On Saturday, Ghana (2009 estimated population, 24 million) eliminated the United States (2009 estimated population, 307 million) from the World Cup. Since patriotic rooting interest no longer factors in, it’s time to address the eternal American sports question - soccer or baseball?
According to a 2002 Forbes survey, there were more people playing soccer than baseball in the United States. Back in the 1990’s, Mike Royko, the great columnist, deplored the trend that many youngsters were choosing soccer over baseball. In a tongue in cheek column, his alter ego, Slats Grobnik, explained, “It’s easier than baseball. It’s easier to kick a big round ball that’s sitting on the ground than to hit a fastball with a bat or to scoop up a ground ball and make a good throw to first. I mean, would Babe Ruth have been an American hero if he shuffled around in short pants and let a big ball bounce off his head?”
There is little point in rehashing the same old arguments about whether soccer needs more scoring or baseball is too slow. People who grow up with something usually bring their unshakable attachments along and the standard arguments fall on deaf ears. However, this year’s World Cup provides three compelling reasons baseball is better than soccer.
First, the drama queen factor. There are way more drama queens in the World Cup than in baseball. Every time you look up during a Cup Match, someone is collapsing in excruciating agony. A minute later, they are trotting around perfectly healthy, poised to knock down some other thespian anticipating his spotlight moment. Imagine a soccer team of Lady Gaga, Lindsay Lohan, Mariah Carey, Paris Hilton, the Kardashian girls, Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Whitney Houston and Brett Favre. You’ll see more “flopping” in a single half of World Cup play than you would in an entire season with that team (Well, except maybe for Favre).
Baseball’s code is the exact opposite – above all, don’t show pain. If you get plunked with a pitch, you are obligated to trot down to first base without acknowledging you may have a broken elbow (only exception –taking umbrage and going out to bop the pitcher with your bat). In his classic baseball treatise, Ball Four, former Major Leaguer Jim Bouton explained when a player gets hit in the groin after a ball takes a bad bounce, he must grab his head, never the affected area. Can’t let them see you sweat.
Second, soccer players pout, baseball players play. During a first round Cup game against Mexico, a French player was sent home after an argument with his coach. The team captain intervened after the game. This led to an argument between him and the coach, which led to the captain’s suspension. (Admittedly, this is a coach who reportedly uses players’ astrologic signs to help guide playing decisions). At that point, the entire French team refused to practice and threatened to boycott their final qualifying game. Ultimately they played – badly - and were easily dispatched from Cup play. The French sports minister, mediating the dispute, told journalists the French players “had tarnished the image of France”. Insert your own punchline here.
Baseball players refusing to play because of an argument? Unheard of. There are plenty of jerks, players and managers, and many dugout fights. Just last week, Cubs pitcher Carlos Zambrano had a dugout meltdown, was pulled from the game against the Sox and got suspended. Did the Cubs threaten to boycott? Don’t be ridiculous; they went ahead and played. OK, they played like the French and got shut out (it’s the Cubs, after all). But the point is, they played.
Former Yankee manager Billy Martin made a career out of fighting with players he managed (and everybody else). During a game on national television, Martin went after his star player Reggie Jackson (who outweighed him by at least 50 pounds) in the dugout. The rest of the Yankees barely noticed. In fact, they went on to win the World Series that year. If any Yankee team Billy Martin managed threatened to boycott a game, let alone a World Series game, management would have had to reserve a whole hospital wing.
Speaking of the French, the world’s best player who played for them in 2006, got himself ejected for a head butt during an argument in the World Cup Final Game. Not having the world’s best player might well have cost France the Cup. Having your best player ejected in a crucial moment from the Championship Game is a novel strategy baseball hasn’t seen fit to adopt. Hard to imagine Derek Jeter or Albert Pujols headbutting a pitcher in the seventh game of the World Series. It’s the type of brilliant tactical maneuver France perfected last century in two world wars against the Germans, the kind that nearly made Paris a shopping suburb of Berlin.
The final reason baseball is better? Baseball has organ music. That’s bad. But soccer has the vuvuzela. That’s worse. Case closed.
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