Small Ball

Janos Wimpffen provides 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.
Janos Wimpffen

 

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