Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Baseball and Ultimate: Two Sports Passing in the Night

I can't tell you the year in which The Switch became a torturous catchphrase, but I remember the moment as if it happened yesterday.

I had just pulled my scrawny high school legs through the usual gray practice pants, knee socks exposed from the calf down, as always. Belt cinched, maroon cap pulled low, I strode out of the Amherst Regional High School (ARHS) locker room, headed toward the baseball diamond, hoping – as always – that today I might just hit the ball well enough to crack the starting nine for our next game.

But ritual was interrupted before I left the building. Crossing my path was a friend who starred for the school's nationally-renowned ultimate frisbee team. We caught up briefly, as athletes often do, on the progress of our respective squads. Then came the question.

“So when are you gonna finally make the switch to ultimate, man? It's your sport!”

Ahh, The Switch.

I've been lucky enough to have baseball and ultimate competing for my affections since seventh grade. I left frisbee-crazed ARHS for frisbee-crazed Carleton College, a thriving pipeline for ultimate players which my older brother had followed three years earlier. The difference? I still hadn't made The Switch. I had played and loved ultimate at the intramural level through middle and high school (yes, you heard me, Amherst has organized intramural ultimate frisbee – at its middle school), but come spring, frisbee had always taken a back seat to baseball.

It took two years of riding the bench as a light-hitting Division III infielder for Carleton, but I did finally make The Switch, playing club ultimate as a junior and senior with the Gods of Plastic (GOP), the second of Carleton's two competitive men's teams. The aforementioned friend from high school was even there to witness it, having followed the pipeline himself before helping lead that other men's squad – the creatively-named Carleton Ultimate Team (CUT) – to Division I national titles as a sophomore and senior (GOP, by comparison, took home D-III crowns in 2010 and 2012. I told you Carleton was crazy about frisbee).

But don't think for a minute that my love of baseball ended with The Switch. Which brings me to today's real topic. Recently, my two favorite sports have been making headlines for opposite reasons. In this past Sunday's New York Times, Jonathan Mahler writes the dark epitaph of baseball as a mainstream fixture in American pop culture. Meanwhile, ultimate and its new professional leagues have earned a story – albeit an overly snarky and simplistic one – in the latest Time magazine, with the words “Pro Frisbee” dotting newsstands worldwide in the top right-hand corner of the issue's cover.

As the national pastime I have adored since boyhood watches its popularity succumb to the age of instant entertainment, ultimate is vaulting its way onto SportsCenter and into the national consciousness thanks to its two fledgling professional leagues and a broadcast deal with ESPN.

But the truth is, both sports are fighting through identity crises. And both risking losing some of their greatest attributes in the process.

America no longer has the attention span for baseball, and it breaks my heart. Like our lives, we need sports to wow our senses every minute. We need the constant gladiatorial brutality of the NFL or the NBA's hip-hop swagger and superlative feats of athleticism. Baseball is a game of intricacy and no one wants to take the time to learn those intricacies.

As I wrote in an op-ed during my senior year at Carleton, baseball, like life, is a progression of everyday occurrences – outside sliders and grounders to short – punctuated by moments of crucial importance: the diving play by the second baseman to save a run, the full-count pitch that just misses for a walk to prolong the inning, the decisive homer hit by the next batter who never would have gotten the chance had the umpire seen things differently. And like life, you often don’t realize you’ve reached a turning point until after it’s past you. Who knows what would have happened in Monday night's American League tiebreaker if a yet-to-find-his-groove David Price hadn't picked off Elvis Andrus on a debatable call in the first inning?

That's the beauty of baseball. Every game can be dissected to seemingly infinite levels of detail (no one does it better than the good folks at FanGraphs). If details aren't your thing, there are always plenty of intriguing human-interest storylines, too, like Price beating back his Texas demons or whether the Rangers should have even allowed Biogenesis truant Nelson Cruz to play in the contest. There's a topic for everyone in a ballgame, and the stately pace of the sport allows time for conversation and dissection in between the drama.

Now, I get it if dissection isn't why you watch sports. After a day of work, a lot of us just want to be entertained. But what's sadder is that even the art of conversation seems to be fading. Rather than acknowledge and engage with our fellow human beings, we prefer to stare zombie-like at our screens and tune out our surroundings. Football and basketball broadcasts provide this hypnosis far easier than baseball, where a slightly more active level of mental participation is required to avoid drowsiness.

Great, now we have pink hats AND fake beards at Fenway
But don't worry, zombies, the owners and the networks are trying their darnedest to win you over outside of moving the fences in and changing it to two strikes and you're out. Every game seems to carry with it a new promotional gimmick designed to lure people to the ballpark for reasons other than baseball, none more embarrassing than the recent Dollar (Fake) Beard Night at Fenway. Broadcasts, too, are littered with more Twitter polls, fan cams, and silly interviews than ever. None of these distractions are truly offensive, per se, but wouldn't it be nice if we could just trust the action between the lines to sell itself? Believe it or not, it's actually a pretty amazing game when you slow down and watch closely.

Of course, no ploys will bring the masses back to baseball. For that to happen, there must be a renewed interest in the games themselves. Who knows exactly what combination of forces it would take to achieve this (outside of another steroid-infused home run race), but making the ballpark experience a little more affordable would be a good place to start. More hard-working parents need to be able to bring their kids to professional games. It should be the constitutional right of every child to have his or her eyes widened and speech stopped by the bright lights and green grass of a summer night at the Yard, the way mine were on that fateful sixth birthday at Fenway. Similarly, it should be the constitutional right of every child to grow from the lessons of patience, repetition, and frequent failure that playing baseball provides.

Another intriguing target for the sport is the country's ever-growing Spanish-speaking population. With more and more Latin American ballplayers in the spotlight every day (both of last night's NL Wild Card starters were Dominican, for example), baseball – more than any other sport – could represent the forefront of our transition toward a bilingual culture. The groundwork is already there.

For now, though, I'll quietly mourn the growing irrelevance of baseball in our national conversation. I'll mourn the fact that on Monday night, every bar I passed had multiple televisions showing an NFL blowout and none showing a winner-take-all tiebreaker which represented the culmination of six months' daily grind for two organizations. I'll mourn the fact that in a college-sports-crazy town like Madison, there isn't even a college baseball team to cheer for. But mostly, as I look past the corporate gimmicks and consume the unmatchable drama of the postseason like a hermit hoarding artifacts, I'll mourn for all of the kids present and future who will grow up without the beauty of baseball and won't know what they're missing.

But hold steady, sports fans, all is not lost! There's a new game in town, one that might just approach baseball on the awesomeness scale. Ultimate is pushing its way into the mainstream picture as we speak and it's pretty darn exciting. Two weeks from tomorrow, the USA Ultimate (USAU) Club Championships will begin in Frisco, Texas and anyone with a computer and an internet connection will be able to watch the best male and female athletes in the sport compete on its biggest stage, thanks to the biggest name in sports entertainment, ESPN.

What they'll see, in between a lot of diving catches, pinpoint throws, and ferocious defense, is a sport in transition. There will be plenty of the chest-bumping and fist-pumping familiar to the mainstream jock crowd, but then there will also be the moment when two players go up for a disc in the air, one comes down with it, the other says “foul,” and everything stops.

Self-officiation represents the heart of ultimate's identity crisis. Returning to the above example, the likely course events is such: the players, after stating their cases to one another, will disagree on whether a foul occurred, and one of several orange-clad observers – now a fixture at all of USAU's most competitive club and college events – will be called upon to make a ruling. In the best-case scenario, the observer will have been watching closely, will immediately make a call, and play will resume. But far too often, the observer will ask the players to restate their arguments or even call in a colleague for deliberation. In the meantime, the broadcast has been stalled long beyond one instant replay's worth of filler material (remember, these are the same viewers who lack the attention span for an ordinary inning of baseball).

Ultimate is a sport for the future. It is cheap to play (at the informal level, at least), comes in equally-treated male, female, and coed varieties, and carries all of the regular visual excitement necessary for success on TV. Excellence requires tremendously hard work in conditioning, repetition of skills, and strategy. Most importantly, thanks in large part to self-officiating, it values humility, fairness, and respect above all else.

But that last sentence is in danger of becoming an anachronism. With two new fully-refereed professional leagues achieving moderate success in the last two years (enough that their players don't pay for travel or equipment), the mainstream assimilation movement in the sport is gaining more and more voices daily. I'd like to believe that refereed ultimate could take over the college and club levels, bringing with it a host of converted athletes and fans, and that the sport could retain its premium on accountability in the process. But I've spent enough time around the mainstream jock crowd to know that this is about as likely to happen as Metta World Peace actually becoming a peaceable human being.

Observers: a lynchpin for the future of ultimate
The truth, however, is that compromise is entirely possible. Self-officiation should hardly doom ultimate to hippie/white upper-middle class irrelevance in the public eye. ESPN likes it, even the International Olympic Committee (IOC) is interested. The key is this: raise the quality of observing to a point where it doesn't detract from the spectator experience. Observers must watch the game as if they are referees, prepared to make an immediate ruling on any disputed call. Player disputes, in turn, must be held to a relatively low time limit before being turned over to an observer, just enough time, say, for an instant replay and a few seconds of broadcaster analysis. Right now, there's still a vicious cycle in effect: the more competitive the game, the more frequent the calls and stoppages, the more frustrating the spectator experience (just ask anyone who's ever watched a CUT-Wisconsin rivalry affair). Tighten up the discussion/observer process and the sport's most alluring contests will no longer risk being some of its most disjointed.

Public tastes are changing as my generation takes over for the baby boomers as major consumers. Look at the overwhelming support given by the professional athlete community to NBA player Jason Collins after he came out of the closet. What was once counter-culture can now be accepted and celebrated.

So here's hoping that in its rush toward legitimacy, ultimate does not forget the counter-cultural roots that make it exceptional. And here's hoping baseball does not forget its elegant conversationalist roots in its rush to win over the iPhone generation. Here's hoping that maybe, just maybe, my two favorite sports will find parallel spotlights in a more humble and engaged future, one in which many kids fight through the growth-inspiring dilemma of The Switch.