Wednesday, October 22, 2008

World Series/Cricket – Mac Millings

Baseball’s World Series is here, and you should care. Why? Well, you shouldn’t need to ask, but as you are, I’ll tell you.

It’s a major sporting event, and as such, should command you’re the attention of anyone who loves sport played at the highest level. And if you’re a cricket fan, it should be compulsory viewing.

For baseball and cricket are genetically related; the two games, in their modern, organized form, shared a close-knit, if somewhat antagonistic, early history, and close comparisons in the way the games are both watched and played can be made.

Think of it like this: if, tomorrow, you moved to the United States for the rest of your life, and you were a football or rugby fan, then you’d have to make do with American football. But were cricket your thing, then, likely as not, you would fall in love with baseball.

This time around, the Series matches two teams with a shared tradition of futility – the Tampa Bay Rays, who, in their short existence, had never got close to winning more games in a season than they’d lost until this year, and the Philadelphia Phillies, who have won fewer World Series titles than the much romanticized, 100-years-without-a-championship Chicago Cubs, and in 2007 became the first team to lose a total of 10,000 games in the history of baseball.

Emphatically, this was not the Series the US media wanted, desperate as they were for a Red Sox-Dodgers match-up, with all the baggage that those teams would bring. I could go into it, but I won’t. I don’t care. They lost, the Phillies and the Rays didn’t, and baseball is the better for it.

Boston wouldn’t have dropped a game against LA, and yet another season would have ended in anticlimax. Phillies-Rays, on the other hand, looks like being as closely contested a World Series as we’ve seen for years.

Lazy journalists everywhere are calling the Rays favourites based on…well, not much, it seems. Most commonly cited is the fact that they emerged from the regular season atop the American League East, “the toughest division in baseball”, featuring the aforementioned Boston Red Sox, as well as perennial also-rans the Baltimore Orioles and Toronto Blue Jays, and the mighty New York Yankees.

Trouble is, the New York aren’t so mighty any more – this is the worst Yankees team in some time – and Boston, weakened by trades and injury, aren’t last year’s Sox.

The other chief, and not unrelated, reason given for the Rays favoured status is simply that they are from the American League, which has dominated the rival National League for some time. Last time I checked, however, it’s not the whole League that’s plays in the Series.

Putting aside for another day (all right, I’ll never come back to this one) the argument that the former Tampa Bay Devil Rays will win because they are being rewarded from on high for dropping the D-word from their name, one of the Rays’ real advantages lies in the fact that their line-up hits for average, hits for power, plays good defence (that is, they field well), and has good speed on the bases – in other words, they can score runs in different ways, no matter the situation. And the Phillies? Well, ditto. More importantly, both clubs feature good pitching.

There is a maxim in baseball, which happens to be true, that good pitching beats good hitting. And it’s the art of pitching that should draw cricket lovers close to this game.

We fans of the willow think of cricket as unique, the greatest game, and one of the chief reasons, I think, is the idea of the contest between bat and ball. In other sports, in football, say, or rugby, the play is fast, breathless, with physical contact, and the fans’ passion is intense and focused. Playing these sports, you don’t often get time to think, and indeed, on the occasions that you do (the full back under a swirling kick, the centre forward one-on-one with the keeper) having that time to think is often considered a curse.

Cricket, conversely, is all about the time you have to think. Because, whereas in faster sports you mostly react in an instant, on instinct, in cricket much of the time is spent waiting (in the case of a batsman) and thinking (“where am I going to bowl to him?”).

And while in football and rugby, it seems like anything could happen at any time, in cricket, only one main thing is ever going to happen; the bowler is going to bowl to the batsman. The intrigue of the game lies in waiting to see how he’s going to do it and how the batsman will react to it by finally being able to rely on every good sportsperson’s greatest talent, their innate ability to react appropriately in the moment it takes the ball to reach them from the bowler’s hand.

And that's the key to baseball as well; pitcher vs. batter, bat against ball.

It is to baseball’s advantage, I think (perhaps counterintuitively), that the options available to the hitter (and arguably, the pitcher) are even more limited than they are to their cricketing counterpart(s). The hitter, unlike the batsman, can’t just do as he pleases. 3 strikes, and you’re out. There’s a reason he’s called a “hitter” and not a “batsman”. He doesn’t have the luxury of being allowed to bat; he just has to hit. And being a good hitter isn’t just reacting to where and how the ball is thrown – making a good guess as to what’s coming before it’s thrown is a key skill.

It follows that the pitcher is always having to try and stay one step ahead of his adversary. Further, he can’t, of course, employ a tactic commonly used by bowlers – line and length. Broadly speaking, containment isn’t an option. He has to get this guy with the stick out, and quickly.

Understanding the pitcher’s place in baseball is crucial to an understanding of the game as a whole.

No single player in any team sport is as central to his team’s success as is the pitcher, not even an NFL Quarterback. The notion of “momentum”, that is, the idea that “winning is a habit”, is one that is much discussed here in the States.

Whatever its merits, there can be no doubt that the greatest momentum stopper in sport is a good pitcher – it doesn’t matter how many games in a row you’ve won if you can’t hit what this guy’s throwing at you.

Nor does he have much support. He has fielders, and his catcher, but he can’t (unlike a bowler) rely on three or four other guys to share the load. Yes, there are “relievers” in baseball - pitching teammates - but they are strictly replacements. It’s always just the one pitcher out on the mound, alone, and his team’s fortunes are in his hands (or rather, hand) and no one else’s.

And so it is the pitchers on either side who should decide this year’s (and every) World Series. In that category, I’d have to give a slight edge to the Rays.

Cole Hamels, for the Phillies, is the best pitcher on either side, but the Rays have greater strength in depth, their 2nd and 3rd starters being better than their Philly counterparts.

And yet…the Rays almost didn’t make it here at all. Cruising against Boston, they let a 7-0, 7th-inning lead slip in Game 5, and suddenly their powerful batting line-up went quiet.

Yes, I know what you’re thinking. Good pitching can halt momentum - I read what I wrote, you know - but the Red Sox weren’t pitching well and Tampa Bay had their measure. Simply put, the young, inexperienced Rays batters choked and it was their own pitching, in the form of an outstanding display from Matt Garza, that got them through.

So you know what? I’m going to go counter to almost everything I just wrote. Phillies to win in seven games. The greater experience of their batting line-up will hold them in good stead, and they should outscore their overeager opponents. Because in baseball, while pitching rules, you’ve got to hit the ball to win.

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