Bat and Ball Games

For the past two days, I have been listening to the BBC’s live coverage of the England/India cricket matches in England.  I have no idea what is going on, although I gather that England is winning.  There is something very soothing about this commentary; it is not excitable like some football commentary (no GOOOOOL! calls.)  It is definitely not for the beginner, yet I could listen to it all day; it is so soothing.

I have written about my fascination for cricket, and I continue to be fascinated by cricket because it is so inscrutable, aided by a lingo that verges on the ridiculous to the outsider.  Cricket is one of the last vestiges of the British Empire, which is why the prominent nations are England and former British colonies (including Australia, New Zealand, a conglomerate of Caribbean countries, nations of the South Asian subcontinent, and former British holdings in Africa.)  Unlike football, which spread beyond the official and unofficial British Empire and continues to grow, cricket seems content to be beloved by the few (granted “few” is well over a billion and a half.)  Cricket deliberately limits outsiders, which smacks of elitism and Empire.  Is there any question why cricket has not spread?

Learning another sport is like learning a language.  You have to get the vocabulary, but you also have to learn the grammar, the nuances, and at least be able to distinguish regional dialects.  For an American (me), football is like Spanish.  It’s something I’ve been aware of since I was a child and learned the odd word.  Like Spanish, football is generally easy to learn.  Baseball in contrast, the prototypical “American” sport, is like English.  Whether you like or dislike baseball, if you are American, you are surrounded by it from birth.  Baseball is part of American national heritage, and its slang has infiltrated American English.  I am no fan of baseball (I always raise an eyebrow when a baseball fan complains that football is boring), yet I can follow a baseball game, which I often have to do when I visit my family.  In contrast, cricket (for an American) is like Latin or ancient Greek, or perhaps Sanskrit.  Every once in a blue moon, you come across a cricket term in American English, but those terms are few, far between, and their origin has been completely obscured.

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Baseball and cricket are very similar, almost cousins.  Both have their origins in English bat and ball folk games, much like football, both rugby codes, Australian Rules Football, Gaelic football, and American football and its derivatives all descend from their own ur-sport.  The similarities between baseball and cricket go well beyond origin though.  Both are slavishly obsessed with statistics and quantification.  Both have a mythic development site; cricket has the Marylebone Cricket Club which established the rules of the game, and baseball has Cooperstown, New York, where according to discredited legend, Abner Doubleday invented the game in a cow pasture (regardless of the veracity of the Doubleday legend, baseball firmly affixed its imprimatur on the story by housing its Hall of Fame in the town.)

Another similarity between baseball and cricket is literature.  Yesterday while I was listening to the BBC’s cricket coverage, one of the commentators mentioned that cricket is a game that spawned wide body of literature, while football has not.  At least in English–I cannot speak to other languages–there is some truth to this; cricket lends itself to literature (of variable quality) whereas football literature is not quite of the same breadth.  Some of England’s greatest writers have written about cricket.  Baseball, like cricket, lends itself to a literary culture although for different reasons.  There is some remarkably literary fiction and non-fiction written about baseball or using baseball as a theme, metaphor, or launching pad for a larger idea.  One of the great essays that I have read is Gay Talese’s famous Esquire piece about Joe DiMaggio “The Silent Season of a Hero.” (Talese also wrote an essay about women’s football, specifically about Liu Ying, the Chinese player whose penalty kick was saved in the 1999 World Cup final.)

Despite what BBC cricket commentator believe, it is not true that football lacks a body of literature, but one cannot deny that a football’s literary culture is not of the same caliber as either cricket or baseball–at least in English; I cannot speak to other languages.  Much of the great football literature is either memoir, history, journalistic, or originated in fan culture or on the Internet.  There are some famous standouts, Eduardo Galeano’s romantic history Football in Sun and Shadow (in Spanish), and Nick Hornby’s memoir Fever Pitch are two of the most famous.  (In fiction, football is woefully lacking.  I have not read The Damned United, which seems to be the only work of football fiction in English, but I did see the movie.)  Football literature probably does not have the same influence and import that cricket and baseball-related literature do.

(This paragraph is all theory, I have no research to back it up, so please feel free to agree, disagree, and present alternative theories.)  If I had to wager a guess, the reason for baseball’s popularity among the literati is because, unlike in Britain, there is not a strong social class distinction in American society.  I would also guess that the reason there is more literature about cricket than football is because the elite of British society, which preferred cricket, tended to be the educated class, and Britain’s literary output came from that educated class.  Football, being the game of the masses, was until recent times left out in the cold.  In contrast,  baseball was enjoyed across the American social and geographic spectra while sport associated with either the British Empire and/or the elite fell into a niche or petered out (today’s American national cricket team has but one actual American player.)  Because baseball was seen as so quintessentially American, immigrants and their children became fanatically devoted to the sport.  Some of those children became writers (Bernard Malamud, Talese, etc.) and baseball inspired them in some way.

Because literary culture is not what it used to be,* there may never be the great literary football fiction.  It’s not necessarily a bad thing; football has gotten along fine without it, and the history and development of the game is just as fascinating.  The sport which boasts the finest literary (and cinematic and artistic) body or work is boxing, which proves that just because the artistic output is great it does not mean the sport is.

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This weekend I briefly watched the World Cup of Softball on ESPN.  If you are like me, you didn’t know there was a World Cup of Softball.  There is also apparently a Softball World Championship.  Apparently these are run by different organizations.  I must admit I am not all that interested in the intricacies of world softball governance.

Softball is an odd sport.  Taken at face value, softball is like baseball for people who aren’t good enough to play baseball, and do not have the necessary training.  It also requires much less space.  This explains why softball is a more popular sport to play.  From 1996-2008 softball was an Olympic sport, but then I never realized it existed.  In that time, softball was dominated by the US team, which is one of the reasons it is no longer an Olympic sport.  Today, only a handful of nations play softball seriously (it’s The Onion, you can laugh.)  Ironically (bitterly so), at the last softball match in the Olympics, the US lost its title to Japan.

Even though I don’t particularly enjoy baseball, I do understand it, which is why I can say that watching even a little bit of the World Cup of Softball was like watching a train wreck; it was excruciating to see but impossible to turn away from.

Although both men and women play softball across the country, the sport is inextricable from gender politics.  Baseball is for men and softball is for women.  When the Olympics eliminated softball, baseball too was eliminated.  There was not a big push to keep baseball, but softball became something of a cause célèbre.  Baseball does not need the Olympics to sustain itself and increase its audience (or marketing potential), but softball has no other major venue despite having two world championships.  Thanks to the Olympics, softball was in the vision (peripheral perhaps but vision nonetheless) of the American public.  Softball even produced a legitimate media star in Jennie Finch, although she was noted as much for her beauty as for her copious athletic ability.**

I want to support softball, at least in theory.  Under this theory I support women’s basketball and I know the names of some players even though I find basketball to be almost as painful to watch as baseball.  The difference though is that unlike women’s football and women’s basketball, softball is not women’s baseball, it’s a watered-down version of a sport that women once played, and still do.  Softball was basically forced onto women because baseball was a closed shop.  Title IX, which usually made things better for women, only added to the problem.  Baseball and softball were deemed to be equivalent, and if the school offered softball, it could keep women out of baseball (women’s baseball has a long and tortured history.)  As a result, generations of women were forced into an ersatz baseball.

I don’t want to come down too hard on softball, because I don’t want to belittle the players.  They are great athletes who train very hard.  Furthermore, the national softball league (National Pro Fastpitch) is not exactly setting the nation aflame.  There are fewer teams there than in the WPS.  On the other hand, according to NPR, women who play for the National Baseball Team get even less respect.  Did you know there was a World Cup for Women’s Baseball or before that a Women’s World Series (both of which having teams from countries other than just the US and Canada)?  Me neither.

I have not seen a women’s baseball match, so I cannot speak to the skill level involved.  I am not sure what kind of market, if any, there is for women’s baseball or softball, but I imagine that the divide hurts both, particularly women’s baseball.  Women’s baseball is decades behind in growth and I imagine that, like me, most people do not realize it exists.  In the NPR article that I linked to, I found this very poignant quote:

“Despite what they achieved, they never got the recognition they deserved,” says Nicholas A. Lopardo, general manager of the 2004 USA Baseball Women’s National Team. “We’re still scratching our heads to figure out why.”

This phenomenon is not unique to women’s baseball.  Just ask any member of the 1991 USWNT who won the first football World Cup in China.  The good news is that it can get better if the stars align.  Perhaps it is time to stop pretending that softball is a legitimate alternative and that women can and should play baseball.  Just like the men.

Footnotes:

* I cannot say for sure why literary culture has basically vanished from the US, but I suspect there is blame on all sides.  We have a television-driven media that shuns any indication that the lowest common denominator is neither low nor common.  In other words, the media believes that we are all imbeciles and treats as us such.  There are exceptions, but the exceptions are few and far between.  The literati are also to blame for this.  Tolstoy and Dickens serialized their novels in literary and popular magazines.  Today, the universities have monopolized and gentrified high culture.  To be a “great” writer (as opposed to a popular one), one needs to (1)  get an MFA from a prestigious program; (2) craft sentences like Nabokov or Joyce only more incomprehensible; (3) ensure that only a select few (mainly university professors) will read, care about, and understand your fiction; (4) write about topics that the plebs (the general reading populace) cannot relate to; (5) focus heavily on the inner lives of “flawed” (i.e. shallow) central characters; (6) win prestigious awards that a publisher can put on a dust jacket; and (7) shun and belittle all attempts to attract a larger public.  Also, you need to degrade both anything the larger reading public likes and that public itself for liking it.

** Finch also had the advantage of being a beautiful heterosexual player in a sport that, unfairly, has been stereotyped as a lesbian sport in the same way that men’s figure skating has been unfairly stereotyped as a gay men’s sport.  While both softball and figure skating are perhaps more welcoming to gay and lesbian competitors and fans, it does a great disservice to both those sports and their competitors.  It also harms their numbers.  Coincidentally, neither women’s football nor women’s basketball are perceived as lesbian sports in the United States, and are therefore okay.  Nigeria is a different situation.

Welcome Back, Uruguay!

Soy Celeste!  Soy Celeste!

Uruguay won the battle of the “Guays” against Paraguay.*  There are so many reasons why this is good, but none more so than the fact that Uruguay has been brilliant, and Paraguay got to the finals without actually winning a match.  They didn’t lose any matches mind you, it was five straight draws, but it is still unappealing.  I have stated many times that contrary to popular belief, defense earns draws not titles, but a Paraguay win would have proved me wrong.  The irony is that Paraguay is not a particularly defensive side, or at least that was not their intention, but three draws in the group stage and two 0-0 penalty shootouts made Paraguay look duller than dishwater. I wanted to like them, but I could not.  Viva la garra!

But today is about Uruguay, and what a sight to behold they were.  Attacking from the beginning, they never let up the pressure.  Luis Suarez put them up in the 12th minute, and from there is was pretty much lights out.  Uruguay should have been ahead by the 2nd minute, save for a curiously uncalled handball.  Diego Forlan scored the other two goals (42nd minute and 90th minute), and beauties they were, as one expects from Forlan.  It is a shame that he is having such problems with Atletico Madrid, because Forlan is one of South America’s modern greats.  Forlan is the most capped player in Uruguayan history and tied for top goalscorer.  The Golden Ball he earned at the World Cup was no fluke; he is that good and getting better with age.  He himself was overjoyed at winning, saying in an interview that both his father and his grandfather won the Copa America, so he really wanted the win.  Bravo to him for maintaining the family tradition.

As much as they will be celebrating in Montevideo tonight, no doubt there is mourning in Buenos Aires.  Before tonight, Uruguay and Argentina were tied at 14 Copa America victories apiece, but now Uruguay stands alone with 15.  Uruguay is also the only nation other than Argentina to win a Copa America in Argentina.  That Uruguay’s last title came in 1995 only adds insult to injury.  1995 was two years after Argentina won its last Copa America, its last senior football tournament full stop (a huge embarrassment for Argentina.)  Make no mistake, for as fierce as the Argentina and Brazil rivalry is, the rivalry between Uruguay and Argentina may be even more so.  It is certainly older.  Argentina and Uruguay were the first two great powers of South American football, and their rivalry helped to shape the modern game.  Uruguay, the winner of the first South American Championship in 1916, could be fairly credited with creating the modern game.  In 1924, Uruguay complete changed European perceptions of how the game should be played when they won the Olympics.  When they returned to the Olympics in 1928 to defend the title, they beat their rivals from across the Rio de la Plata in the final.  Uruguay’s Olympic triumphs that led to the creation of the World Cup, which was first held in Uruguay in 1930, and which the home nation won, again beating Argentina in the final.  Uruguay won the World Cup a second time in 1950, but since then have never found the top of the world podium.  Uruguay is not yet where it once was, but for the first time in a very long time, they really look like they are one of the world’s best sides again.

Major credit should be given to Uruguay’s coach Oscar Tabarez who has brought Uruguay to its greatest era since the 1950’s.  It is astounding that a nation of 3.5 million is such a force in the world game.  If you are a reader of this blog, you may have seen me talk about nations who dropped from the heights of football and will never come back.  These include Scotland, Hungary, and Austria (and Norway on the women’s side.)  One nation that I have never included in that list was Uruguay, although before last year all signs pointed to that direction.  Under Tabarez, Uruguay experienced something of a Renaissance–he has complete control over all levels of the Uruguayan national team.  The semifinals at the World Cup, the 2011 Copa America (cemented the World Cup lesson that they are indeed currently the best side in South America), qualification for the 2013 Confederations Cup, qualification for the 2012 Olympics (the first time Uruguay will be in the competition since 1928), a second place finish in the u-19 South American championships, and runners-up at the u-17 World Cup this summer.  (Of course, this good fortune could all change.  Neither Tabarez nor Forlan will be there for much longer.)

Credit also Peru who beat Venezuela to finish third.  Peru has come a long way from last place in South American qualification for the last year’s World Cup.  South America has been turned upside down and the minnows are beating back the giants.  If this keeps up, then qualification for the 2014 World Cup will be very satisfying indeed.

One final note: there are rumors that the Copa America will expand to 16 teams, meaning that there will be six invitations to CONCACAF sides.  One hope that the US will be one of them.  The Copa America is one of the world’s great competitions (even if this year’s tournament was not thrilling), the US should be honored to be a part of it.

Footnotes:

Both Uruguay and Paraguay have beautiful, melodious national anthems.  In fact, most of South America seems to have beautiful, melodious national anthems.