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Category: Sports

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.
Mascots
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.

Rooting Posture II
My team won it all, but I can’t celebrate.

Let me be clear: the San Francisco Giants are World Champions. The building they play in is the most beautiful in baseball, if not in all of sport. They have the best manager in Bruce Bochy, and though the awards have not yet been passed out this year, they have Buster Posey, the most valuable player in the National League.

Why, then, do I feel this unease? Their victory this year was, in many ways, more heroic than the title they won in 2010. Their best player, All-Star Game MVP Melky Cabrera, was taken away from them in midseason for using performance-enhancing drugs, and yet they persevered. They made two historic comebacks in the post-season, then swept Detroit’s team of behemoths in the World Series. Their efforts, at times, seemed to be touched by the baseball gods and their quest marked by destiny.

They did all this with a gutty, team-first approach that should be the ideal of any baseball fan. Their courage and selflessness was a complete ratification of my rooting philosophy over the entire season. They have done everything I could have asked for and more. And yet, something is missing.

2010 was an experience unprecedented in my rooting career. The most hoped-for outcome — an outcome that had never come to pass in 52 years — was finally a reality. Giants fans, including me, were over the moon with elation, delivered at last to redemption.

2012 is not like that. The Giants have won, capturing the one goal in sports that I value most as a fan, but I am not over the moon. I feel good, but not fulfilled in the way I was in 2010. I have told myself that it’s only natural that the first title is the sweetest, but I do not find that explanation satisfying. If I am a true fan, then each World Series should bring the same degree of elation, the same glow of all-men-are-brothers beneficence.

The problem, I know, is with me. I am jaded, apparently; bored with winning. Here, in the middle of a glorious win, I have lapsed into a loser mentality. This is not a happy realization. As a true fan, I believe, it is part of my duty to think and act as if I were a member of the team. What good can I be to my team in this state? How can they depend on me when the 2013 season begins?

Nor do I see an easy solution. I have lost my way somehow, wandered away from the true path that was once the foundation of my rooting posture. I have fallen from grace, and I cannot see a way back.

My goal is to find that path again before pitchers and catchers report in early February. It will be a long winter, I predict, a time of deep introspection and of questioning my most sacred rooting fundamentals. No, it will not be easy, but one simple truth will sustain me.

The San Francisco Giants are World Champions.
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