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America’s (Second-Favorite) Pastime

Why the sport of baseball will stave off basketball to be our backup favorite sport.

@BreakTheHuddle (e-mail: BreakTheHuddle@gmail.com)

The National Football League is the king of American sports. That much is clear, given that 111 million people in the U.S. saw its championship game. The other games in America are simply competing for second place, at least for the foreseeable future. Baseball has traditionally been the top sport in terms of popularity, and has recently slipped in the rankings. There is talk that the National Basketball Association could overtake Major League Baseball someday soon, and that baseball will slip further and further into irrelevancy. Well, I’m here to make the arguments for why baseball will hold strong and retain the number two spot.

Here are the reasons why:

1. The (un)athleticism of its players.

Boris Diaw is a forward for the Charlotte Bobcats, the worst team in the NBA.[1] During the lockout he, apparently, did not stay in tip top shape, and now he looks quite a bit chunkier than he used to.[2]  He gets a lot of flak from columnists, announcers and fans for his weight gain, but he is still an effective player, and compared to the typical American, he’s really not in that bad of shape.[3] Eddy Curry, the former Bull and Knickerbocker, was essentially run out of the league for being overweight. Ditto to Shawn Kemp, Oliver Miller and Michael Sweetney.

Baseball players reflect the evolving American populace better than the NBA does, because the overweight ones are not chastised. On the contrary – in baseball, chubby people are rewarded with contracts nearing a quarter of a billion dollars.[4] The sport of baseball is brave for embracing the fattest among us, and rewarding them for God-given skills such as hand-eye coordination and the ability to throw a baseball 90 plus miles per hour. Americans do not identify with traits such as hard work, teamwork or mastering a craft, which is what is required in basketball. They’d rather be given a talent at birth and then pimp it for everything they can, and never really try very hard.[5]

2. The numbers game.

Basketball is a game of feel, cohesion and athleticism. You might be the best scorer on a team, but if you aren’t a good passer and you don’t keep your teammates involved, your team will be less successful than it was without you. Case in point: There are real questions, right now, about whether Carmelo Anthony’s return will help or hurt the New York Knicks. He’s an All-Star and one of the most unstoppable scoring forces in the NBA. For the past two weeks, he’s been out with a groin injury, and his team has been playing an unselfish, share-the-ball style. It’s fair to wonder if he’ll help or hurt when he returns.[6]

Such a thing would never happen in baseball, where the individual matchups and endless statistical analysis makes the sport very scientific. At least, it appears to be very scientific. Don’t get me wrong, basketball has advanced metrics too, but Major League Baseball has gotten to the point now where if you don’t know what OBP, WAR or UZR stand for[7], you feel like you’re behind the times. No longer can a baseball analyst say, “Hey, I’ve watched his swing, he’ll be a good player” and get away with it. What are his splits? Is his OPS near .800?

If there’s one thing Americans love, it is the idea that something subjective can be made objective. We confuse empiricism with science so regularly that few of us can tell the difference any more. The very notion of an IQ test proves this – intelligence is a concept, not a concrete thing, yet we assume a person with a 140 IQ will be more successful than one with a 130 IQ. Baseball smartly feeds into this – stat geeks can concoct myriad reasons for why one team’s outfield defense is better than another’s without so much as watching a single game.[8] Watching games and analyzing them requires deep thought, which is just no fun. Better to let a spread sheet do the work.

3. Arguing with referees/ umpires, or general confrontation.

In basketball, coaches, players and even the fans in the first few rows attempt to sway the officials from the opening tip until the final buzzer sounds. The lobbying that goes on is non-stop. Watching a basketball game on TV, there are three common shots of basketball coaches: they are either a) sitting placidly on the bench, b) shouting to players on the court, or c)pleading with an official with an exasperated look on their face, gyrating wildly.

The problem is, all of that happens during the flow of the game. Rarely does all of the action stop so everyone can argue.[9] Americans love confrontation, and baseball gives them plenty of it! Sure, much of it comes in the form of geriatric men ambling up the first base line in pants that are far too small for them, only to argue with another old, fat guy, but at least it’s visible, and everything else in the game STOPS. There is also plenty of passive-aggressive grandstanding when a pitch comes a little too far inside – everyone stands on the top step of the dugout, shouting. Sometimes, the guys in the bullpen wake up from their naps and run down to join in on the yelling!

Baseball supplies so much of this passive-aggression, and Americans eat that stuff up. There’s no room for passive-aggression in basketball, because of all the physical contact that goes on. It morphs too quickly into actual aggression. Americans like baseball because you can give the appearance of toughness (by staring down the other team and yelling at them from a safe distance) and rarely having to back that up. Isn’t that what we all want from American foreign policy?

Did I just blow your mind?

4. Fluke champions.

Bill Simmons (author of ‘The Book of Basketball) regularly states (and eloquently defends) the idea that in professional basketball, the best team almost always wins the title.[10] The most talented team takes home the trophy – sure, injuries play a role, but rarely does basketball get a fluke champion. Looking at the past decade, only the Mavericks of last season and the 2005-06 Miami Heat were relative surprise champions… and those two teams STILL had a top three player in the world playing out of his mind (Dirk and a young Dwayne Wade) and great coaches (Rick Carlisle and Pat Riley). Looking at the past three decades, only the two teams mentioned above plus the 2007-08 Celtics and the 2003-04 Pistons[11] failed to win MULTIPLE titles.[12] Think about that – once you’ve amassed a talented core group of players, you fight together to stay on top. It’s about talent and teamwork, and having the mental and physical wherewithal to win the marathon that is the NBA playoffs.

Luckily, baseball’s champion is way more of a crapshoot. Baseball’s regular season is a marathon, and the playoffs are a sprint. You play all 162 of your games to decide the best 8 teams… and five games (maximum) to determine the best four. Americans like to be a dominant nation, but we do not like dominant individuals. Since our sports teams are merely extensions of the self, we’d rather get lucky at the end and pull a title out of our asses than be on top for an entire season.

Oh, you disagree? In college, did you ever slack off for an entire course, study like crazy for the final, then brag about your A-minus? See, baseball rewards that! The ’97 and ’03 Marlins, the ’06 and ’11 Cardinals[13], the ’03 Angels – they didn’t bother to win their own division, but won the championship. None of the above teams were extremely talented, and none of them went on extended runs of dominance – they happened to catch lightning in a bottle, once, and capitalized on it.

Isn’t that what all Americans want?[14] To come up with the simplest idea, no matter how stupid it might be, to get them a giant pile of money quickly?[15] As time goes on, we Americans will grow to despise the NBA’s culture of dominance and stick to the genteel, pastoral game of baseball, where you can be a fat[16], passive-aggressive[17] mathematician[18]and succeed wildly. That is, after all, the American Dream. And baseball is America’s game.

[8] Hell, you can RUN a baseball franchise and not watch the games! http://bleacherreport.com/articles/649339-discussing-and-debating-short-hops-and-sabermetrics

[9] Here is one notable exception: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rwqJKCfURg4

[11] Those Celtic and Piston teams still MADE it to other Finals, however.

[13] Fine, TECHNICALLY, the Cardinals won their division in 2006, but they were 83-78, and Major League Baseball still hasn’t officially rejected my request to have that division title vacated. So until the matter is resolved, I will call them a Wild Card team.

[18]  Ladies and gentlemen, baseball’s greatest mind: http://a.espncdn.com/photo/2011/0705/grant_a_james_576.jpg

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