02 October 2008

Klosterman on Baseball

We're now fully in the thick of football season, I got to watch the Sox beat the Angels last night to start the playoffs, and Chuck Klosterman's first novel* is out now, so it seems like a good time to mention Klosterman's mini-column in the September Esquire about baseball and why it consistently captures audience attention when by all rights it's fairly boring for casual fans to watch compared to other sports.
Baseball has — by far — the best scoring system in all of sport. It makes uninteresting contests exciting, because it a) doesn't have a concept of time and b) distributes runs in unorthodox increments.


Imagine a 3-0 game in the bottom of the ninth inning: The leading team is clearly in control. But if the leadoff hitter gets a bloop single, the pressure immediately reverts to the pitcher -- now, if the next guy gets on base, the game has the potential to be reinvented with one swing. The fact that you can instantly score a variable number of runs (in a game in which scoring is rare) keeps baseball fascinating. That's why we care about the drama, even when it isn't there.
I think he's on to something. Football and baseball are my two favorite sports, but they do handle the end of the game completely differently. I've never liked the way the endgame in football effectively starts in the fourth quarter (or even late third) if you're down by 10 or more. There's no way around it, but it still feels a bit fatalistic when you have 25% of the game left to play. On the other hand the Sox were up 4-1 going into the 9th, and the game still could have been only a couple of bad pitches away from a loss.

I think there's another more important aspect to baseball that can account for its interest, and that's it's discreteness and decomposability.** True, a football game is 60 or 70 individual battles, each with 11 one-on-one duels, but that's very hard to appreciate as a spectator. Especially with contemporary TV productions focusing exclusively on the ball carrier and offering very few replays. Football, and even more so sports with running clocks like hockey and soccer, are these big, swirling ballets of activity. Baseball has very clearly demarcated subunits to a game so that each discrete contest is readily observable. There's a winner to each inning, each at bat, each pitch. It can capture your attention because you can focus on one little piece at a time.

Maybe this is why it takes football coaches and players a dozen runs through a game film to decipher the individual components, but tomorrow's starting pitcher can chart a game in real time while sitting in the dug out. It's also what makes baseball so ammenable to statistical analysis. Baseball is sort of the classical Newtonian physics of sports: observable, decomposable, subject to closed form solutions. Football has a bit more chaotic, quantum flair to it.

* Here's the AV Club's review of Downtown Owl.
** I have a sneaking suspicion this is true of cricket as well, but I admit I don't understand the game well enough to know.

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