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Ashes to ashes, junk to junkyard

A month or so ago, Your Humble Blogger wrote about The Ashes, a series of five (this time) cricket Test matches between England and Australia. And here it is the end of the series and England won! Huzzah! Well done, lads.

For those who are not even remotely interested in cricket, but for some reason want to finish reading this note rather than painting the garage, please be aware that this is not a note about the details of strategy or skill, either of cricket or of baseball, which I will be bringing in to the note all to soon. Don’t sweat the sports stuff; there will be some questions and ideas that I think will be at least mildly interesting to those of you who don’t follow team sports. Maybe. We’ll see.

But first, the Ashes. The exciting moment—well, and by moment read three-hour stretch, only a moment in cricket terms—was an utter collapse by the Australian batters in their first innings at the final Test. And as I was reading about it, utterly stunned by the extent of it, it occurred to me that this was something really unique in team sports. That is, a difference in scale that is big enough to be a difference in kind: a reasonable first innings might last five or six hours or more, possibly much more, spread over two days or even three (depending on a variety of things). At lunch on the second day, Australia were 61 for naught and looked pretty good to carry on batting until the end of time. At tea, they were 133 for 8, and England was going to rake their Ashes. The point being that this was a collapse of the entire batting side, seven of the eleven players being out for single digits (which stinks, for those with no basis for comparison). In theory, at any point the Australian side could have turned it around, started batting well, and it would have been a very different match. But they didn’t. Once the slide started, it picked up pace and each new batter seemed to pick up where the last one left off.

This sort of thing is not altogether unusual in team sports. It doesn’t happen as much as you might think; the most usual thing is for some players to have a bad day and others to have a good one, or for the momentum to be all on one side for a while before unexpectedly changing. But it does happen, and I think most (if not all) fans have had the experience of seeing their team being unable, for a game or a half, to make a shot, complete a pass, or hit the ball. Or, more happily, having that happen to the other side, while your own team has everything fall exactly right. But the experience of watching wicket after wicket tumble for England seemed different from that. Perhaps I was fooled by the scale of the series, six weeks or so of back-and-forth play balanced just so, before collapsing. Much like the whole season of play leading up to a championship game, when (f’r’ex) a bad penalty is followed by three goals in ten minutes and it’s all over. But more so, and to me, much more so.

Now, let’s talk about baseball for a minute.

Before the beginning of the season, in the early spring when the crocus were still under the frost, my Giants were expected (by YHB, among others) to have a lousy year. Eighty-one wins out of a hundred and sixty-two would have been considered optimistic, and as for playoff hopes, well, nobody had any. Not this year. Then they startled everybody by winning more than they lost, and even those most careful observers did think they were playing over their heads, still, wins you don’t deserve count just as much in the standings as the ones you do. Not that they were good, exactly. But maybe, what with one thing and another, they would luck into the playoffs, and once the playoffs start, it’s all a crap shoot, anyway (warning: playoffs not actually a crap shoot).

So here it is late August, and what has become clear is that in order to get into the playoffs, the Giants are going to have to win a bunch of games against the Rockies, whether they deserve them or not. And lo, we head into Denver for four games, and lo, lo, we win the first one. And lose the second. And the third. Gruesomely, exposing the team’s weaknesses, in case there was any doubt about them. And then the fourth, well, last night was not a good night. Giants fans have had worse, but not by a lot. I mean, it could have been an inside-the-park home run they gave up.

Anyway, a few observations about the game, in light of the Ashes, occurred to me. First, and most obviously, there’s the sports thing that happens when even when we were winning, the fans (counting me and most of the people at the McCovey Chronicles site) felt certain we were going to lose. And when we were tied. There was just a feeling about it. Those feelings are often wrong, but…

The other thing is that our manager utterly mismanaged the roster, with some help from the GM. We used up all our reserves early (except one who was too injured to play but hadn’t been withdrawn from the active list, because, you see, the hell with it), which meant that our relief pitchers had to bat with men on base in extra innings. Of course, eventually, so did theirs, but ours started earlier and had less success.

C.L.R. James pointed out in Beyond the Boundary that baseball has a unique and bizarre rule: players removed from the game for a substitute cannot return in that game. Mr. James feels that this limits strategy far too much; as a born baseball fan, I find all the switching around in basketball and hockey confusing and uninteresting, and this whole business of football having three different teams is just, well, anyway. I think baseball would be a very different game if you were allowed to bring a pitcher back after a rest; I think cricket would be a very different game if you couldn’t. I am inclined to think that the baseball way is very American, but I don’t have any well-articulated basis for that. Perhaps you all could help.

And finally, there’s the scale of time. This was one game out of a hundred and sixty two, one series of four games in late August with weeks left in the season. In another sense, it’s a whole season blown, and in another yet, it’s a hundred and twenty-five year old ball club. There’s always next year. The Ashes series is just about the same age as baseball, but then, they play for a couple of months every other year or so. If I am reading the schedule correctly, the next international Test cricket for England will be in December in South Africa; they don’t play more than fifteen or so series at that level all year.

Does a culture’s sport infect their non-sport culture? C.L.R. James says that the two are not distinguishable, that it is nonsense to try to discuss the cultural times and the sporting styles and preferences separately. When, a few years ago, basketball was the big time, did the rhythms of that game, the suddenness and speed and the ability of one man to dominate the field of play, did all that influence the way we walked and talked, the books and movies and the politics, too? Does the resurgence of baseball go in hand with an interest in slower, steadier work? Or is it all about the television singing and dancing and cooking competitions, really?

Tolerabimus quod tolerare debemus,


I mean, it could have been an inside-the-park home run they gave up.

*tries to avoid smirking* I will just point out that after that game one of the two teams did go on to the World Series and it was not the one who hit the homer. Also, I think "hitting into an unassisted triple play to end the game" would probably top either of those in terms of worse losses. (That being said, yeah, ouch, that was pretty horrendous last night.)

The rule about substituted players not being able to return isn't unique though. At least at the top levels worldwide, soccer players who come out of a match can't go back in. That's even weirder in that the number of subs is limited to 3 even though they have more players on the bench.

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