es, it’s time to turn those clocks ahead, drown that lost hour of sleep in an extra cup of coffee, and welcome the official start of spring.
Opening Day in major league baseball is a pretty good indicator that the seasons are finally changing, since the game does depend on decent weather and cannot be played well in sleet or sub-freezing temperatures. And although there is so much to discuss, from steroid scandals to Big Unit Randy Johnson’s “love child” (dubbed “Little Unit” by the media), we must give other sports their due.
Spring sports really do mimic the weather, when you get a little of everything thrown at you...NBA playoffs, NCAA Final Four, NHL playoffs, arena football, NASCAR, and golf, which doesn’t seem to have a season, or tennis, and a lot of other sports I don’t have the time or space to mention but mean something to someone out there. Although I will quibble with NASCAR, or any auto racing pursuit claiming to be a sport. I do not deny racing’s tremendous physical demands, but to be a true sport it seems there should be some element of physical competition beyond hand-eye coordination and the ability to sit behind or in front of an engine approaching meltdown temperatures. Perhaps the drivers should be required to do the first lap on foot. It would make for some interesting starts, as well as some exciting and perilous interplay between man and machine sharing the same track.
And arena football? Should we care? Can we care? It seems a little silly to me, but if you really think about it, all sports are pretty silly. Take basketball, for example; grown men and women struggling to pass a ball through a representational peach basket of steel and nylon mesh, and some announcer screaming about how important it all is, even historic...well, this is why you see the words “madness” and “mania” so often in basketball marketing. But, oddly, many of us do care, even those of us who claim we don’t...Yeah, that was me, sneaking a peak at the standings the other day, secretly hoping a certain team would succeed based on a twisted historicism that eats at my brain...
Anyway. I’d like to give a nod to the hockey season before I get too caught up in baseball. To that end I have called upon the finest hockey mind in town, Paul Demers, an anthropologist by profession and therefore perfectly qualified to study the more primal aspects of that fine game. And did I mention he’s Canadian? Anyway, Professor Demers offers these “few random thoughts” on an “interesting” NHL season (note his excellent analysis of the hapless U.S. Olympic hockey team):
“The new anti-obstruction rules have led to more goals and action. Yet, goaltenders are now more at risk since players cannot be cleared from the front of the net. Players can also crash the net without reprisals from goalies - slashes are no longer tolerated. Sometimes the result is a bewildering bevy of inconsistent calls. On some occasions, it would seem merely blinking in another player's direction nets you 2 minutes in the sin-bin. The automatic suspensions for fighting in the last 5 minutes have cut down on the nearly inevitable "get-even" donnybrooks when there were lopsided scores. The rules to free-up play have also allowed more rookies to shine. They are no longer subject to the kind of clutch-and-grab tactics that would take several years to learn and many months in the gym to gain the strength to resist. The Olympic results - sans Canada and the US from the medal round - was a vindication of European hockey. The larger ice surface favored the skaters, and the Euros have also learned how to hit and punish a la North America. One would have thought so many players joining European leagues during the lockout year would have opened a few managerial eyes. Not so, as we in NA are still the old gray mare of international play. The salary caps have introduced some parity, and unlike MLB, the rest of the league is no longer the farm team of a few rich clubs. Ironically, shedding several high priced free agents has actually helped several of these clubs, most notably the NY Rangers. This new structure has threatened the marketability of many high priced free agents and in an unintended consequence, threatened the longevity of the franchise player rewarded for years of loyal service to the club. As Gary Bettman incessantly micromanages and tinkers with the rules, the unintended consequences pile up, requiring further tinkering...”
So there you have it. If none of this makes sense to you, then I encourage you to read All Roads Lead to Hockey, available from the NU Press. It’s a book that looks at the game’s roots as well as its diverse and widespread appeal in North America. These “origin” books are great reads, and remind us of why we play these games in the first place, and that they aren’t really silly at all, but develop out of the necessity of a cultural moment.
We will talk baseball next time, and about the Merkle controversy as I had earlier promised, and on the ancient origins of the game as expressed in the most excellent read, Baseball Before We Knew It, also available from the NU Press.