After 49 Years

October 23, 2010

The Texas Rangers are going to the World Series.

I’ve gone to every home playoff game so far this year, including last night’s pennant-clinching 6-1 victory over the Yankees, and will be at Rangers’ Ballpark this Saturday, Sunday, and (if needed) Monday to see them play either the Phillies or the Giants, whichever ends up winning the NL pennant.

This could be a slight impediment to getting anything done regarding homework or applications over the next week. But other than that, I’m pretty happy with the current situation.

P.S. A quasi-normal posting schedule will likely resume some time near the end of November.


A Moving Image of Eternity

July 25, 2010

There is an excellently over-the-top article about baseball on the First Things website today. It begins with a discussion of baseball as a representative product of American culture, a topic I find quite interesting. I also particularly liked these two paragraphs, especially the term “the oblong game” (meaning all games of the football/soccer/basketball/hockey variety):

All of this, it seems to me, points beyond the game’s physical dimensions and toward its immense spiritual horizons. When I consider baseball sub specie aeternitatis, I find it impossible not to conclude that its essential metaphysical structure is thoroughly idealist. After all, the game is so utterly saturated by infinity. All its configurations and movements aspire to the timeless and the boundless. The oblong game is pitilessly finite: Wholly concerned as it is with conquest and shifting lines of force, it is exactly and inviolably demarcated, spatially and temporally; having no inner unfolding narrative of its own, it does not end, but is merely curtailed, externally, by a clock (even overtime is composed only of strictly apportioned, discrete units of time).

Baseball, however, has no clock; rather, terrestrial time is entirely subordinate to its inner intervals and rhythms. And, although the dimensions of the diamond are invariable, there are no fixed measures for the placement of the outfield walls. A ball that would be a soaring home run to dead center in St. Louis falls languidly short in Detroit, like a hawk slain in ¬mid-flight. A blow that would clear the bleachers at Wrigley Field is transformed into a single by the icy irony of Fenway’s left field wall, while a drowsy fly ball earns four bases. Even within a single park—Yankee Stadium, for instance—there is an often capricious disproportion between the two power alleys.

Over-the-top as all these claims are, there is something of truth in them; any beautiful thing (and baseball is beautiful) is so because it resonates with something greater than itself.

For the first time in several years the Texas Rangers appear likely to go to the playoffs and perhaps make it past the first round. It could be an exciting season.


Soccer, Baseball, Football

June 16, 2010

The world cup has started. I’ve only seen ten minutes of it; they happened to be the ten minutes in which the US scored its goal against England (or, rather, the English goalie scored against himself). Good luck on my part, I suppose, tuning in when I did.

Unlike the great majority of the world, I’m not a fan of soccer. Partially, I admit, it’s because I’ve never spent the time needed to understand the sport. I have a basic understanding of the rules – even the off-sides rule isn’t that hard to understand, after all (compare it to the arcane definition of a balk) but the strategy of the game I’ve never spent a great deal of effort trying to understand. I don’t have much desire to, though; the game is too fluid for my tastes.

This is really the main distinction between soccer and baseball. When it comes down to it, I suspect, there are really only three kinds of team sports: soccer, which is the same sport as hockey and basketball; baseball, which is the same as cricket; and American football, which is the same as rugby.

  • In soccer (and hockey and basketball), you have a completely fluid game where two sides are trying to get the ball into the opponent’s goal but possession can shift at any time, and there is no clear division of the action except after goals and out-of-bounds, and thus at each division both teams are back to being equal except for the score.
  • In baseball, you have a completely delineated game, where teams take turns going on offense and defense, which involve completely separate goals, and each at-bat is a separate action. The game has basically no fluidity to it, and there are numerous states (having men on base, getting outs) that a play can begin in that make the teams unequal yet with the score remaining the same.
  • In football, you have a strange mix of the two. There are separate offensive and defensive squads, but both teams intend to get the ball in the opponent’s goal, and possession can shift at any time. There are clear divisions between plays, and teams can gain yardage and lose downs without scoring. Yet the basic symmetry of the game gives it a sense of fluidity not found in baseball or soccer.

Of all the professional sports baseball is my favorite, and I think  it is because it is so delineated – it makes it possible to describe it is a step-by-step progression in a way you can’t describe a soccer game. Football I can enjoy for similar reasons, but I find myself easily bored by soccer (though I find it easily the most interesting of the soccer class of games); it always seems the same except when someone scores, and once there’s a score, there’s nothing to be excited about because it’s already back to normal.

Still, I wonder if I wouldn’t like soccer better if it were higher scoring – not as high as basketball games, but more like a baseball game, with an average score being 5-4 not 1-0. That’s about an average football score too, once you factor out the x7 multiplier – a 5-4 game translates into a 35-28 game, which is quite reasonable, and since field goals are only x3 not x7, it makes sense that they tend to be a bit lower than that.

So, though I prefer baseball mainly for its divisions and ability to be analyzed, I wonder if the reason I actively dislike soccer, or at least find it boring, has more to do with the low scores. If a 5-4 score, i.e. 9 total scores, is ideal for a 3-hour-game including commercials (so, a 2-hour game without them), does that mean the proper ratio for sports is a score every 10-15 minutes? Anything significantly more than that leads to a repetitive monotony (in basketball it’s a score every 30 seconds, which is way too often), while anything significantly less leads to a boring game (soccer is probably about a score every 45-60 minutes, though I couldn’t say exactly).

How much deviation from this 10-15 minutes can there be, I wonder, before the sport becomes boring? I also wonder if having such a ratio for some reason requires delineation, separation into different plays. At first glance that may seem preposterous, but it makes a sort of sense. All achievements in sports, I suspect, will be either really difficult (and so happen extremely rarely) or be really easy (and so happen quite often). Delineation means you can have multiple steps that are easy to achieve while requiring that many be achieved in succession in order to score. Having a pitch go in one’s favor is relatively easy; scoring a run requires that happening several times without three outs occurring first. With a more fluid game, you can’t do this, and so either scoring is easy (basketball) and happens too often, or it’s difficult (soccer) and happens too rarely. It’s hard to achieve a good mean.

As a simple thought experiment: consider transforming baseball into a game where there were no gradual accomplishments – it was either all or nothing, every time. The game would consist, basically, of team A making one pitch to team B, and if it results in a home run, team B scores a run; if not, team A comes up to bat. I don’t think that would be a very good game.


The Blade Runner

June 8, 2008

I read recently (broadly speaking) that it has been decided (by some committee somewhere, I suppose) that a man with artificial legs will be allowed to compete in the 2008 Beijing Olympics as a sprinter.

This just seems absurd to me. On the surface, yes, it might appear fair – why shouldn’t a disabled person be allowed to compete alongside able-bodied people? But that, I think, misses something extremely important: running, as a competitive activity, is something that depends on both the mind and the body. You can’t separate the runner from his body – you can’t be a “good runner” in the abstract, without part of that good runner-ness coming from the fact that your legs are longer, you have a lot of muscle, you don’t weigh much, etc.

And so, if you don’t have natural legs, but rather artificial steel legs, then whatever you’re doing when you move really fast using them, you’re not running, at least not in the sense that competitive runners are running. You’re not using your body to go fast, you’re using something that is not part of your body to go fast.

I think the idea that this man should be allowed to compete because it has not been proven that his legs give him an advantage misses the entire point and tends towards a flawed gnostic view of the world. It  says that the legs of a normal runner are just tools that he uses to run quickly, and if the artificial legs give roughly the same capability as natural legs, then they’re equivalent tools, and so a man with artificial legs should be able to compete in a contest normally performed with natural legs, no problem.

The thing is, the “tool” that natural legs supposedly are is of a power determined by the skill of the runner, and a good runner has better legs than a bad runner. Which of these is the artificial legs supposedly equal to? Are the steel legs specifically calibrated to be just as useful as the legs of your average Olympic sprinter? If so, a runner using these artificial legs will finish in the middle of the pack, and what’s the point of them competing? Are they calibrated to be as good as the best Olympic sprinter? Then a runner using them who wins the Olympics will be considered to have won because of his more powerful legs, not because of any achievement on his part. Either way, there is no point to a person with artificial legs competing in the Olympics. The Olympics, and sports in general, are to find who is the best whole person – mind and body, not divided – at the given activity.

Put simply – there is no way to nerf or buff artificial legs so that they put a runner using them on a level playing field with the other runners. They are fundamentally unbalanced. They take a part of the contest – the quality of the runner’s legs – and remove that from the control of the athlete, instead arbitrarily giving him legs of a given quality. It would be like having a contest to paint the best picture where one person was given an outline to work from and the rest were not – it doesn’t matter how good or bad the sketch would be, it wouldn’t be fair because it would remove any skill from that part of the contest, but from that person only.

I don’t mean to take anything away from what Oscar Pistorius has done – he is clearly a great athlete, and I have nothing against the disabled – but the fact remains that what is doing is not running, but something else. That’s why they have separate contests for it – the Paralympics, which he competes in. If the Olympic committee wants to add a sport where you use a standard-size, standard-quality metallic extension to the legs to move quickly, fine, do so and let this guy compete in it. But if they don’t, then this man should not be allowed to compete in the Olympics.

P.S.: This is somehow related, I think, to the discussion of performance-enhancing drugs in professional baseball and other sports, but I’m not sure how yet. It is mostly, I suppose, a clear example of something that does too much to alter the body and make it so you’re not competing with the other players in the same way – I think it would be unacceptable in baseball, just as in running, for one of the players to have artificial legs. But where the line is drawn, I don’t know. I tend towards saying performance-enhancing drugs fall on the other side of it (and this applies even if they posed no danger to the user and were not illegal, neither of which are true), but I’m not sure.


Fandom

April 8, 2008

As you may recall from last year, I’m a baseball fan and during the regular season I occasionally talk about the Texas Rangers (my home-town team) and how their season’s going. And now the 2008 baseball season has begun.

I’m going to the game against the Baltimore Orioles tomorrow night, incidentally.

So far this season the Rangers are 3-4 (3 wins, 4 losses). That’s not exactly good, but not horrible either. It’s still early in the season. There’s hope. There’s…

Hell, no there’s not. The problem is the Rangers sucked last year and have done very little to improve. Their starting pitching situation has not improved (the new pitcher, Jason Jennings, had an ERA over 6 last season, and everyone else is pretty much the same), the major acquisition in the Mark Teixeira trade, Jarrod Saltalamacchia, isn’t even starting, the outfield is still pretty much in shambles and Marlon Byrd can’t be expected to produce at last year’s level, etc etc… I believe Jon Daniels, the general manager, has even said that they’re currently “rebuilding” and don’t plan on being competitive until 2010.

The person who really got screwed over in all of this is Michael Young. He signed an extension to his contract a year ago on the understanding that we would be competitive now. Instead we’re back in rebuilding mode, just like we have been for the last seven years. He could have gone somewhere else for good money and actually been on a winning team.

This is the Rangers’ basic problem – they have some good players, but not enough to build a team out of, and the ownership/management is completely inept. So as a fan, you find yourself liking the players, but really frustrated with the team as a whole.

I really wish Tom Hicks would sell the team…


Umpirical Infallibility

October 1, 2007

The baseball season is over. The Rangers’ record? 75-87. Disappointing, but not surprising, I would say. Better than one would have expected earlier in the season, at least. We were 23-42 on June 13. We actually had a winning record since that point in the season. But going 19 games below .500 a bit more than two months into the season is going to completely destroy any chances of, well, doing anything that season. On a side note, Michael Young managed to pull his average up to .315 (the highest on the team!) after going something like .192 for the first month. There’s a reason he’s my favorite current Ranger.

Anyway, the sports calendar presses onward, and now it’s football season. I really couldn’t care less. It is kind of cool that the best-known football team in the NFL is from here (the Cowboys), and it’s good for local morale that they’ve started the season 4-0 or something like that, but I just don’t like football. I watched the second half of the game against the Rams on Sunday for lack of anything better to do, and I was just kind of bored.

I also remembered one of the many reasons I don’t like football – ‘challenges’ and instant replay. For those not familiar with the sport: if the coach thinks a call went the wrong way against his team, he can throw out a challenge flag and the referees are obliged to watch the play again on these little TVs they have on the sidelines. If the refs decide it was a bad call, it gets reversed. If they decide it was called correctly, they charge the team that wasted 3 minutes of everybody’s time a timeout (in football, each team has something like 3 timeouts per half… I really don’t know exactly how it works). Each team can only make two challenges per game, though if they both result in a changed call they get a third challenge. You can’t make challenges in the last two minutes of a game.

Now, let’s assume that it makes sense that coaches should be able to challenge calls made on the field. Do any of the restrictions put on them make any sense? Well, the “only 2 challenges unless both are right and then you get at third” obviously makes no sense. If you accept that coaches should be able to protest bad calls, why can they only protest a certain number per game? Perhaps they should be penalized for frivolous challenges, but why should they be limited in the number of successful challenges be made? The same for the “last two minutes of a game” rule. The purpose of that rule is to make the end of games go quicker. But it just makes no logical sense that you wouldn’t be able to challenge at that point if the call was bad.

And what’s the deal with it using up a timeout if the call is frivolous? Football is a timed game (another reason I dislike it), so you have to penalize people for wasting time intentionally. But it just seems strange to me that you’d be penalized a time-out for frivolous challenges. I suppose this stems from my dislike of the entire system of “punishment” in football (and basketball and hockey and… well, the only sport other than baseball that gets it right is soccer). Unsportsmanlike conduct? 15 yard penalty! False start? 5 yards! And what about basketball? Technical foul? A free throw for the other team! Essentially, you make actions that don’t have to do with the game, but rather with player conduct, and punish them in ways that affect the result of the game itself. I much prefer the baseball method – if a player or coach does something so egregious as to merit punishment, eject them from the game. Otherwise, don’t do anything.

But my fundamental problem with instant replay hasn’t even been mentioned yet. It is the basic assumption that coaches should be allowed to challenge the referees’ calls while the game is still progressing. Baseball says, essentially, that for the purposes of the game the umpires are infallible. That’s not actually the case, but it is necessary to preserve the illusion, otherwise all respect for the umpires is lost. It turns from a sporting event into a contest of who can best convince the umpire to change his decision in order to favor their team. If an umpire makes a bad call, too bad. After the game is over, the umpire can be corrected for his error, but during the game the umpire’s word is law. (There’s actually 4 umpires, and the head umpire’s word is law – he can overrule the word of the other umpires.) This ensures that the game progresses smoothly, that there’s no stopping in mid-game to argue over the rules of the game, and that it’s a contest of athleticism and strategy rather than a contest of persuasion.

The principle can actually be extended to games other than sporting events. It is essentially that you need to decide before the game who is in charge of the rules and have that person, and only that person, adjudicate disputes. Otherwise you spend a bunch of time arguing over the nature of the rules and how to apply them in this or that situation. That can be fun as well, but it’s a different kind of fun. And if you’re trying to play an established type of game (baseball, soccer, Diplomacy, whatever), the former almost always works best. The latter is more for when making up a game among friends (as I and my brothers often do).


756*

August 8, 2007

Unfortunately, I must report that Barry Bonds has hit his 756th home run, moving past Hank Aaron for first place on the all-time home run list. He now is in sole possession of the record.

If you don’t know why I would view this even with such distaste, or why I put that asterisk in the title – let it be known that Barry Bonds is a known cheater. He’s admitted to taking steroids (though he said he didn’t know about them – as if I believe that). Yet he goes on unpunished, allowed to break baseball’s most hallowed record. And now the all-time triple crown – batting average, hits, and home runs – is held by a racist (Ty Cobb), a gambler (Pete Rose), and a cheat. That doesn’t reflect well on the sport.

But in San Francisco, everybody loves Barry Bonds.

I don’t understand this, really. He’s on their team, and so they can ignore the fact that he’s a foul cancer in the sport? I suppose allegiance to team takes precedence over all else.

And this isn’t specific to the Giants. Ivan “Pudge” Rodriguez, for example, is thought to have used steroids (though it’s nowhere near as certain as the fact that Bonds did), but we in Texas still love him. (I still cheer for him when he comes to the ballpark as an opposing player… after all, it was Tom Hicks who drove him away, not him who voluntarily left.) Why does this seem acceptable to us, and essentially everybody around baseball (Pudge isn’t universally reviled, far from it), while Barry Bonds is seen as the devil incarnate?

I think part of the reason has to do with him being such an unlikeable person. He intentionally gets people to hate him. With a personality like that, it’s no surprise he has few supporters outside of San Francisco – where they support him not because they like him, particularly, but because he’s theirs – they’re the ones benefiting from his cheating.

Anyway, it seems like the moral judgements we pass on people depend a lot, probably way too much, on how much we respect the person and on whether we have any personal interest in the person doing well. Pudge is loved because he’s a likable guy, and even more so in the cities where he’s played and brought success, even though he probably used steroids. While Barry Bonds is universally detested, except in his city of San Francisco, because he’s such a dislikable guy and no one wants him to do well except Giants fans – his using steroids is the purported cause for the hatred, but it probably goes beyond that..

Does this mean I should actually forgive Bonds and not grudge him his 756 home runs? I don’t think so. And does it mean that next time Pudge comes through Texas I should boo him instead of cheer him? Not really. Even if it did, those things wouldn’t happen. But I think it does mean I should have a bit more sympathy for Bonds than I do – I hate Bonds as a person, but I need to separate that from hatred of his breaking the record using steroids. And I love Pudge as a player and as a person, but I need to acknowledge the fact that he probably did cheat, and not love that part of him.

—–

ALL-TIME HOME RUNS

Barry Bonds – 756*
Hank Aaron – 755
Babe Ruth – 714
Willie Mays – 660
Sammy Sosa – 604*

*: These players are known to have used steroids to gain an unfair advantage in achieving their records.


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