Yes, this Sunday I will watch the Super Bowl, joining millions of other Americans in the mid-winter national holiday, when we try to see glimpses of an actual athletic contest hidden within the orgy of corporate greed, network self-promotion, and league arrogance. But my heart won’t be in it. Not just because the Eagles aren’t playing. Again. Not just because the Giants are playing in it—and are likely to win. Again.
No, I’ll be watching without really caring because my heart will be listening for different sounds than shoulder pads smacking helmets, bones being cracked by collisions, hucksters huckstering, and Madonna screeching. My heart yearns to hear far-off whispers of ball smacking glove, muscles unhinging, oldsters telling stories to prevent bygone days from being gone, and umpires proclaiming my favorite two-word phrase, “Play ball.”
Baseball is a circus, a dazzling display of simultaneous action taking place in multiple areas, creating a vivid family entertainment. Kids bring their gloves to the game hoping to snare a foul, or, even better, their hero’s dinger. Fathers bring daughters to teach them the hieroglyphics of the scorebook, the code which holds each player accountable and which, reread, starts the video of a brightly lit memory on an emerald field.
Football is a gladiatorial combat, with behemoths wailing on each other with abandon until one leaves the field maimed and the other limps off in alleged triumph. Instead of kids, guys bring their drinking buddies. Stats must be maintained by official scorekeepers because in the jumble of piled bodies it is impossible to discern who made the tackle. There is no chance to replay the game yourself, because the key plays—as determined by someone else—are shown repeatedly for a week.
What happens before games begin? Football players smack each other on the chest or smash helmeted head to helmeted head before jumping up and down in an adrenaline-loosed frenzy that looks like a shoal of piranha preparing to take on a school of sharks. Baseball players warm up, setting aside yesterday’s oh-fer or last start’s shellacking by focusing on their craft, invoking muscle memory.
What happens after games end? Football players arrogantly thrust a forefinger into the air or self-righteously settle down on one knee in conspicuous prayer that reflects the self-serving belief that God was on their side. Baseball players pile on each other like a bunch of seven-year-olds, transported to some innocent and wise time when the spirit knows, because it has not yet been ill taught by elders, that there is no great significance in the moment except the sheer joy of it.
Baseball is roundly abused for its steroid scandal, while football is given a free pass for its own steroid-stoked insanity, murder-implicated stars, and brutal destructiveness, which produces gimpy, arthritic, cardiac-challenged, obese middle-aged men (not to mention the fans) and depressed shells of once-proud warriors driven to suicide as a result of brain damage caused by repeated head trauma.
Baseball is mocked as the game in which nothing happens, yet pitch follows pitch with a regular rhythm and relatively little delay. Football has so much downtime between plays that each can be reviewed in slow motion five times from six different angles.
The proportion of action to talk is also to baseball’s advantage in the weekly schedule. Baseball teams play nearly every day, providing fresh action, new artistry, compelling drama multiple times a week. Football fans watch their team for only three-plus hours of real playing and then are subjected to six and five-sixths’ days of jabber about what happened last game and what will happen in the next, whether the coach can make the right adjustments, whether this guy’s ankle will hold up or that guy’s back will keep him out, whether the runner can get over his tendency to fumble or the cornerback can learn to cover, whether . . . blah, blah, blah, blah, blah. (And when there’s a bye-week, the blather doubles.)
Baseball is derided as the game ruled by obtrusive umpires who imperiously inject themselves in the game, yet football games are unendingly dissected for the penalty flags thrown or not thrown, the plays called back or let go, the field judgments overturned or upheld. (And football, in its self-importance, labels these decisions like Supreme Court rulings.)
Baseball is criticized for its close calls, but football relies on the implausible premise that a referee can dig through a ton of squirming, punching, eye-gouging, angry flesh to find the exact spot to place the ball. And he has to be able to do so, because when they bring out the chain to measure for a first down, he has to be able to see that the ball is precisely two inches short.
Baseball’s lords do not bother to stop a player from wearing this shark-tooth necklace or that holey T-shirt or the other tar-stained helmet. Football’s lords fine a player when they are not amused by the way he wears a headband.
Baseball’s field leaders are mocked for their lumpy, ungainly, unyouthful appearance in a uniform five decades and eighty pounds wrong. Football’s leaders are celebrated for their arrogant dismissal of criticism, their embrace of obsessive-compulsive disorder, and their unhealthy workaholism. Who would you rather sit around and listen to tell stories, Charlie Manuel or Bill Belichick? Who would you expect to learn more about life from, Mike Shanahan, who knows how to win as long as he coaches a hall-of-famer, or Jim Leyland, who has built teams from the ground up only to see them broken apart, mentored young guys and massaged ego-ridden veterans, seen perfect games vaporized on a bad call, and witnessed nearly as many losses as he has wins?
Which game promotes a sportsmanlike attitude—football, where fans are encouraged to scream as loud as possible when the other team has the ball, or baseball, where fans give standing ovations to a visiting starter’s no-hitter?
Which sport is more commercial, baseball, with its logo’d signs strewn around the ballpark, or football, which trumpets its record-setting rights fees, commercial fees, and personal-seat license fees and which, if you say the words “Super Bowl” without permission, will sue your ass?
Which sport is more human, football, where players come in three sizes—Goliath, Gargantua, and Leviathan—and where they hide themselves behind masks and padding; or baseball, where MVPs can be five-foot eight, star pitchers can look like pears (Mickey Lolich), and all the guys’ faces can be seen (not always fortunately: Lolich again), and they all run around in their pajamas?
Which gospel has more wisdom—football’s Stress on Success (“Winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing”) or baseball’s Call to Have Fun (“It’s a beautiful day for a ballgame; let’s play two”).
Yeah, I’ll watch the Super Bowl. But the day I’m really looking forward to is two weeks out. February 19. Pitchers and catchers.
Words © 2012 AtHome Pilgrim.
All Rights Reserved.