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Baseball Begone! Once More, Into the Mud

America's true national pastime--football--is back, in all its violent, bruising, deathly glory.

September 03, 2000|REED JOHNSON | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Listen up, sports fans: That dismal wail you'll be hearing today is the bleating of baseball aficionados everywhere, perturbed at having to step aside for the start of America's true national pastime--the gloriously, unapologetically knuckle-dragging form of ritualized chaos otherwise known as professional football.

Praise the Lord and pass the pigskin.

Nothing against baseball, which can be a fine occasion for whiling away a pleasant 5 1/2 hours, especially while laid up in traction. But in general, life's too short to wait seven months just to see the Yankees beat the Braves in the World Series again.

Sure, we've all heard the rap against football ad nauseam: It's nasty, brutish and long; its players have become walking 350-pound pharmaceutical factories; it's responsible for wife beating, global warming and the collapse of the two-party system; it's a paradigm for modern, soulless, corporate America, pitting armies of faceless, do-or-die automatons in an impersonal war of all against all.

Though not without varying degrees of merit, these criticisms tend to miss the mark, like a place-kicker staring down a 30 mph November wind. Football is a game, not a civics class or a metaphor for the end of American Innocence. Filled with violence and grace, regimented but improvisational, highly technical yet bruisingly straightforward, it encapsulates the extremes of sport, and of life. It isn't a game for temperate souls, though reportedly it does appeal to certain compassionate conservatives.

Football isn't a game of hair-splitting statistics and high-minded nuances, which may explain why it lacks baseball's popularity among those who think sports should impart deep metaphysical significance. As the boozy, world-weary loser of a narrator in Frederick Exley's 1968 novel "A Fan's Notes" puts it, "football was an island of directness in a world of circumspection. In football a man was asked to do a difficult and brutal job, and he either did it or got out. There was nothing rhetorical or vague about it. . . . It smacked of something old, something traditional, something unclouded by legerdemain and subterfuge."

Maybe baseball's problem is its literary earnestness, its yearning to be something more than a good excuse for sharing a cold beer on a warm July night. For more than a century, the sport has swaddled itself in Arcadian mythology and heavy-handed symbolism, as if a homely little clump of rawhide could somehow be transmuted into the Holy Grail. True, baseball can boast some mind-altering moments: Ruth's "called shot," Carlton Fisk's Game 6 World Series home run, DiMaggio's hitting streak.

Baseball's problems seem to have begun sometime around World War II, when the sport grew self-conscious of its romanticized heritage. Soon afterward, frustrated-jock journalists started cranking out 500-page paeans to their sluggin' boyhood heroes, and frustrated-jock English professors and political pundits began penning 20,000-word essays on the transcendental properties of the Seventh-Inning Stretch.

From there it was only a hop, skip and a bounce to baseball's apotheosis in literature, movies and popular-culture cliches, like the ubiquitous (groan) "if you build it, they will come." Suddenly, baseball wasn't content to be merely about hot dogs and pop flies. It had to be about father-son bonding ("Field of Dreams"), the corruption of the national character ("Eight Men Out") and those twin poles of American consciousness, failure and redemption ("The Natural").

Baseball apologists love to wax poetic about how time stands still in a ballpark because the game is controlled by the ebb and flow of innings rather than the inexorable march of minutes and hours. Baseball, they opine, is a "pastoral epic" in which human mortality itself is suspended. In theory, they rhapsodize, a baseball game can last forever . . . and ever . . . and ever.

Well, so in theory can a migraine. Give me instead the visceral, life-and-death tussle of the gridiron, where the balletic pirouettes of a Jerry Rice or a Randy Moss meet the bear-hugging imperatives of a Warren Sapp. While baseball supposedly blesses its acolytes with the promise of eternal life, enacted on a sylvan patch of green, football looks death in the face with a snaggle-toothed grin and stoically accepts the uncertainty of the here and now. One awful crack, the football player knows, and his career may be kaput. The term "sudden death" hints at the severity of the stakes.

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