Friday, September 11, 2009

Hardball & Pigskin: A Meandering Musing On My Two Favorite Sports

It's hard to believe that only about 1/8th of the baseball season remains, isn't it? We've spent over 5 months drilling down into the minutiae of the Yankees' season for about 700 posts, give or take. Previews, recaps, updates, analysis, extrapolations, musings, dissection and ponderance. I'm not a big NBA fan so during that stretch, my focus has been pretty squarely set on the Yankees and if not them, other teams in the MLB or baseball in general.

Well, since we had the first game of the NFL season last night, I start thinking more about the differences between the two on a general level. I skirted around it in the last post I put up yesterday but wanted to take a deeper look today, while the Yanks' season is still in suspended animation. It's a bit long and winding, but there's no turning back now.

I'm sure you know the George Carlin bit where he looks at the a some of the quirkiness of baseball in relation to other sports then discusses the differences in language between the two, which color baseball as pastoral game and football as a deadly war.

A while back, when he was riffing off Carlin, Joe Posnanski said, about the language of baseball:
Just about every word or phrase — can of corn, bang-bang play, dinger, tater, gopher ball, round-tripper, sinker, slider, — sounds like something a small child came up with long ago.
I think Pos hits on something here. Baseball is childlike in a way, because you have to accept failure as a part of it. You can have the most well-behaved children in the world, but despite your best efforts, they are still going to mess up sometimes and you could get mad at them every time, but that would make you kind of an asshole. Likewise, you can have a great baseball team and they are still going to lose, at the very least, about 30% of the time. You can get pissed, but that probably means you are a little unstable.

The moment of impact baseball ultimately boils down to is when a round ball traveling at 90 or so miles per hour collides with a rounded bat being swung at about about 65. It's an impact that takes place so fast and is altered by such minuscule increments that neither the batter or the pitcher could ever hope to control it precisely. Being great at baseball is like excelling at poker or golf; regardless of how good you are, you're still going to ground into double plays, get busted on the river or make bogeys. You have to defy the odds over the long term by making solid contact, putting your money in with the best hand or hitting fairways and greens.

There isn't that kind of failure rate built into football because there is far less probability involved. There's no precise moment of impact that change drastically in a matter of millimeters. Players are held accountable for almost everything that goes wrong. If a pass is intercepted, it's usually because the quarterback made a poor decision or a bad pass. If a running back gets dumped in the back field, it's because someone missed a blocking assignment or he hit the wrong hole. Sure, fingertip catches first downs are missed by inches or less, but it's clear that the Football Gods have far less of a hand in the outcome of the game than do the Baseball Gods.

The upshot is that football meets our expectations far more often than baseball. The best team in the NFL is almost never going to lose one game to the worst team, let alone two out of three. However, the Yankees did just that to the Nationals when they played them earlier this year. The probability aspect is what makes the 162 game schedule necessary in baseball and a season only 1/10th that long the norm for the NFL.

So between the length of the season and the level of randomness inherent in each of the sports, it's obvious why football follows a much more predictable narrative arc; the season is distilled into fewer games played with less deviation from expectations. And people love predictable storylines (h/t Joe P). You can make sense and draw conclusions out of individual football games, and have a better idea of where things are going as result. You can't even do that with any degree of reliability after watching an entire series in baseball.

The reason for this, I believe, is the fact that football teams compete against each other, but in baseball it's really a team's offense squaring off against one pitcher at a time, with a giant expectation of probability wedged in between.

I think those things start get down to why the NFL is much more popular than the MLB. Sure, it also helps that the time in between downs is perfectly conducive for replays to be shown and dissected. It doesn't hurt that the game is physical and eye catching. The advent of HDTV has certainly made football more enjoyable to watch at home.

But watching a football game is inherently more satisfying than watching a baseball game. I love both and obviously watch more than my fair share of baseball games, but like I said yesterday, I almost never watch a game from beginning to end that doesn't involve the Yanks.

The NFL schedule is easier to digest, to follow and to understand. You feel like you know more about the league as a whole from watching a single game. It's a lot easier to be a knowledgeable football fan that it is a baseball fan because your assumptions based on small sample sizes are true more often.

And this is kind of odd, because in football, you get the feeling that almost all of the people with the greatest knowledge of the game are those working in it. In baseball, you've got a ton of outside observers coming up with interesting theories and new ways to look at the game. The nuts and bolts of the in-depth strategy is really only know to the coaches and players in football, while in baseball, even the most advanced maneuvers are fairly transparent.

So in a way, baseball is simpler, because so much of the information available is right there for you. But at the same time the elements of random chance and probability that are so fundamental to the game ensure that there will always be an elusive blind spot in our understanding of the game; certain things that can't be figured out. And that makes it more complicated. And that's why it's more of an acquired taste than football.

It's not that baseball is better than football, or vice versa. But as we progress into the time of year which the two sports cohabitate, it's interesting to explore why each sport is enjoyable in it's own right. At least for me and the three other people who made it to the end of the post.

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