Monday, May 31, 2010

Johnny Saves the American Pastime!

In theory, I really do love the World Cup. I love that in the opening rounds, we’ll see such matchups as Serbia against Ghana, Paraguay against Slovakia, the Netherlands against Cameroon, and South Korea against Nigeria; I’d venture to say that a large percentage of the players wouldn’t even have heard before the so-called group draws of many of the countries against which they’ll be playing. I love that the whole world watches, and that it isn’t the richest countries, or those with the largest populations, that commonly win, but the likes of the Netherlands, Portugal, Italy, Spain, and Brazil.

What I wish I liked a lot better was actually watching the games.

There’s no question that extraordinary athleticism is required to be a great player of what we call soccer and the rest of the world calls football. You need quickness, agility, balance, stamina — and courage. A great player can do remarkable things with his feet; just watch someone like Lionel Messi of “Argentina” (he’s been a virtual Spaniard for something like a decade, playing for Barcelona) “dribble” through and past half a dozen defenders. Just watch another great player perform a 180-degree bicycle kick, Many of the skills involved closely resemble those required in basketball, but in football there’s no place for lumbering behemoths of the sort you see in the NBA. Tiny men (Messi’s nickname is The Flea) are at no disadvantage whatever to much bigger ones.

But how very boring the game can be to watch. Honduras, say, kicks the ball way the hell down the field, but a Swiss defender intercepts it before a Honduran forward can reach it, and kicks it way the hell down the field, where — you guessed it — a Honduran defender intercepts it and…kicks it back down the field. And so it goes for 20 minutes, for 30, for a whole game. This isn’t to say that there isn’t lots of deft passing, but rather that actual scoring threats are as infrequent as they are thrilling. The rest of the world loves a 1-0 game. Americans nod off in the 32nd minute.

When I would discuss the differences between basketball and football (soccer) with my former British neighbors, they’d scoff at the idea of a 120-116 basketball game. I acknowledge that, just as you might argue that the scoring in the one is too infrequent, you might argue no less persuasively that in the other it’s entirely too commonplace. But I’m here today to assert that there are actually far more moments of great excitement in a basketball game, more more requited (that is, score-changing) feats of athleticism, than in a football game.

I propose to prove this with the help of a team of neutral scientists who will measure how many times in the respective games spectators get thrilled, as indicated by galvanic skin response and other physiological tests. Five bucks says that there are at least twice as many major thrills in the average NBA or even major college basketball game between nearly equal teams as in an international football game.

Teams of neutral scientists may contact me at This is a non-compensated, temporary position.

It’s late on a Saturday night, and I’ve just enjoyed two episodes from the second season of Friday Night Lights, and also have a wonderful idea for baseball, which I used to live and breathe as a child and teenager, but which I now find numbingly boring. In the American League, there are already designated hitters. I propose that both leagues also institute a designated defender — chosen by the other team. I suspect in most cases, a team would elect to require the opposing team to play its most inept fielder at shortstop, the key infield position, and what a lot of laffs would surely ensue!

It’s fun to watch terrific defensive plays, but not so much fun at all to watch moderately difficult ones executed with the day-at-the-office competence that characterizes major league competition. Forcing every team to take the field with its own latter-day Marv Throneberry would solve all that in a hurry. A lot of traditionalists will pooh-pooh the idea, of course, but in an age when the modern ball park resembles nothing so much as a gigantic penny arcade, with endless music and zany mascot cavortings and gaudy video, they haven’t a leg to stand on.

[Many of my books are now available for download from Amazon. They include The Total Babe & Other Wine Country Yarns, Lentils on the Moon (aka A Message From Jesus in Braille, aka A History of the Jews in the Hudson Valley, Self-Loathing: An Owner's Manual, Third World USA, The Mona Lisa's Brother, and, for baseball nuts, Foul Balls and Alpha Males. You need neither a Kindle nor an iPad to enjoy 'em; simply download (free) Kindle software for either Mac or Windows, and enjoy them on your laptop or other computer!]

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