There was a funny skit on “Saturday Night Live” in which a comedian portraying essayist George Will waxes poetic about the glories of baseball, but can’t even catch one tossed gently to him. For some reason, the diamond game – usually in the spring – inspires the intelligentsia to rhapsodize about the sport, usually in comparison to football.
The line goes something like this: baseball is a gentler, more democratic game; football is a brutal game of military-like conquest. Baseball flows philosophically from day to day, gracefully accepting the losses that come along with the wins. Football, on the other hand, is an “event” sport where a week’s worth of work and anticipation builds into a Saturday or Sunday make-or-break Armageddon.
OK, fine. There’s some truth to that, but anyone who thinks baseball is a gentler, kinder sport may not have ever played it. Even the milder variations – softball and, for crying out loud, kickball – can have more than their share of heartaches.
First, let’s compare the balls. As far as I know, no one has ever been killed by being hit in the head by a football. A baseball, on the other hand, is small and hard and often traveling at Autobahn speeds. In a typical game, a player stands there in a little box in which a fella with the advantage of an elevated surface (the pitcher’s mound) is throwing this dangerous device within inches of your head or groin or other important body parts.
That’s part of the reason that even the best players are unsuccessful 70 percent of the time; it’s in the back of your head (quite literally) that you could stop a baseball – also known ominously as a “hardball” – with your skull, jaw or eyeball.
The pitcher has his own set of fears. When you do your follow-through, you’re sort of falling off the mound and in a pretty vulnerable position for a few seconds. If the batter rockets one back at you, you’ve got just a split-second to react. You don’t even have a helmet like the batter does. Stick your glove out and hope for the best.
Out on the basepaths, a different kind of danger lurks. The runners have shoes with spikes on them, theoretically for traction. They also carry an implied threat …. these spikes were made for, well, spiking. Sometimes they go into the ground, sometimes they go into the chest of a second baseman who doesn’t give enough ground when taking a throw.
Aside from the walk-off home run, the most dramatic play in baseball is the “play at the plate.” The winning or tying run is represented by a runner, who is waved frantically around third by the coach. The outfielder has the ball and it winding up to throw to home. The catcher has the plate blocked. The runner comes in at full-speed …
Let’s hit the pause button for a moment, The guy on the bases is wearing no special protection other than a small, partial helmet which often comes flying off during the long sprint around the bases. The catcher is only marginally better off. He’s got a chest protector and shin guards, but his mask is probably off to better see the play.
A collision is coming. The runner is moving at top speed. If you remember your high school physics, you know that an object acquires mass as it increases in velocity. Therefore, even a relatively slender player it going to slam into the catcher with the impact of a Buick.
On the other hand, the catcher is usually a stocky kind of fella who is braced for the crisis and has probably been blocking plates since he was in T-ball. The unstoppable force is about to meet the immovable object. Ouch!
And there’s more fun. Flying bats hitting you in the head (it happened to me). Falling into dugouts. Crashing at full speed into walls. Standing in the outfield where fans of the other team can pelt you with various objects.
Yes, baseball is a kinder, gentler sport than football. But mostly just if you’re watching it at home in your living room.
Jim Tortolano’s brain is taking the week off. Above is a classic Retorts from 2012. All will return to “normal” in two weeks.