It would no doubt be a useless exercise to try to compare baseball to soccer, so let’s get started.

Let me make clear from the beginning that I am a lifelong baseball fan. It is, after all, the Great American Pastime. That does not mean, however, that this piece will be a hatchet job on soccer. It is the national pastime of practically every other nation on earth, so it must be doing something right. No, it is my intention here to find a way, through comparing these two great sports, to find ways to improve on both.

Let’s start with the prohibition in soccer against using one’s hands or arms on the ball. We can all agree, I think, that this is a silly rule. We are a hands-centric species, so what sense does it make that we are not allowed to use them? Why eliminate such a potentially exciting dimension from the game? The sport is an English invention, so perhaps the answer lies there.

Baseball has a similar, though antithetical, problem. While there is nothing in the rules banning the use one’s feet to field and pass the ball, you almost never see a player do it. My guess is that the overwhelming power of tradition in baseball will not permit such a thing, nor will it allow the wearing of gloves on a player’s feet. And that is really a shame, because such practices would certainly liven up this slow-moving sport.

Which brings us to another parallel between baseball and soccer. To the uninitiated, they‘re both boring. There, I’ve said it, and it’s true. In one of them, they stand around all the time; in the other, they run around all the time. And that’s pretty much it. It’s a wonder anybody goes to the games. The problem, of course, is scoring — or the lack of it. Why can’t baseball and soccer be more like tennis, where a point is scored on every play?

Fortunately, the solution is right there in the game. All we have to do is make some small adjustments to the scoring system. For soccer, a goal could count, say, fifty. Steals of the ball would count one, and goals off headers would receive a five-point bonus. Hands-on-ball would be allowed, but if you’re still hung up on the hand thing, perhaps hand-related goals would count for less. The result would be a sport more like quidditch, and I guarantee that it would keep people on the edges of their seats!

For baseball, I’d make a run count for 25 points. Additionally, a walk would score one point, a single count two, a double four, a triple six, and a home run ten (over and above the 25 given for a run). Lastly, putouts made solely with the feet would add ten points to the defenders’ score. Fans wouldn’t be able to tear their eyes away from the field!

I think we’ve made some real progress here, but I don’t think we can end this discussion until we’ve addressed two unpleasant topics associated with these otherwise worthy games: beanballs and biting. As part of any national pastime, such behavior is unseemly and should not be tolerated. Mayhem and maiming, if we are to have them at all, belong in the lesser sports, like American football. To deter beanballing, I suggest that offenders be fined a finger. Similarly, biters would lose a tooth for each incident. Pinching and poking will be punished with a timeout and loss of dessert for a week.
I was touring the wine country a while back and found myself in front of Calistoga High School, home of the Wildcats. On the cyclone fence next to the baseball field hung a large rendering of the mascot. “Wild” does not fully describe the expression on its face. “Unhinged” would be more like it. The brows were arched in an oddly exaggerated way, and the eyes blazed maniacally. I found the image disturbing. In fact, I find most mascots disturbing.

Perhaps the intention was to make the wildcat appear angry, but it came out looking like a gibbering lunatic. Many mascots do exhibit some kind of rage, which is probably meant to intimidate potential rivals. I question, however, whether a grumpy Blue Devil or Spartan or Captain ‘Cane would ever strike fear into the heart of an opposing athlete ... especially if it was wearing a giant foam head.

So what is the point of an angry mascot, then? To entertain? To promote team pride? To represent the best qualities of an educational institution or geographical area? It may be that an angry mascot will serve in these ways, but the goofy, cartoon brand of mascot would serve just as well. That is to say, poorly.

Let’s face it: mascots are an embarrassment. Nobody really likes them, but they are now an inextricable part of our sports culture. My hope is that they will somehow evolve to represent what is best in us — not our anger or goofiness, but our clear-eyed competitiveness and intelligence.

Let the Calistoga Wildcat exhort its team to feats of strength, grace, and practiced precision. Let it offer a reasoned discourse on the merits of fair play and teamwork. Let it encourage the players in a firm, resolute voice.

And let it do all of this through the mouth hole of its giant foam head.

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