Wednesday, September 20, 2000

Tony's Column - Baseball, Softball, The Games in Sydney


Well yesterday was the Baseball and today was the Softball, both at the Rooty Hill Stadium. Rooty Hill is a Sydney suburb about 2.5 hours from where I’m staying, previously most famous because of its RSL club, a must-play venue for any serious Sydney club-act. I arrived home just after midnight last night from the Baseball, tired, unfed and unshowered, crashed into bed around 1:30am only to rise again at 6:30am for the trek to Rooty Hill. Now it’s just after 11pm and sleep beckons …

Baseball

What I know about baseball could be comfortably detailed on the head of a smallish pin (with enough room left to accommodate my extensive softball knowledge and a few angels besides). I was in the States last year at a banking conference and watched a few games live on TV, but this merely underscored my ignorance and added a few new terms to my vocabulary without adding measurably to my knowledge of the game. Nevertheless, last night I ventured to the far west of Sydney to watch the USA play the Netherlands in a game which, unsurprisingly, the USA won comfortably. Even without their superstars - unavailable due to Major League Baseball commitments – the USA posts a formidable team. My lasting impressions are of a game played on an incredibly large field, where blows that would comfortably yield six runs on a cricket field and a chance at fame for any of the nearby and sober spectators, instead bring about a perfunctory catch in the outfield and high-fives from any colleague within a 12km radius. The distance from home plate to the shortest home run fence is around 300ft, further than many people have so far walked during the course of the Olympics. What’s more, the pitchers throw at speeds in excess of 90mph – a speed which is incomprehensibly quick until you’ve seen it.

I think I could come to really love baseball. For a start, it reflects the American hatred of uncertainty in sporting results. None of this namby-pamby “tie” stuff - they’ll play until 3 in the morning (as they have in Major League) in order to find a winner. I can’t think of a single US sport that settles for splitting the available points between the competing teams. When Soccer was introduced to the US, they had to introduce a shoot-out phase at the conclusion of deadlocked matches to ensure that the words “drew with” would not sully their results pages. And what’s with the 1st base and 3rd base coaches? People whose sole sporting responsibility is apparently to ensure that their charges are not unduly taxed by having to think and run. Can you imagine having a non-striker’s-end running coach for Steve Waugh?

A few moments I’ll remember always from this Olympics occurred during the course of the night at the Baseball. Australia won Gold at the pool sometime during the seventh inning, producing spontaneous cheers from the crowd, a stuttering pause in play and looks of sheer bemusement from the players on the field, whose activities at the time were blatantly even to them not the cause of the excitement. Then followed a few rousing choruses of “Aussie, Aussie, Aussie … Oi, Oi, Oi!” and my favourite moment of the night : my neighbour in the stands, ear to the radio listening to the medal ceremony, singing along with the Australian National Anthem. Karaoke Olympics style.

Softball

From what I can gather (and please see my earlier comment), softball is played by a different gender, for fewer innings, on a smaller ground at a slower speed. This produces fewer runs, closer contests and a concomitantly better spectacle. However, it also suffers from the “my-god-we-can’t-have-ties” syndrome, as evidenced by one of the matches I attended today, which only produced a result – and indeed the first and only run - during the tie-breaking extra-innings. Softball has some really nice human touches though. For example, the players exchange “greetings” before the game commences, these in the form of a small present given to a presumably previously designated opponent. And, there is a “ceremonial first-pitch” in which someone who has been of significant service to the game of softball is singly and emphatically honoured by being permitted to throw the first pitch of the game. Are these human touches only because the game is played predominantly by females?

Medal Tally

I’m not backing away from my prediction of 16 Golds as Australia’s final tally, even though I’ve learned from today’s Daily Telegraph that the Australian Olympic Committee is targeting 20 Gold for the Aussies and 60 medals in total. The fearless Daily Telegraph is itself predicting a medal haul of 99. Looking over the remaining events, I can only assume that the Daily Telegraph has calculated this number by including medals it will be handing out to some of its “lucky readers” over the remainder of the Games. I hope I’m proved gloriously wrong.

Last column, I promised answers to two trivia questions . Firstly “Of the 32 disciplines being contested in the Sydney Games, what are the 20 in which Australia has never won Gold?”. Let me start by pointing out that I’m wrong - there are 21 such sports and they are : Archery (until this Olympics), Badminton, Baseball, Basketball, Beach Volleyball (1st time in the Olympics), Boxing, Fencing, Football, Gymnastics, Handball, Indoor Volleyball, Judo, Modern Pentathlon, Softball, Synchronised Swimming, Table Tennis, Taekwondo, Triathlon (also 1st time in this Olympics and, regrettably, still a sport in which we’ve not won Gold), Water Polo and Wrestling. Secondly, the bonus question “What is the one sport in which Australia has won Gold that is not being contested at the Sydney Games?” Answer : Rugby Union (in which we won Gold in 1908). Make it an Olympic sport again I say.

Sydney

The more the Games go on, the deeper the feeling for me that they somehow ‘fit’ here. It doesn’t feel as though Sydney has changed to accommodate the Games, instead it feels like Sydney has taken the Games and somehow made them hers. If the reports in the media can be believed, this is not just my opinion : allegedly the Times and Sports Illustrated have suggested, given Sydney’s sterling performance so far and given Athens tardiness in preparing for the next Games, that the Games should return to Sydney in 2004. Of course this won’t happen, but it does highlight my point.


Tomorrow : Badminton. Another sport about which my knowledge is as shallow as it is narrow.

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