Chances are by the time I press publish, the Toronto Blue Jays’ inaugural game of the 2012 Major League Baseball season will be underway. I don’t think I’ve been as excited at the start of a new baseball season since 1993, and no, that has nothing to do with Jayson Stark.
Rather I think the proximity to the Getting Blanked/Drunk Jays Fans crew over the off-season sparked a love for the game that I haven’t felt since those halcyon days in the early nineties. And I’m not alone in being a soccer person who stares at baseball out of the corner of my eye now and again to wonder what might have been. The Footy Show gang, for example is in the middle of a road trip to Cleveland for Opening Day (KJ, if you don’t know, is Atlanta Braves. Is them).
The curiosity and respect is mutual, in this statistically useless anecdote. Both Dustin Parkes and Andrew Stoeten know enough about Dutch football to guest post a Holland preview, while Drew Fairservice is inexplicably a Hammers fan. I don’t have “numbers” or “empirical evidence” for this (boooorrrring), but it seems to me many soccer people maintain baseball as their primary “other sport.”
Why is this is the anecdotal, possibly-not-at-all-true case?
Possibly because the two sports are about as far apart as they can possibly in the realm of professional athletics. They are opposites, and the one provides to the other everything it lacks. Let me count the ways.
Soccer involves two teams of eleven players each running around using their feet to kick a ball into a net. There is a field of play, and there are two sides—it’s war, to unfairly paraphrase famed Dutch coach Rinus Michels. Like many sports—hockey, basketball, American football—it’s built on a simple oppositional dichotomy.
It’s also a fluid sport; despite the positional nomenclature, often defenders become wingers, and midfielders become strikers, and strikers become midfielders. Players can go wherever they like, do whatever they like with the ball outside of touching it. The rest is up to them. That openness is part of the reason why statistical information like pass completion percentages and the number of shots a player take are not all that revealing. An over-top-through ball and a square pass are two incredibly different things, though they’re often measured the same way.
And then we have baseball. There is no battle for space, no invading opposition territory. It’s a game of opportunity—get your players around the bases to score points before the third out, then switch. Positions are static—a shortstop will always be a shortstop—and the realm of possible play is sharply limited. Rather baseball is a series of atomistic elements, each requiring its own set of skills.
First there is the pitch—how fast? Inside or outside? Low or high? Within the strike zone? Curveball, slider, fastball? There is the hit—how many per-at-bat? How many runs batted in? Home runs? Single, doubles, and triples? There is the fielding forced outs, double plays, pop flies, run downs. Most the time, players stand around, waiting for the one moment when their role will be called into use. All of this is statistically measurable, and for the most part, unambiguous.
Because of the varied elements involves, there are no “boring” baseball games (unless of course you find the whole enterprise tedious). Low-scoring games are intricate pitching battles; high-scoring games are macho slug fests. If soccer is abstract impressionism, baseball is pointillism. The two sports provide two distinct points of attraction in the audience spectrum.
Obviously cricket falls into similar territory, but is too culturally close to association football. Soccer is a European winter sport by play the most fit athletes in the world, baseball is an American summer sport played by…athletes. Yin and yang. So in case either begins to get on your nerves, there the other will be waiting.