this thoughtful item.
I’ve been thoroughly enjoying the baseball
playoffs, which are now midway through the semi-final round. More
about that later. Yes, this is a long expository about stick and
ball sports, but bear with me, there is a point to be made about
motor racing, specifically sports car racing, specifically endurance
racing. And yes, you Europeans will have to bear through me yammering
about sports unfamiliar to you.
Back about 1990 I had a junior consultant on my
staff, Rodger. He was a fresh-faced university grad, very athletic,
and a sports of the Gen. X. mode. In typical guy fashion we chatted
sports a lot. He went on and on about (American) football and basketball,
and couldn’t understand how I could be interested in such
a dull game as baseball. His stance was emblematic of ratings during
that period. Baseball had fallen in interest while the supposedly
more dynamic games like football and “round ball” were
on the ascendancy.
It was to no avail arguing that the tension inherent
in every pitcher-battle confrontation was forever compelling and
that the interplay between athletic skill and strategy made baseball
a game of human chess. Rodger wanted the American way of babes,
flames, bombs, and bullets - endless action, constant scoring. I
said, “Basketball? Set the score 100-100 and play for 5 minutes,
the first 43 are pointless.” I even bet him there was more
action in a baseball game than in a football game. To make my point,
in true Janos anorak fashion, I sat through an entire NFL game (probably
the last time I’ve done so) and timed every play from snap-to-tackle,
even including kickoffs and point-afters, plays during which the
clock is stopped. The total play time - about 6 1/2 minutes, spread
out over 60 minutes of clock time and 3 hours of an ad-filled telecast.
The rest of the time is spent in climbing out of pileups, endless
meetings with coaches, huddles, explanations of penalties, and of
course promos for burgers, beer, and cars. Yes, baseball players
spend an inordinate amount of time scratching and spitting, but
at least there is a seamless quality about it.
Needless to say, it was futile to say to Rodger
that I also enjoyed the other football (soccer). He could never
be satisfied by a 1-1 draw that featured scorching passing and exquisite
defense between say, Chelsea and Liverpool. The ebb and flow held
no interest to the bombs, babes, and flames generation.
Baseball hit a nadir in the mid-90s with a strike
that effectively killed an entire season and when it returned, attendance
continued to slide. It only rebounded later in the decade when a
spectacular home run contest emerged between several sluggers. No
doubt, the home run blast into the stands is the most dramatic event
in a baseball game. It was now coming in unprecedented numbers and
records were shattered. The fans started coming back to the game.
A few years ago the other shoe fell and between evidence and innuendo,
there was a clear case that much of the increase was pharmaceutically
fueled. It will take a long time for the sport to recover from that
black eye and of course the worry was that with the corresponding
drop in the bombastic barrage of home runs, that spectators would
stay away. Thus far at least, that hasn’t happened.
Something else is going on. The game has changed,
in some ways reverted to the way that it was played decades ago.
The scoring is way down. Pitching has become more important than
ever (for Europeans, the pitcher’s job is to prevent batters
from reaching base and coming around to score). To counter this,
managing (coaching) strategy has become key. Teams have to find
creative ways to get their runners onto the bases and somehow move
them around. That is what’s called small ball. The big hit
and the home run is still there. But rather as a given, it is the
secret weapon, the dark cloud that the defense fears, ready to erupt
in truly dramatic fashion to change the course of a game. That web
of intrigue just scratches the surface of what makes baseball a
good game when played at this level. Several TV commentators noted
this trend and hoped that people would discover the subtle beauty
and not be turned off by the lack of scoring. The jury is out as
to future trends, but I would be willing to invest that there are
enough sophisticated fans out there that will embrace small ball.
Back again for a moment to (American) football.
It’s also a great sport, exhibiting sweeping plays, great
running and passing, and brutal crunching. But it has been so chopped
up and fragmented, mostly to cater to TV, that there is little flow
left. Its admirers will say, yes but there is lots of scoring. They
refer to a 28-21 tally as evidence to this, ignoring the fact that
it is really only 4 goals to 3 when you consider the rules of the
game. Nevertheless, football can be a wonderful and dramatic game
- especially at the college level, which is still a little less
corrupted than the professional version.
To counter a perceived lack of scoring in American
football, an indoor “Arena” version was invented. It’s
played in a hockey rink sized pitch with fewer men per side. The
smaller field makes scoring more plentiful - so much so that the
points are pointless. I attended such a game last year. The final
score was something like 85 – 65. Effectively, there was a
score every time a team had possession. The only difference in the
game was when a team lost tempo and could not score. There was no
real strategy, and the players had no reason to be particularly
skillful. Indeed, most were castoffs from the outdoor variety. Luck
played a greater role than in more “normal” sports.
Yet, the crowd became frenzied with every touchdown
by the home team - encouraged by the endless noise over the speaker
system. There weren’t many people there, but most seemed hard-core,
oblivious to the mediocrity before them. In my haughty ways, I observed
the demographic before me. They definitely seemed to be well down
the socioeconomic scale. To them, the intricacies of the college
game, small ball, let alone soccer were well beyond their comprehension.
But they have found their niche of instant gratification. There
is a market for it, albeit one with a distinct ceiling. Similarly,
there is a market and maybe a ceiling for the sports played in a
more strategic manner. But in the end, consumers make choices.
So, I will leave where this is going mostly through
implication. I think that you can already draw the inferences and
analogies between small ball and current trends and controversies
in American sports car racing. People measure quality in different
ways. I, for one, appreciate quality that endures.