I’m reading Sports Illustrated’s Great Baseball Writing and I’ve learned something from the various essays and articles in the volume – the great American pastime is always in a state of hand-wringing about the State of the Game.
Think about it. At the turn of the 20th century there was great concern over the hoodlums who played the game. The 20s were marred by gambling scandals, primarily the one revolving around the Chicago White Sox and the 1919 World Series. After that was World War II, segregation, integration, labour strife and, most recently, steroids.
There’s always a new problem plaguing the sport.
In all that doom and gloom there isn’t enough talk about what makes baseball great. I’m as guilty of this pessimism as the next person. This season alone I’ve taken shots at my hometown Toronto Blue Jays, complained about lengthy games and weighed-in on Joe Cowley and talk of moving the Jays.
So let’s get positive. Let’s talk about three things that I love about baseball.
1) Afternoon Games
Nobody likes to work during the summer. It’s a drag. Everyone would much rather be outside, enjoying the sun. Unfortunately, employment is a necessary element of being a part of today’s society.
However, baseball matinees can provide some respite from the drudgery of work. Following the game on the radio, on TV or on the Internet is always a pleasant distraction from a job.
A particular favourite of mine is to follow the Atlanta Braves on Peachtree. Their announcers are laid back and the fans at Turner Field are great. It’s always relaxing and fun to watch.
I really enjoy the little social behaviours that surround baseball games. Waiting for the half inning to return to your seat after a trip to the concession stand. Judging a person’s character based on whether or not they use the real pitcher’s rubber during the opening pitch. Singing, stretching and dancing during the seventh inning stretch. They’re all good.
A particular favourite is the habit of Torontonians to boo any opposing team that dares to have a mound meeting or try to pick-off a runner. No matter what the situation, Jays fans go nuts at the very thought of another team trying to invoke strategy.
3) The Fans
Baseball fans can’t compete with other sports’ supporters in terms of passion or intensity, but they are definitely smarter. Hockey fans, as much as I love ‘em, are basically only capable of three sounds – boo, cheer and Go <team name> Go! The rest of the game is spent in a fixed state of concentration. Football and basketball fans are much the same.
However, baseball fans sing songs together, come up with chants, and best of all heckle. No matter where they’re sitting in a stadium they will yell at the top of their lungs lengthy diatribes on their target’s short-comings as a player.
Their knowledge of bench players and opposing teams runs deep too, with many fans citing the personal lives of the athlete. Remember when it was rumoured that Alex Rodrgiuez was stepping out on his wife with Madonna? Good times. Truly, a golden age of heckling.
Although the playoffs (hockey and/or basketball, take your pick) still sit between us and the summer, the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation has already begun to promote their coverage of this year’s World Cup of Soccer in South Africa.
There’s a growing an air of excitement surrounding the tournament. After all, it’s the biggest sporting event in the world, even more popular than the Olympics.
Unfortunately, this time around I’m going to be watching the World Cup with a pretty sceptical eye.
My disillusionment began in Dec. 2008 as I read Declan Hill’s The Fix, an investigation into the world of sports fixing by a journalist who used to work with the CBC and the British Broadcasting Corporation.
I reviewed the book on my now defunct blog, but in short: Hill uncovered a far-reaching criminal underworld that exerts its influence over many sporting events. Hill chose to focus his investigation on soccer matches and his findings were startling.
According to him, there are two kinds of match-fixing scenarios.
1) Internal – When a member of a team gives incentives to officials or the players on opposing clubs to give his team an advantage.
Author Joe McGinniss details this kind of fix in The Miracle of Castel Di Sangro when he overhears several players discussing throwing their final game of the season against Bari. They had been asked to do this “favour” to insure that Bari would be promoted to Serie A.
2) External – When an outsider influences the outcome of a match for personal gain.
Obviously, this is the more typical kind of sporting corruption, with the Black Sox scandal, when the Chicago White Sox threw the 1919 World Series at the behest of Arnold Rothstein, serving as a sterling example.
In The Fix, Hill uncovers evidence of many professional matches being thrown world-wide. The climax of the book is when a mobster assures him that the World Cup itself is fixed. The gangster predicts the results of a handful of matches, down to when the goals are scored.
Hill watches with growing horror as each one of the games ends just as described.
Why is this pertinent now? Because last November German police arrested 15 people for fixing more than 200 games. Two weeks ago, Turkish police detained 40 people, including former international Arif Erdem, for their involvement in thrown matches.
Germany’s Bundesliga and Turkey’s Süper Lig are not the best professional soccer league’s in the world, but they are hardly fly-by-night organizations. In fact, the German national team is one of the best sides in the world and a contender for the 2010 World Cup.
With all this in mind, it will be hard to not be cynical when one of the favourites struggles against an opponent this summer. I simply can’t help but be a little jaded after reading The Fix and hearing about recent events in European soccer.