This is my favorite time of year for sports — when football and baseball align in a 3-week smorgasbord of athletic overload. Football season is just getting started, but it doesn’t take much for the NFL to ramp up to full speed. While nothing is decided in terms of division champs and playoff qualifiers, we’re already beginning to see the separation of contenders from pretenders. Meanwhile, baseball is in the sweet spot of its postseason. Soon will come the pomp and circumstance of the World Series, with every pitch, every swing, every scratch of the groin analyzed to pieces, and the game inevitably loses the sense of fun that the league divisional and championship series somehow manage to retain.
One of the opportunities that simultaneous football and baseball presents is a head-to-head comparison between two sports that otherwise occupy contrasting seasonal associations. Baseball’s 9-month pilgrimage begins every spring, a yearly renewal of hope that slides into summer laziness as the attrition of 162 games takes its toll on our attention spans. Football seasons congeal in sweaty August training camps before debuting under the crisp autumn sun and maturing through gray November rains and December flurries, punctuated by playoff runs to an exotic location for the February Super Bowl.
But for a few weeks, baseball and football occupy the same space in relatively peaceful coexistence. I enjoy each for its own merits, but during this time I consistently find baseball to be the superior game. Here are my layman’s observations that bring me to that conclusion:
Individual conflict: Playoff baseball stages some extraordinary drama, and a primary factor therein is the existential struggle between two individuals — the pitcher and the batter. Yes, fielders and base runners have a role in moving the game forward, but nothing happens until the pitcher decides to throw a pitch and the batter decides whether to swing or not. And so much of what unfolds during the game depends on the actions of those two men. Football’s action also tends to operate around a small number of skill players, but it never reaches the elemental faceoff between two individuals that plays out in each baseball at-bat.
Failure is built in: A baseball game by rule cannot proceed unless an offensive player makes an out. That applies a certain humility across a batting lineup, from sluggers to pinch hitters, who must collectively produce 27 outs, win or lose, in order to complete the game. In football, it’s possible to have everything go right for an offense. If it’s a 77-0 whitewash, the clock still runs, eventually bringing the misery to an end.
Gender inclusion: Football in many ways reinforces traditional, pre-feminist gender roles. Men do “battle” on the field while cheerleaders prance and preen from the sidelines. In the broadcast booth, men, many of whom are former players, offer thoughts both serious and glib on the action below. Women are relegated to “soft” off-the-field features, passing along team injury reports and mindless halftime interviews with the coach. Baseball doesn’t do much better, but at least its cousin, softball, fully welcomes women to participate at the high school and college level, providing experience with which to appreciate the finer points of the game. Just ask Jessica Mendoza, a former softball star who does color commentary for ESPN’s Sunday Night Baseball. Imagine that happening in an NFL broadcast.
Diversity: The Baltimore Orioles’ Adam Jones recently complained that baseball is no longer a black man’s sport. True, it can’t match the almost 70 percent share of NFL rosters that are black, but is that an accurate reflection of our society, or the world? Look through MLB rosters and you’ll find not just the whites and blacks that dominate the NFL, but players hailing from myriad Latin American and Asian nations, bringing a healthy mix of ethnicities and languages into the locker room.
Broadcasting tradition: This year has seen venerable ESPN NFL analyst (and Hall of Famer) Tom Jackson retire, with colleague Chris Berman soon to follow. The knock on them was the sports media game had passed them by, that the younger generation of fans couldn’t relate to them. Baseball, meanwhile, just shed a tear at the departure of longtime Dodgers broadcaster Vin Scully. Bob Uecker remains a fixture in the Brewers’ broadcast booth, and no one is in a hurry to shuffle him out the door. Yes, they’re in their 80s, they don’t shout or sloganeer and they’re no social media mavens, but there’s something to be said for treasuring the game’s elder statesmen.
Of course, baseball isn’t perfect. Its staid traditionalism and comparative snail’s pace could be its undoing as younger fans disdain a sport that doesn’t engage with them on their terms. By contrast, the NFL has embraced digital media marketing like no other sport and continues to tinker with its rules to maximize exciting play, leaving it better positioned for the future. At the financial level, its salary cap makes small market teams economically viable and ensures a competitive league. MLB has taken baby steps in this direction, but it remains largely a league of haves and have nots.
All said, this is nothing more than a fun little exercise, a comparison born of the embarrassment of riches I’m currently enjoying. In a few weeks the World Series will anoint a champion, leaving me to devote my attention to the NFL season. Before I know it, the Super Bowl will bring that season to a close, and I’ll no longer have the luxury of considering the merits and flaws of two sports in repose.