October 14, 2009

October is the busiest month on the spectator sports calendar, when we finally get to the baseball games that do matter, and most football teams still have hopes that their games will matter.

Football knocked off baseball as America’s national sport in part because its one-game-per-week schedule is better for the television age. Baseball, with its order-of-magnitude more games per season, was ideal during the preceding radio age. You could always listen to the ballgame on the radio to pass the time while you were doing something else.

In the Indoor Era, however, if you”€™re not watching it on a giant glowing screen, it’s not important. And while most women can, say, fold laundry while watching TV, fewer men seem to be able to accomplish much while devoting proper attention to the set.

Baseball is too slow to make good TV until October, when each pitch starts to seem important. Say you are a casual Yankee fan. If C.C. Sabathia’s first pitch of the American League Championship Series to Angel leadoff hitter Chone Figgins is a ball, you”€™ll start worrying that Figgins is going to draw a walk, steal second, then be driven home on a base hit, and, oh, no, the Yankees are going to fail humiliatingly to win the World Series once again.

Post-season baseball can resemble a tense slow-paced thriller such as No Country for Old Men.

In July, though, it’s hard to work up that level of interest in the 97th baseball game out of 162. (What baseball is good at, though, is piling up statistics, but perusing numbers is a minority taste.)

In contrast, being a football fan suits the prehistoric male hunter-gatherer mind wonderfully. Anthropologists discovered that nomads who make their living hunting big game and attacking their neighbors don”€™t actually work that hard. While women can gather food and gossip simultaneously, allowing them to work more hours per week, their menfolk spend a lot of time sitting around talking about the hunt ahead. Then, when it’s over, they kill a lot more time rehashing the highlights.

Sound familiar?

What are some other differences between the baseball and football?

From an evolutionary perspective, baseball is a somewhat “meta-game.” In other words, hitting a ball with a stick is not something that would obviously help a caveman survive and thrive, unlike sports such as running, wrestling, or javelin-throwing, which test basic Stone Age skills.

Throwing rocks was an important part of hunting and fighting, as was swinging a club. Boys still like it. When my son was between 18 months and four-years-old, he couldn”€™t step five feet out of the house without immediately picking up a stick and then brandishing it menacingly throughout his walk around the block.

But putting them together”€”hitting a thrown object with a club”€”doesn”€™t serve any basic primordial purpose. Instead, it’s the kind of thing that rock-throwing and stick-brandishing boys would do for a lark to demonstrate their general fitness. Thus, baseball, like golf, another hit-the-ball-with-a-stick meta-game, tends to be a sport that you either see the point of or you don”€™t.

The idea behind football, in contrast, is more elemental. It’s obviously all about the conquest of territory, a violent but (hopefully) non-lethal combat game.

Still, this idea of a battle as a more or less fair fight between well-trained armies subordinating individual glory to mass solidarity in order to smash into each another without breaking ranks is not a conception that comes naturally to humans.

Football embodies the Western conception of the organized, decisive infantry battle that evolved, as Victor Davis Hansonhas documented, in conflicts between city-states during the Greek Dark Ages.

In contrast, tribal warfare tends to consist of either stealth ambushes and massacres, more like Mafioso rubouts than the Battle of Gettysburg, or public and somewhat ceremonial exhibitions of courage in which both sides set up just out of range of each other’s projectiles. An occasional bravo dashes into the danger zone to launch his weapon at the enemy, then scampers back to the safety of his lines and the cheers of his tribesmen.

Much of the fighting beneath the walls of Troy probably involved would-be heroes milling about trying to get their courage up to challenge somebody on the other side to single combat while their comrades rooted them on. Medieval French knights likewise spent much of each battle looking around for somebody on the other side whom it would be honorable to challenge. (Part of Joan of Arc’s improbable military genius involved coaching the French noblemen to fight like an army rather than like a posse of Terrell Owenses grandstanding for the cameras.)

The Greek city-states just before the Classical era developed a style of combat that looked rather like the kickoff of a football game (which is, not surprisingly, the most dangerous part of the game). Two armies would line up opposite each other and then charge. Mass collisions involving edged weapons are almost more than human courage can bear, so repetitious drilling was required beforehand to desensitize the infantryman and build esprit de corps.

The English led the world in the development of sports precisely because they were so domestically well-ordered. While the medieval English aristocracy fought and died in the large numbers recounted in Shakespeare’s history plays, the lives and property of the middle ranks were surprisingly secure, as Gregory Clark documents in A Farewell to Alms. (Compare how few fortified hilltop villages there are in England versus in Italy.)

The English diverted the normal masculine urge toward fighting into sport. American football is a 19th-century formalization, along with such cousins as soccer, rugby, and Australian Rules football, of old English mass melees. Each Whitsunday (or whenever) the hearty lads of South Cruckleford would confront the young bucks of North Cruckleford in a quasi-brawl and whichever side could push and shove a stuffed pigskin to the other’s church steeple would win the local honors.

Americans continue that tradition with football substituting for tribal warfare. I”€™ve long lamented the relative lack of big money college football in New York City and Washington D.C. It would be a harmless way to absorb the competitive energies of billionaires who now fund the starting real wars. For example, if NYU had a Top Ten college football team, perhaps commodity trading billionaire Bruce Kovner would have invested in linebackers rather than in backing the line of the American Enterprise Institute with huge donations.

Paradoxically, the U.S. military spread the relaxed, peaceful game of baseball across America during the Civil War, as soldiers played in army camps. And then the Army and Marines occupation forces disseminated baseball throughout the northern half of Latin America during the era of the Bad Neighbor Policy.

There are two exotic kinds of baseball fans that are seldom seen among football fans.

First, baseball has had its literary fringe from Ring Lardner and James Thurber on down. What other sport would make Yale Comparative Literature scholar A. Bartlett Giamatti (father of actor Paul Giamatti) its commissioner?

While there is good writing about football, there’s not much of a literary culture to relentlessly celebrate its classics, in the way that, say, Roger Kahn’s The Boys of Summerabout the Brooklyn Dodgers of the early 1950s was constantly touted.

Partly this reflects baseball’s strong New York City roots. To the extent that baseball was invented by anybody, its rules were made up by a New York merchant named Alexander Cartwright in 1845. From 1901 to 1958, three of the 16 major league baseball teams were located in New York City, with the Yankees the best team from Babe Ruth’s arrival in 1920 to Mickey Mantle’s decline after 1964. All across America, there are people who write about sports, but New York dominates the second tier of people who write about people who write about sports. Thus, New York tastes determine the canon.

In contrast, college football, which was the dominant version of the game until the 1960s, was seldom strongly represented in New York City. Fordham had some good years, and Army, up the Hudson at West Point, was powerful in the 1940s, but New York was more a baseball and basketball town. Hence, football’s rise to the top dog position snuck up on the country out of the hinterland, rather than being given a big push from on high in New York.

Still, baseball’s literary bent also reflects the game’s more languid pace, which often inspires the pastorally poetic in litterateurs. Even its greatest comedy, Jim Bouton’s Ball Four, stems from how often baseball players are waiting around for something to happen. And an idle mind is the devil’s workshop.

Football games, in contrast, are a constant uproar of preparation, execution, and recovery. Not terribly poetic.

Second, in baseball, amateur statistical analysts, such as Bill James (now an executive with the Boston Red Sox), have made a sizable impact on how the game is played over the last decade. Their data have proven wrong many of the opinions of managers, scouts, and general managers who lived by Yogi Berra’s maxim, “€œYou can observe a lot just by watching.”€

On the other hand, sedentary statistical analysts have only begun to have an effect on football. Various individuals tout themselves as the “€œBill James of football,”€ but football still lags behind even basketball in statistical wonks.

There are many reasons why amateur statisticians haven”€™t made much progress versus football coaches.

First, there are a huge number of assistant coach jobs at all levels of football, and less of a bias against intellectual intensity in coaches than is found in baseball. Smart guys with pattern recognition skills are more likely to be given a chance in football than in baseball, at least pre-2000. NFL teams, for instance, employ nerdy “€œquality-control coaches“€ to analyze the tendencies of the oppositions.

Second, football isn”€™t as tradition bound as baseball. It’s still progressing. For example, of the top 15 quarterbacks in career passer rating, 12 are still active. (The other three are the San Francisco trio that came out of Bill Walsh’s system: Joe Montana, Steve Young, and Jeff Garcia.)

It’s quite possible that NFL quarterbacks really are more genetically gifted today than a generation ago, back when many tall, athletic white youths would have concentrated upon basketball. American whites have now largely given up on making professional careers in the NBA (unlike foreign whites, who are doing well), so more of that tall talent is focused on playing quarterback. Yet, most of the progress in passer ratings should be credited to innovative coaches.

Third, football is much more complicated to analyze than baseball because each player’s statistical accomplishments are so dependent upon his teammates. In contrast, you can state with some certainty that Albert Pujols and Joe Maurer were the best hitters in their respective leagues in 2009 because batters perform in isolation.

Fourth, football coaches traditionally work a lot harder than baseball men. Football coaches also observe a lot just by watching, but they do it by watching countless hours of game film.

Fifth, baseball is more of a game of nature, of selection, while football is one of nurture, of training. Baseball is more probabilistic: In baseball, if you can hit a round ball with a round bat somewhere where nobody’s fielding just one time out of three, they”€™ll pay you millions.

Since even star sluggers fail two out of three times, baseball managers have to be fatalists. In football, if one player out of eleven fails to execute his assignment, the play could be a bust, so coaches tend to be perfectionists.

Even if you have Peyton Manning as your quarterback, you still have to get him working in sync with the rest of the offense against ever-changing defenses.

While the New York newspapers make managing the Yankees out to be one crisis after another, maybe it’s not all that hard. For the last 14 seasons, the Yankee managers have begun their chief daily responsibility by writing Derek Jeter’s name down first or second on their lineup cards. That’s not a bad way to start your workday.


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