08 September 2006

Vertical Pitching

And now for something completely different, as Monty Python used to say. Once—in Bermuda, many years ago—I was introduced to the mysterious rites of cricket. More recently, I had the pleasure of watching a baseball game in Seoul. That was a lot more comprehensible than the cricket match, with better kimchee. Some would say that I have been blessed. But they would be wrong. For until this week I had never known the esoteric joys associated with pesäpallo. That’s right, Finnish baseball.

Let’s start with the concept of vertical pitching. “The batter and the pitcher face each other in the home base, on opposite sides of the circular plate. The pitch is delivered by throwing the ball directly upwards above the plate, to a height of at least 1 meter over the head of the pitcher.” As far as I could tell, the ball is simply lobbed. I don’t think there are any spinners or sliders or change-ups or split-fingered fastballs.

Sometimes, instead of throwing the ball directly upwards above the plate, to a height of at least 1 meter over his head, the pitcher suddenly whirls and heaves the ball in the direction of “first base,” though it is not technically the first base in pesäpallo. Pitchers seem to enjoy doing this repeatedly. Now some might think that this is akin to the “pick-off” play that makes baseball so exciting. It is, except that disrupting the timing or concentration of the batter is not an ulterior motive, it must be the only motive, since it is done regardless of whether anyone happens to be on base at the time.

The batter tries to hit the ball when it is pretty much at the top of its arc—at its apogee, for you science geeks. That’s not hard to do, but as a bodily movement it doesn’t have much going for it aesthetically. I know it is probably culturally insensitive to make such a statement, but this is not a game that is going to produce many “sweet-swinging lefties,” or righties, for that matter. Imagine Don Mattingly playing Whack-a-Mole. It doesn’t help that some of these guys hold the bat cross-handed. In pesäpallo, if the batter hits a fair ball, he may or may not run to first base. It’s up to him. It’s a free country.

Oh, and by the way, they don’t run counter-clockwise around the bases, but perform sort of a lateral arabesque en route to the “circular plate.” Outs are hard to come by. Fielders try to catch batted balls on the fly, but if they do it’s not an out. Players who have been caught on the basepaths “are removed from the field, but they do not count as outs.”

There are designated hitters in pesäpallo, but they are called “jokers,” a term that might in fact have some import value. Think you’re starting to acquire a taste for pesäpallo? Think again. “The manager leads his team’s offense by giving signals to his players with a multicolored fan.”

I am not making this stuff up. The quotations are from a website called Pesäpalloliitto. I tried to attach a link, but it didn't work. Google Finnish Baseball and then click on Pesäpalloliitto. For some reason that works better. It’s like vertical pitching. Go figure.