This weekend the Diamond Hogs take the field to open the season against Wright State University, a tough opponent commensurate with the quality non-conference scheduling we've grown to expect of the university's baseball program. It's liable to be a cold and dreary series, but fans are eager to evaluate our decimated pitching staff and greet the return of fan favorites like Casey Coon, Ben Tschepikow and especially Logan Forsyth.
Of course, I'm not going to be there. Due to my characteristic lack of foresight, my dumb ass has to be in New Orleans for the weekend. But in honor of the occasion, and because I'm hardly ready to discuss the basketball team, here's 10 reasons that baseball's still our national pastime.
1. The infield-fly rule. Name another sport that's spawned major debates by solving a convoluted problem. The implications of the unassuming regulation are vast, such that the Pennsylvania Law Review felt compelled to write up an admittedly wise-assed history of the controversial rule. Strike up a conversation at any stadium and see if your afternoon doesn't dissolve into an argument.
2. Facial Hair. There've been two great ages of facial hair. The first occurred during the Civil War, when every soldier — from private to general, Yankee and Rebel — lovingly shaped his whiskers into all manner of intimidating designs. The next great age found its locus on the pitching mound during the '70s, from Rollie Fingers to Goose Gossage. I sculpt my scraggly winter beard into a Fu Manchu every year to commemorate the beginning of my favorite season.
3. Double plays. A million things can go wrong, but what a thing of beauty when they don't. The infield works like a finely tuned mechanism.
4. Called strike threes. Nothing else in the game is quite as thrilling as seeing a befuddled opponent get caught looking. Intimidation rarely has such a material effect on the game than when closers earn that glare.
5. Sunflower seeds. My mouth reaches capacity an average of nine times a game. When else are shredded taste buds so undeniably worth it? (The complex etiquette of shell-spitting, much less spitting in general, could take up an entire other column.)
6. Catchers. Yogi Berra set the bar pretty high, but every catcher seems to bring something extra to the game. No other position lends itself so readily to affectionate parody and unadulterated fandom. The much-loved Brian Walker, or B-Walk, is going be a tough act for anyone to follow, despite his inconsistent bat and sometimes laughable antics. (Go to Google Video and search “Arkansas,” “Ole Miss” and “acting” to see a valiant display.)
7. Dirt. Whether accrued while sliding into home or diving for the long ball, players wear filth like a badge of honor. Nobody wants a sparkling uni in the bottom of the ninth.
8. The seventh inning stretch. Infantilizing? Maybe. Nostalgic? Definitely. But look around: Everyone at least mumbles the words. (Man, am I gonna miss Larry Shank. “Just follow the bouncing bat!”)
9. The diamond. America's answer to the English garden: We tame the wilderness as a representation of our power, then we construct a complex game involving a stick and a round ball to muffle our somewhat fey and anxious symbolism.
10. Cheating. Nobody really cared about Kenny Rogers and the pine tar. Everybody expects hitters to embellish a bean every now and again. It's all an acceptably theatrical part of the game. In baseball, there's a fine line between cheating and cheating, and Roger Clemens found it.