Why Do People Like Baseball?

Dear Sports Fan,

Could you please explain to me the appeal of baseball?  Cricket is obviously a superior sport yet somehow has not caught on in the USA.  Baseball being the slightly developmentally challenged cousin of cricket, do you think the game is simply too cerebral for American audiences (which i would disagree with since NFL football to me is one of the most cerebral sports and you concussively need to use your brain a lot).  Did we just hate it because it was a British Sport and too much of an upper class Gentleman’s Game?


Dear Jango,

The attraction of baseball for the casual or non-fan is easy enough to explain: you could be at a baseball game, or watching a baseball game on TV, and never once feel like you’re actually at a sporting event. It’s essentially a four hour outdoor picnic with overpriced beer. Among the major sports, it is the one where fans are least engaged on a minute to minute basis. You could do anything while watching a baseball game – knit, iron, write the great American novel. It’s the most easily-casually watched sport there is.
For the die hard fans, the attractions are different. Some fans really do hang on every pitch, for the simple reason that something incredible could happen – though, to the casual fan, or non-fan, those things may not seem so incredible. Also, because the baseball season is so long (162) games, there’s essentially a 50 percent chance your team is playing on a given day. It gives you a long time to get to know the players – their quirks, their weaknesses, their interminable at-bat routines – and you’re therefore more invested in them each year, even if they’re not any good.
There is strategy in baseball, from the macro level down to every pitch. But its enduring popularity is based more on tradition and the special place the sport has in our (and other) countries’ sporting histories.
Finally, to fans there’s real beauty in a ball game – there’s nothing like the sound of a ball hit solidly by a wooden bat; or watching the mechanics of a smoothly turned double play, and the way incredibly skilled players make it look so effortless; or the one on one duel between pitcher and batter, or the sheer improbability of a human hitting a tiny orb moving at 95 miles an hour – let alone hitting it hundreds of feet.
So I know it seems slow, and games are too long, and it seems like nothing happens- but it’s a sport that can be seen and understood At many levels. Or – at worst – it can be an opportunity to drink overpriced beers outside for four hours. Is that really the worst thing?
Thanks for the question,
Dean Russell Bell

Hockey Culture and Ken Dryden's 'After the Hit'

On May 8 we answered a question about the rules of lacrosse from Alana. In it the subject of how different sports deal with players who put themselves in dangerous situations came up. In women’s lacrosse there are rules against endangering oneself. In ice hockey, we noted, the rules and the ethos of the sport are the opposite. If you put yourself in a dangerous position in hockey you are likely to get hurt by a player acting within the rules and hockey culture will tell you that you have no one to blame but yourself.

On the same day Grantland.com published an article by Ken Dryden about the same topic. The first sentence of Dryden’s Wikipedia page describes him as “a Canadian politician, lawyer, businessman, author, and former NHL goaltender.” He was a Stanley cup winning goaltender for the Montreal Canadians in the 1970s and later wrote a book about his experiences called The Game which is widely thought of as one of the best books about hockey ever written. He’s definitely got the credentials to be well respected and closely listened to about hockey.

In the article, “After the Hit,” Dryden comments on a violent collision and the resulting injury and suspension from a recent game between the Ottawa Senators and the Montreal Canadians[1] and he wonders if hockey’s ethic on responsibility as it pertains to endangering oneself has gone too far:

It’s this aftermath to the hit that I’ve found most remarkable. There is an ethic in sports that wasn’t always there. It goes, As a player, I can do what I want to do. I will do what I must do. I will face the consequences of my actions and of the rules. Other players will and must do the same. It is my responsibility to protect myself; it is no one else’s. It is their responsibility to protect themselves; it is not mine. If, out of this, things happen, they happen. I may feel sadness as a human being toward another human being, but sadness is not the point. I will feel no regret. I expect none from others. That’s hockey. That’s life.

There is another ethic in sports that has also always been there, and still is. It is worn as a badge of honor, particularly by the “tough guys.” It goes: I will not hit someone when he is down. I will not hit someone when he is defenseless. There is no courage in that. There is dishonor in the doing. The question in this case: What makes a Gryba hit clean and good on a defenseless Eller when a punch to the face of someone lying on the ice, equally defenseless, is not?

I encourage you to spend a few minutes with his article!

Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. There are some graphically violent videos in the post so watch out — but you don’t need to click on them if you don’t want.

Super Bowl Prep Talk, Part Three: A Beginner's Guide to Football Betting

In this series, Dear Sports Fan will try to prepare non-sports fans and sports fans alike to converse knowledgeably during this Sunday’s Super Bowl parties. Super Bowl Sunday is probably the day when the most non-sports fans gather in front of televisions and mingle with their sport loving friends and family. In Part One-A and One-B of this series, we covered some of the key story-lines and plot points around the game. We also had a special post on Super Bowl party behavior written by one non-fan for others. This post will cover a few of the most common ways people gamble on the Super Bowl.

As Lisa wrote in her post on Super Bowl party behavior, Super Bowl Sunday is the day when the most people who don’t normally watch football watch a football game. Likewise it is a day when many, many people who don’t normally gamble on football have at least a few dollars riding on the game. Even if you don’t choose to gamble today, many of your friends and family will. There is likely to be almost 100 million dollars bet on the game legally in Vegas, and that’s just if you want to be legal about it. Here’s a quick explanation of the four most common types of bets that they’ll be making.

Betting the Line

This is the most common form of football betting. You’ve probably heard someone say that a football team is “favored by three points” or is a “ten point underdog.” This is where those phrases and figures come from. A sports book in Vegas will “set a line” for a game and then bettors will gamble on either side of that line. The easiest way to think of a line is to remember that for an actual sports game, the line is ALWAYS at zero. Whichever team wins by even as little as one point wins the game. In the world of the bet, that’s not the case. The betting line is adjusted in favor of one team or the other so that in order to win the bet, you need a team to win by more than a certain number of points. We’ll get to why the line is set where it is in a few paragraphs.

In today’s game, San Fransisco is favored by four points (somewhat confusingly expressed as “San Fransisco -4.”) This means that people who bet on San Fransisco need them to win by more than four points to win (also called “cover”) their bet. People who bet on Baltimore can cover even if Baltimore loses by up to three points. Knowing this may help you make sense of why people will sometimes seem incredibly engaged in the game at odd times.

Betting the Over/Under

This is a very common form of football line betting. When someone bets the over/under they are making a prediction about what the combined scores of the two teams will be. Basically, you need to predict whether the game will be high or low scoring. The over/under for today’s game is 48 points. If you bet on the over, you’re predicting that the combined score of the two teams will add up to more than 48; the under, less.

A quick note on lines (because the over/under is another form of line betting) and the logic of how they are set. The underlying principle of any type of gambling, is that the “house” (the entity that people bet against,) because they take a small fee on every transaction will always make money if they can balance the amount bet on both sides of a line (half on the under, half on the over; half on San Fransisco -4, half on Baltimore +4.) The house effectively pays the winners of a bet with the money they get from the losers. The only time the house can lose is if they take more winning bets than losing bets.

As you might expect, Vegas is freakishly good at balancing the bets. So, you would think that the combined score of the game is most likely to be what the line says it is, 48, but there are two things that qualify this. First — some bets are more “fun” than others — the public tends to enjoy betting an over more than an under, so the over/under will often be a little bit higher than Vegas thinks the combined scores will be. Second, well, the people who set the lines have chosen to work in Vegas. Sometimes they like to gamble a bit too.

Buying a Super Bowl Box

The Super Bowl Box is the most casual form of Super Bowl betting. You’ve probably taken part in one yourself! You make a ten by ten grid, put your name in a box, and pay someone a few bucks. After all hundred boxes are filled out someone randomly assigns a number from 0 to 9 to each row and column on the chart. Each box therefore represents a pair of one digit numbers like 4 and 7. These numbers correspond to the ones digit of the score of the teams at particular moments of the game — usually at the end of each quarter. If your numbers come up, say San Fransisco 14, Baltimore 7 (or 27) at halftime, you win a bunch of money.

This is gambling at it’s most pure. Unlike the previous two forms of betting, you don’t get to make any decisions at all. When you scribble your name on a box and put in your money, you are spending 1/100 of all the money involved for a 1/100 chance to win. As soon as they assign numbers to boxes, your chances have either gone up or down as you can see from this awesome “sucky box-o-meter.”

Making a Prop Bet

Prop bets are another form of betting that thrives during the Super Bowl. Prop is short for proposition (as you probably know from The Wire) and these bets are all about answering questions that ask “will something happen today?” These are incredibly fun to bet on, and as you might imagine because of that, are usually difficult to win. Most of these are about the game, but a good number of them are about the spectacle surrounding the game. There are two good articles on Grantland.com about this, one by a football analyst and one by a gambling comedy writer. Here are just a few of the bets they cover:

Will there be overtime?
Will the largest lead of the game be more or less than 14 points?
Will Vonta Leach (a guy on the Ravens who almost never gets to touch the ball) score the first touchdown?
Will the opening coin toss be heads?
Will Alicia Keys’ rendition of the national anthem be longer than 2:15?

That last one is ridiculous but I’d be willing to bet that someone at your Super Bowl party has their eyes on their watch while she’s singing. Look around and let me know.

Enjoy the party and the game,
Ezra Fischer


Super Bowl Prep Talk, Part One-B: Harbaugh Brothers and New Orleans

In this series, Dear Sports Fan will try to prepare non-sports fans and sports fans alike to converse knowledgeably during this Sunday’s Super Bowl parties. Super Bowl Sunday is probably the day when the most non-sports fans gather in front of televisions and mingle with their sport loving friends and family. In Part One-A of this series, we covered the many, many plot lines centered around Ray Lewis. In this post, we’ll cover two more story lines, the Harbaugh brothers and New Orleans, the host city.

The Harbaugh Brothers

Unlike the normal one-game-a-Sunday cadence of the football season over the past few months, there are two weeks between the semi-finals and the Super Bowl. This gives everyone time to take any interesting story and drive it into the ground. By the time the game comes around for those of us who watch and listen and read a lot about sports, the narrative of many stories will have shifted from this-is-an-interesting-story to this-story-is-going-to-kill-me-if-I-hear-it-one-more-time. Then, of course, that becomes the story!

The story of the Harbaugh brothers is one of those stories. It goes like this: the head coach of the Baltimore Ravens, John Harbaugh, is the older brother of the head coach of the San Fransisco Forty-Niners, Jim Harbaugh. That’s pretty much the whole story. But what the hell… their father Jack was a football player and coach himself. There’s a pretty sweet story about the sons going out of their way to help him when he was struggling as the head coach of Western Kentucky University. Sweet, however, is not the emotion this family is most known for. The sons are intense — even for football coaches. Jim, the younger one, is particularly demonstrative.

Says the New York Times:

His San Francisco 49ers players love to imitate the cartoonish nature of their coach: the clenched teeth, the dropped jaw, the wide eyes, the narrowed brow. Each has their favorite Harbaugh face.

John had is own blog-ready moment. When he was asked about coaching against his brother, he responded by saying it was a “great moment for our country.” I don’t know if I’d go that far, but you know… even if it’s not an incredibly interesting story… it is kinda cool to think about two kids playing super bowl in their back yards years ago and then growing up to face each other in that exact situation.

New Orleans

The host of the Super Bowl this year is New Orleans.Usually it’s not interesting who’s hosting the Super Bowl. But this year, there’s some drama. If the NFL and New Orleans were Facebook friends, their relationship status would be, “It’s Complicated.” Here’s the timeline.

When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, the Superdome became an emergency shelter for 20,000 plus people. The stadium, which had hosted football and basketball games, the pope and the Rolling Stones, quickly became a symbol of the desperate, tragic situation.

Then, a little more than a year later, the Superdome became a symbol for the rebirth of the city when the city’s beloved Saints returned, like so many New Orleans residents did, from San Antonio. Roger Goodell, now the commissioner of the NFL, then the assistant commissioner, played a big role in this, remembers NOLA.com:

Goodell worked with local leaders to rebuild the Superdome. He cleared bureaucratic hurdles in Washington D.C. to accelerate the construction process. And he was a constant motivator, sending local officials late-night emails for inspiration: “We’re winning! Don’t stop! We’re in this to win!”

Three years after the team returned to New Orleans, they won the Super Bowl. So, it’s a positive, feel good story, right? Well… not so fast.

This past summer, a scandal broke out (predictably Clintonized to “Bountygate”) when it was revealed that the New Orleans Saints had a bounty system set up to provide financial rewards for injuring opposing players, including targeting the heads of players with histories of concussions. Goodell, now commissioner, suspended several team coaches and players for the season. Goodell has widely been accused of everything from tyranny to hypocrisy to ineptitude. He was sued by a suspended player. He eventually had to ask his predecessor to step in and try to clean up some of the mess. Paul Tagliabue cleaned up the mess by essentially repealing as many of Goodell’s decisions as possible.

So, where do we stand today? My guess is that Goodell is more hated than he is loved but that the hate is mostly a good-natured, whaddayagonnado type of hate. My favorite story about this is the signs that have started appearing in the windows of New Orleans restaurants and bars: “Do Not Serve This Man,” they say.

Thanks for reading,
Ezra Fischer

Super Bowl Prep Talk, Part One-A

In this series, Dear Sports Fan will try to prepare non-sports fans and sports fans alike to converse knowledgeably during this Sunday’s Super Bowl parties. Super Bowl Sunday is probably the day when the most non-sports fans gather in front of televisions and mingle with their sport loving friends and family. In Part One-A of this series, we’ll cover some of the key story-lines and plot points around the game.

As is often the case with big sporting events, many fans will be following the Super Bowl for its dramatic, soap opera-esque stories. Although the game this year does not have any story half as inspiring as an athlete over-coming the twin deaths of his grandmother and girlfriend or half as bizarre as the revelation that that girlfriend never existed, this game has plenty of juicy stories orbiting it.

Ray Lewis is Everything

Ray Lewis is the starting middle linebacker of the Baltimore Ravens. He’s a very controversial figure. Some people love him, some people hate him, and some people will represent both sides of the issue while attacking the seven layer dip like a fiend. This playoff season has brought out the best, the worst, and the most dramatic elements of Lewis — let me tell you about some of it.

First, Lewis is undeniably great at his job. He’s been playing for the Baltimore Ravens since their inaugural season 17 years ago. He has been to 13 Pro Bowls, been the NFL Defensive Player of the Year twice, and was the Super Bowl Most Valuable Player in 2001 when the Ravens won last. Also… maybe he’s overrated.

We’re now done with the football side of Lewis. Before this year’s playoffs, he announced that he would be retiring at the end of the season. Boston area NESN wondered in early January (before the Ravens knocked the New England Patriots out of contention) whether or not this would inspire the Ravens to win the Super Bowl.

Lewis missed the final ten games of the regular season this year after he tore his triceps muscle. Now he’s back playing. Some say (and probably some at your super bowl party will say) that this has to be thanks to some serious performance enhancing drugs. Or even some kind of silly ones.

Lewis’ response to being asked about using deer antler spray shows another side of him — the religious crazy person side. He commented that the allegations were “the trick of the devil.” There is no question that if Lewis were not a football player, he might have been a charismatic preacher. He fires up his team before the game, cries dramatically during the national anthem, and answers post-game questions with mildly incoherent scripture.

Back in 2000, the year before Baltimore was last in the Super Bowl, Lewis was embroiled in a less goofy controversy. He was arrested for murder and aggravated assault in the stabbing death of two men outside a night club. Lewis cut a plea bargain where his charge was reduced to virtually nothing in return for testifying against his two friends. They were eventually acquitted.

Oh, and did I mention that he has a signature dance? It’s brilliant. Teach yourself it and impress your friends with an imitation. Like the mayor of Denver. Or Keenan Williams of SNL.

Good luck learning the dance! In the next two installments of this series, we’ll cover the two opposing head coaches being brothers and the complicated relationship of the host city, New Orleans, with the NFL.

Thanks for reading,

When Did Kickball Become a Sport?

Dear Sports Fan,

When did kickball become a sport?

Just saying,


Dear Sarah,

When did Pabst Blue Ribbon become a good beer? When did trucker hats become stylish accoutrement? When did jeans start requiring a surgical procedure to be put on and taken off?

That’s when kickball became a sport. Yes, I’m blaming the hipster for the revolution in kickball. Kickball, as I remember it, was a really fun game you played in elementary school gym class. It has basically similar rules to baseball, except instead of involving the skill and hand-eye coordination required to swing a bat into a small ball, it requires roughly the coordination required by everyday tasks like walking down a steep set of stairs, cooking an omelette, or shaving. Then again, you generally don’t do those things drunk… which is definitely a requirement for kickball, whether it’s a championship game or an early season practice.[1]

My theory is that kickball was one of the more accessible sports to play in fourth grade. It was something that not only the future jocks enjoyed. The future jocks became current jocks and ventured off to play football, basketball, baseball, or soccer. Now in their late twenties and thirties, these current jocks have become over-the-hill jocks but they still enjoy playing the sports that they played when they were on top of the hill. The people who didn’t become jocks never really got into any other sports, but they retained happy memories of playing kickball in gym class.

Fast-forward 20 years or so and these people are looking for a good way to get a little exercise, meet people, and socialize with friends. Voila — kickball comes back into the mix and it becomes a sport!

One last note on hipsterism and kickball — I think that the relationship has something to do with irony. Irony is “the expression of one’s meaning by using language that normally signifies the opposite, typically for humorous or emphatic effect.” Many of the former non-jocks grew to feel alienated by and some amount of dislike towards sports and the ‘go-all-out’ mentality that abounds in sports cultures. Playing a game like kickball provides a layer of opposite language to shield the players from what they are doing. Kickball players go all out, but because it is in the context of a sport that’s normally associated with a pre-sport obsessed time in people’s lives, going-all-out is permissible in a way that it wouldn’t be within the culture of the players if the sport being played was a more standard sport.

Confused? Angered? My good friend and attentive Dear Sports Fan reader Theodore Gicas (the Gicasaurus) may be able to shed some more light on the kickball scene. He’s been a member of several championship kickball teams! Write a letter to the editor Ted — we’ll publish it!

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Hey, if you want to play drunk you have to practice drunk! And yes, kickball teams have been known to hold practices!

Why is Soccer so Liberal?

Dear Sports Fan,

Can sports be liberal or conservative? Why does soccer seem so liberal?



Dear Nicholas,

What an interesting question. Sports definitely carry political overtones that vary from time to time and culture to culture. For instance, I spent a semester in Cape Town, South Africa during college. Although things are slowly changing, the political/racial meanings of sport set during Apartheid were still present. Football (soccer) is a black sport in South Africa while Rugby is an Afrikaans sport.[1] Cricket is also wildly popular although more so among the White/Coloured (it’s a technical term) population than among Black people. It’s all very complicated.

In the United States soccer is one of the more interestingly politically loaded sports. See this tongue-in-cheek article from Deadspin.com entitled “Soccer: The Liberal Plot to Destroy America.” Sure, NASCAR has a cartoonish identification with Southern conservatives, and golf is tight with the political party of the rich… but why is soccer seen as a liberal sport? There are two main reasons — one historical and one current.

Soccer as we know it in this country — with the youth leagues and the screaming parents on the sidelines and the “2-4-6-8 who do we appreciate?” —  began in the late 60s and early 70s as part of the counter-cultural revolution. Football was too tightly associated with the traditional drink beer, marching band, date the cheerleader, join the marines and go to war life for pot-smoking, Vietnam war protesting, Woodstock going hippies. Soccer was an ideal sport to coalesce around because right at that time Johan Cruijff was ascending to his place as one of the best players of all time. He also happened to be making himself into a counter-cultural idol due to his unique style and radical (and out-spoken) ideas.

Although it’s been 40+ years, I think this explains much of the non-violent, everyone wins, liberal stereotypes about soccer. There’s another thing, something that’s even more true now than it was in the 70s. The best soccer in the world is not played in the United States. If you want to watch the best soccer in the world, you have to watch the English Premier League,[2] the Spanish La Liga, or wait around for the big international tournaments like the World Cup or the European Championships. This is a big difference from Football (okay the rest of the world just doesn’t care) or Basketball, Hockey, or Baseball where the best players in the world come to our league to perform. Insofar as liberals are associated with a greater internationalism and conservatives are associated with isolationist tendencies, then it makes sense that being a soccer fan is seen as a liberal thing to do.

What’s funny about this (and this is far too large of a topic to cover here, so I’ll just nod towards it) is that soccer leagues in other countries are far more capitalist than our leagues. Players are not traded, they are “sold.” If a team does not do well it can be thrown out of the league and relegated to a lower league. Compare that to an NFL team like the Detroit Lions that has not had a winning season since 2000. Not only does it get to keep playing in the NFL, but they receive gobs of money from the other teams in the form of revenue sharing of television, merchandising, and ticket money.

One last bonus factoid that you can use at cocktail parties: in the late 1800s when football and baseball were in their infancy, football, the more physical sport, was played by the upper classes, and baseball was a lower class sport. Why? Well — if you had to work in a factory or a farm you certainly were not about to risk breaking bones playing football. Leave that foolishness to rich college boys!

Thanks for the question,
Ezra Fischer

Footnotes    (↵ returns to text)

  1. Which is why it was so meaningful for Nelson Mandela to embrace the team during the 1995 Rugby World cup. I think this is the plot of that movie with the 5-10, 160 pound Matt Damon playing a 6-3 238 pound rugby player… I haven’t seen it.
  2. Which starts their season today!