Sunday, March 22, 2009

In the spirit of the World Baseball Classic

Here are some versions of baseball that have been played around the world.

Lapta - A Russian game that has been played since the 14th century.
Lapta is an old Russian folk game with a ball and a bat. Mentions of lapta have been found in old manuscripts, and balls and bats were found in the 14th-century layers during excavations in Novgorod.

The game was played outside on a field the size of 20 x 25 sazhens (about 140 x 175 feet). The edges of the field were marked with parallel lines, called salo. The goal of the game is to hit the ball, served by a player of the opposite team, with the bat and send the ball as far as possible, then run across the field to the kon line, and if possible to run back to the gorod line.

The running player should try to avoid being hit with the ball, which is thrown by the opposing team members. For successful runs, the team earns points. A team wins by either getting more points during the scheduled time or by having all its players complete runs.

Brännboll - A game played in Scandinavia.
The main difference from baseball is that there is no pitcher, instead the batter himself hits the ball, usually a common tennis ball, with his bat. The bat is sometimes a wooden baseball bat, but less experienced players may use a flat paddle-like version (often disparagingly called kärringracket hag-bat, tjejträ girl-bat etc. mainly by boys). There are also no constraints to the playing field. However a too crooked ball hit will result in a strike. The batter has three (sometimes two) strikes to get a valid hit or he is forced to go to the first base and the turn is given to the next batter in line. After batting, the batter drops the bat and makes his way counter-clockwise (or clockwise) around the four positioned bases, while the outfield players – who do not wear gloves – try to catch the ball and throw it to an appointed "burner", belonging to their team. The "burner" (Brännaren) needs to hold the ball in his hand, while simultaneously stepping on a small board on the ground – resembling the pitcher's plate, in baseball – and yell "Bränd" (Burned), which ends the round. If the infield runner(s) are by then not positioned on a "base" they are "burned" and forced to go back to the first base or the previous passed base depending on rules (a person on his way to the first base may not be burned). A game is played in timed periods, often 2 or 4, and the teams switch sides in between them. However, if there is only one player left to bat and no player makes it to the fourth base during that round, or the last batter fails to produce a valid hit in his two attempts, the team is "burnt out" (utebrända), and the opposite team either gets a predetermined amount of bonus points (and all on the team gets back in line for batting) or the time period ends and the teams shift sides.

Pesäpallo (also known as Finnish baseball) - This was actually an Olympic demonstration sport in 1952. It is played in Finland, Sweden, Germany, Switzerland, Australia, and Northern Ontario. The basic structure of the game is identical to baseball, as the founder of the game based it on baseball in the early twentieth century (why on earth our beloved game had to be changed is beyond me. They've killed the beautiful symmetry of the game. Change it back, and get those Finns in the Classic!)
The more significant differences from baseball are:

* The first bounce of the ball is decisive: It must bounce within the play area, and may then roll over a line and still be in play. The back line on the fly counts as a [strike/foul ball]. The foul lines are also on the sides and the front of the field. So if a player hits a very hard hit that would be a certain home run in baseball, it's counted as a strike/foul in pesäpallo. This increases the tactical approach but decreases the challenge of hitting hard.
* A batting team's batting inning ends not when three batters have failed to score, but when either three batters have all been physically beaten by the ball (a ball catch straight off the bat does not suffice, it is called 'koppi' a middle ground between scoring and being out) or when the entire regular team of nine has batted and are all either in koppi, out on a base or run-out (but if a player scores, he liberates all his koppi players, making them eligible to bat again in that inning)
* Catching a ball in flight is not an out, but forces all runners not on a base to return to home base (this is called a "haava", lit. "a wound" or simply "koppi", "a catch"). This gives the batter a chance to "move the responsibility" of advancing runners to the next batter if he thinks he's not good enough for the task. Also, "wounded" players are not allowed to bat unless two runs have scored after the "wounding". Hence the team can run out of players.
* A batter's box is removed and the home plate serves as a pitching plate, which is round with a diameter of 0.6 metres (24 in). All other batting team players stand in a semi-circle near the batter, either awaiting their turn to bat, or one step further back in 'koppi'
* Pitches are tossed straight upwards from above the batters plate (100% vertical tosses), and the batter hits the ball when it drops down. There is no catcher (catcher is one of the closest fielders to the home base); the ball hitting the pitching plate is a miss/strike.
* Players have no difficulty hitting the ball when it's pitched upwards, so the main target isn't just hitting the ball, it's positioning the hit correctly (very short hits - bunts - help other runners advance bases [like stolen bases but with the ball hit and hence counting as a strike when the batter stays back after hitting the ball], a good homing hit is batted between the fielders in the midfield and if the ball slips far away from the field, it's easy to hit a home run etc.). The home run is not so much good hitting as weak fielding.
* A home run is scored when the batter reaches third base before the ball (the ball is in play even if it has bounced to the river near the field). After a home run the runner can stay at third base and try to score another run.
* The strike zone is rather different; the ball is good if it was lifted at least one meter (3.2 ft) above the heads and it hits the pitching plate.
* Walking requires fewer invalid pitches (when the field is empty of runners, one invalid pitch allows a walk, otherwise two). A walk advances the runner closest to home base; if there's a runner at third base, he/she shall score.
* The batter is not required to run after hitting the ball on his first or second strike. But, after two strikes, when the pitcher releases the ball for the pitch, the batter can drop his bat and try to run to first base. The pitcher must wait until the ball bounces from the pitching plate before he can grab it [the absence of this rule would lead to serious injuries] and try to throw the runner out at first - so even at the top level, the runner stands a good chance of making it to first base without having hit the ball.
* Force outs are always outs: if the runner is off the base and the ball is in the control of a defensive player at the next base, the runner is out.
* The bases are not laid in a square; the players have to 'zig zag' the court (see chart).
* When entering a base or the home base, the runner only has to cross the line of the base; there are no actual cushion bases like in baseball, only circular lines in the sand showing where each base is.
* The pitcher or the fielders in the bases don't have any plates to touch to make an out; having only a foot in the base (a much larger area compared to the bases used in baseball) is enough.
* The attacking team uses a color coded fan to signal the runners when to move. The fan is multicoloured, held by the manager of the team. Color sequence is decided prior to the game. When the manager puts on the specified colour order and holds the fan over his head, the runners know to run. Sometimes even a certain player holding his bat up is the "code".
* The offensive team can "skip" batters. The team manager has an option to jump over his weaker batters and go straight to his "big guns" if he thinks it necessary. This is only possible in super pesis, where each team has a small allowance of 'jokers' to play.
* The final score of the game is not the runs scored but "wins" of two periods, which include four innings each. To win a period, a team must have scored more runs in that period. In the event that both teams have scored the same number of times in a period, the team with more home runs wins the period, if this is also equal, then neither team receives a period win point, and hence both lose ground in the overall league table. If after the 2x4 innings are played, the overall periods won score is either 0-0 or 1-1, then a sudden death overtime sequence is initiated.

Rounders - The original form of baseball, this game is still played wherever the British Empire once stuck its flag.
Rounders is played at international level. Canada, England, Ireland, the Isle of Man, Scotland and Wales compete against each other, and the Pakistan Rounders Association held its first national competition in 2006. There are plans to develop the game in other Asian countries and Zimbabwe also has a national body for rounders.

The 2008 Rounders World Festival was held in Rotherham, England, on June 28 [4] organised by the UK National Rounders Association. This event replaced a proposed World Cup which was cancelled after fewer teams entered than expected.[5]. National teams represented at the festival were China, Iran, England, and Wales.[6].

The inaugural meeting of the World Rounders Association took place at the 2008 World Festival, attended by representatives from England, Wales, India and Pakistan[7].
Sounds like the World Baseball Classic has competition. Screw rounders - play baseball!

I wonder if the existence of these similar games has in anyway hindered the development of baseball on an international level. Think about the most popular sport in the world - football. There is no real competition. Sure, there are other sports called football, but they don't resemble the sport where you actually use your foot and are more like rugby. Pesapallo is sometimes called the Finnish national sport. What if baseball hadn't been altered to create this game? Would the Finns be playing in the Classic now? If all the world were playing baseball instead of their various versions of it, would the earth consist of two seasons - football and baseball? Could I live in Europe and see the same quality of baseball in Berlin as I do in New York?

Hotdogs for thought.


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