L. Neil Smith's
Number 316, April 24, 2005

"What Are You Afraid Of?"

Our National Pastime?
by Jonathan David Morris

Special to TLE

On Thursday, April 14, 2005, the Washington Nationals (nee Montreal Expos) defeated the Arizona Diamondbacks, 5-3, in the first baseball game in D.C. since 1971. Wherever you look, people are hailing the return of the national pastime to our nation's capital. Me? I think it's nice that the Expos finally found a new home. I also think it's nice that Washington baseball fans finally have a team. But is baseball still America's pastime? Or has football—as some suggest—surpassed it? Let's take a look.

Now, baseball's a fine game. I know it moves a little slow for some people, but that's only because some people don't know how to watch it. See, it's not the kind of thing you sit down and watch from beginning to end, like an episode of Joey. (Okay, bad example. It's impossible to sit through a whole episode of Joey.) No, baseball is something you leave on for two or three hours while you're doing something else. It's the athletic equivalent of putting down the hammer or screwdriver to get up and get another beer. It's like the Hamburger Helper of a good, productive day. (Though if you want to eat it on its own, that's cool, too.)

No one would doubt the important role baseball's played in the last hundred years. In a way, it's been like America's pulse. In the 1920s, the rise of the Yankees seemed to symbolize New York's arrival as Capital of the Universe. In the late '40s, Jackie Robinson put a face on the civil rights movement. And even today, amidst a steroid scandal, baseball figures prominently into the public debate over privacy laws, labor, and science. So the game has definitely been an important part of America's social fabric. No question there. But I'm not sure that makes it the national pastime.

Think about this. Other than the fact that it comes from America, is there anything distinctly "American" about it? Baseball is the only sport in which the defense controls the ball. That seems rather un-American, really. You've got to go on the offense if you want to get ahead in this country. Ask Donald Trump. Ask Martha Stewart. Hell, you can even ask Puff Daddy. Entrepreneurs take control of the ball. They don't just swing at it and hope to make contact three out of every ten times.

American football does a much better job of representing the spirit of things we consider uniquely "American." Take work ethic, for instance. In football, winning isn't everything; it's the only thing. With 16 games a season, every win counts. Not so much in baseball, though. In baseball, teams play 162 times a year. Fans can take a day off. They can gladly pay tomorrow for a hamburger today. Two weeks later, they won't know the difference.

To that end, football isn't really a sport in America. It's a religion. Almost every single game is played on a Saturday (college) or Sunday (NFL), which, for a Judeo-Christian country, means it's played on the Sabbath. Accordingly, families come to a standstill when football is on. Tumbleweeds roll through usually busy towns. If anything squares with America's reputation as a bunch of religious kooks, our faith in football is it.

Then there's the fact that we call it "football" to begin with. If I had to guess, I'd guess this makes foreigners really mad. I mean, the world already has a game called football. We call it soccer. And we hate its guts. So not only are we the biggest and strongest country in the world, but we refuse to play the game the rest of the world plays, and we insist on using the name of that game for our own pigskinerrific purposes. Would you use "tea and crumpets" to describe a can of Coke and a package of crackers? Would you support a war for democracy when you can't even figure out who the hell you just voted for? I wouldn't. Look, I'm not saying we should change football's name, or watch more soccer, or be Jacques Chirac's friend. I'm just saying the rest of the world probably thinks we're doing this just to piss 'em off. No wonder they think we're an arrogant bunch of banana republicans. We wear matching tights and helmets.

(In fairness, it's no wonder we see the rest of the world as idiots for playing a game in which nobody scores. Marxist fools.)

Finally, if you really want to know which sport is the true national pastime, just look at the local level. Little League baseball is an important part of Americana, but nothing compares to high school football. High school football is the heart and soul—the Way—for many a sleepy American town. (Though why that is, I'm not sure. I rooted against my high school football team.)

So I think it's great that they're playing baseball in Washington again. I love baseball. Historically, I do think it's the most intrinsically American game. And I'd like to keep calling it America's pastime, even if for no other reason than the warm, fuzzy feeling it gives me. But let's face the facts here, Toto. We're not in a Rockwell painting anymore. America is football country. Love it or leave it.

Jonathan David Morris writes a weekly column for The Aquarian and other publications. His website is www.readjdm.com, and he can be reached at jdm@readjdm.com.

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