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Sublime boredom in soccer and baseball

January 20, 2012

In reading this recent article about soccer I was struck by the parallels between this defense of boredom in soccer and other defenses I’ve seen of boredom in baseball, and how these two differ from other sports. I don’t think it’s just that baseball and soccer fans are the most pretentious. Soccer and baseball are different from the rest. Other sports, for one, don’t admit, much less take pride, in the fact that they’re boring.

At the same time, when I read this article I was struck by the ways in which soccer and baseball are complete opposites. It’s as if baseball and soccer run antiparallel to one another.

From the article:

There are two reasons, basically, why soccer lends itself to spectatorial boredom. One is that the game is mercilessly hard to play at a high level. (You know, what with the whole “maneuver a small ball via precisely coordinated spontaneous group movement with 10 other people on a huge field while 11 guys try to knock it away from you, and oh, by the way, you can’t use your arms and hands” element.) The other is that the gameplay almost never stops — it’s a near-continuous flow for 45-plus minutes at a stretch, with only very occasional resets. Combine those two factors and you have a game that’s uniquely adapted for long periods of play where, say, the first team’s winger goes airborne to bring down a goal kick, but he jumps a little too soon, so the ball kind of kachunks off one side of his face, then the second team’s fullback gets control of it, and he sees his attacking midfielder lurking unmarked in the center of the pitch, so he kludges the ball 20 yards upfield, but by the time it gets there the first team’s holding midfielder has already closed him down and gone in for a rough tackle, and while the first team’s attacking midfielder is rolling around on the ground the second team’s right back runs onto the loose ball, only he’s being harassed by two defenders, so he tries to knock it ahead and slip through them, but one of them gets a foot to it, so the ball sproings up in the air … etc., etc., etc. Both teams have carefully worked-out tactical plans that influence everything they’re trying to do. But the gameplay is so relentless that it can’t help but go through these periodic bouts of semi-decomposition.

But — and here’s the obvious answer to the “Why are we doing this?” question — those same two qualities, difficulty and fluidity, also mean that soccer is uniquely adapted to produce moments of awesome visual beauty. Variables converge. Players discover solutions to problems it would be impossible to summarize without math. The ball sproings up in the air … and comes down in just such a way that Dennis Bergkamp can pull off a reverse-pirouette flick that spins the ball around the defender and back into his own path … or Thierry Henry can three-touch a 40-yard pass in the air before lining it up and scoring a weak-foot roundhouse … or Zlatan Ibrahimovic can stutter-fake his way through an entire defense. In sports, pure chaos is boring. Soccer gives players more chaos to contend with than any other major sport. So there’s something uniquely thrilling about the moments when they manage to impose their own order on it.

I’m just going to take about baseball in terms of the batter, for now. The batter can never have mistake pile on mistake in this way. Each pitch comes when he is completely prepared, physically if not mentally. Yet he fails the vast majority of the time. Baseball, too, is “mercilessly hard to play at a high level,” but not in the physically exhausting way of soccer. Instead it requires honing absurd skills–swinging a piece of wood at a ball flying at you at 90 miles an hour and hitting it so that it doesn’t land near any of the nine people positioned seemingly at random in the field in front of you–so that you’re better at those things than any of the people trying to take your place.

Soccer too requires acquired skill as well as natural talent, but the skills it requires are, for the most part, tactical. (Running is not a skill. Knowing where you’re supposed to run is.) Baseball requires a great deal of acquired skill just to be able to play the game at all. (If you can’t swing at a pitch because you never learned to ignore the fact that a 90-mph projectile is flying in your direction it’s not just that you can’t play the game well.)

The difficulty of baseball leads to boredom and ecstasy just as does the difficulty of soccer. When baseball gets boring you get “strikeout… pop fly… ground-out… strikeout… strikeout… ground-out…” for hours on end because none of the batters are good enough to even make solid contact. Then Josh Hamilton comes to the plate and swings the bat in a way that looks utterly effortless and the ball travels 490 feet into the upper deck.

But this isn’t quite the same in baseball as in soccer. In both the ecstasy comes when “variables converge. Players discover solutions to problems it would be impossible to summarize without math,” but the problems are different.

Soccer takes an intuitively normal set-up: there’s a field and some people kicking a ball around, trying to get the ball in one goal or the other. The problem comes at a tactical level, and come from chaos, the chaos of how indeterminate this initial set-up really is. The goal is to manipulate the chaos well enough to get the ball into the right goal.

Baseball takes an obviously constructed set-up: nine men on the field, a batter, four bases, he hits the ball the runs counterclockwise around them and tries to get back where he started before they get the ball and tag him with it, but if they catch it he’s out, and he can stop on any base and be safe and then the next batter comes up with him on, and then there’s strike-outs and walks… The problem comes at a mechanical level, in trying to cope with that rigid order. The goal is to make something unexpected happen within that order, to hit the ball where no one expects it, and with any luck it will land on the ground, not in someone’s glove, and you’ll finally be allowed to do something.

The problem of soccer, we might say, is the difficulty of acting meaningfully; the problem of baseball is the difficulty of getting to the point where you can act at all. Soccer is about the possibility of value in a world where anything is possible; baseball about the possibility of volition in a world where only one thing is possible.

Yes, this is a perhaps overly philosophical take on the sports. But sports are aesthetic objects, and all aesthetic objects deal, at some level, with deeper philosophical questions–especially those, like baseball and soccer, that aim for sublimity. (This is why they are boring: sublimity requires preparation.)

And yes, I’ve only been talking about the batter. Focusing only on him is, in a way, like focusing only on the goalie. (In a way, that’s what baseball is: soccer with the goalie as main character.) It might seem, intuitively, as if baseball being about “getting to the point where you can act at all” just isn’t true for the pitcher–he’s not just trying to act, he’s trying to act well enough that the batter can’t act at all.

But consider: originally the pitcher wasn’t supposed to act. He was supposed to be just a cog in a machine, tossing the ball towards the batter because there’s no other way to have a batter, unless you want to play tee-ball. Eventually he started to act, snapping his wrist so the ball went faster and was harder to hit, and eventually they let him throw overhand and throw different kinds of pitches. Now being a good pitcher is mostly about throwing well, and throwing different kinds of pitches, and not losing concentration or patience or confidence. Given those things, there’s not a whole lot of tactics involved. There’s pitch choice, yes, but that’s mostly a game of fake-outs and trying not to be predictable. Pitching, then, isn’t primarily about knowing how or when to act; as with everything else in baseball, those are predetermined–towards the strike zone, and, whenever the batter is ready. The game, after all, won’t progress until the pitch is made. Pitching about being able to take an event, the presentation of the ball to the batter, and make it into an action, the act of pitching.

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