A True World Series: Pesäpallo and Baseball’s Other International Cousins

You know when you’re a kid, and you want to go play baseball with the other kids? But you get to the park, and the diamond is taken up by some official rec league or something, so you have to go to the soccer fields and play your own game? So you make up the rules, and set up the bases in odd places, and it’s fun in its weird way, but you can’t imagine trying to get other people to play it?

Welcome to the national sport of Finland.

This Piers Morgan tweet from Game 1 of the World Series is, as we’ve come to expect from Mr. Morgan, a cutting piece of original humor, but it makes a good point: baseball has really become quite the worldwide sport, and the name of our series isn’t entirely reflective of that.

Because here’s the thing about baseball: Japan, Taiwan, and Latin America all play it in a form that’s more or less identical to how we play it. But most other countries have had two reactions to baseball: “This is boring and dumb, let’s never play this again,” or, “This is boring and dumb, let’s try to make it better.”

Enter Lauri “Tahko” Pikhala. Pikhala was an Olympic athlete who, in 1907, took his creepy smile to Boston to watch a baseball game. He was bored by the lack of hitting (this was the pre-steroid era, remember) so he decided to change things up and enliven the sport for a picky Finnish audience.

His invention, pesäpallo, is different from baseball in a few key ways. The main difference is the one that, oddly, makes the most sense to me. Instead of having a pitcher hurl the ball from far away at high speeds or with weird rotations, play begins with the pitcher standing over home plate, lofting the ball up in the air, and then getting out of the way as the batter tries to hit it. It’s like a combination of tee ball and friendly pitch; just like both of those, it’s not particularly difficult to hit the ball. Most Finns who are pesäpallo fans call baseball boring because of this.

You like pesäpallo so far, right? Sure, there’s no place for star pitching, but all the hitting sounds like it could be entertaining. And I haven’t even told you about all of Pikhala’s changes yet.

First of all, diamonds are not forever. Running the bases in a traditional, logical manner? How about no.

Think third-base coaches waving their arms is a clear enough way to send signals to baserunners? That doesn’t sound color-coded enough to me!

Want to sit in the dugout when your team is batting? Nope! Standing behind home plate in a semi-circle while your batter swings at the ball is what you’ve always wanted to do.

How about a helmet that actually protects your head from things? Ha, silly, that’s for boring American sports. This is Finland, where it’s all about high-energy, fast-paced action.

Pesäpallo is a sport that emphasizes speed, agility, and the ability to remember a weird zigzag basepath. There’s a joker: a player who can be inserted into the lineup at any time to hit. I’m sure the infield fly rule is still in the rules somewhere, however.

This video gives you a better idea of how it all works, complete with a little animation and a nice Finnish voiceover. And it’s also a testament to the sport’s popularity. The all-star game brought in about 5,000 fans, which, in a sparsely populated country of 5.5 million people, isn’t too bad.

The sport’s name kind of sounds like “baseball,” if “baseball” were pronounced by an Italian man with a lisp. But this is not baseball. It’s the type of thing that you would have a fever dream about if you fell asleep on the coach while watching a Sunday baseball game. There’s a field, there’s a home plate, there’s baserunning. It’s all there, but there are more than a few things that are just off.

Finland is far from alone in having a weird sport with a pitcher, a hitter, and some sort of stick thing with which to hit the ball. Sweden has brännboll. The Brits have rounders. Romania has… this thing. Baseball-like sports permeate the global landscape.

But even so, why don’t we let other countries play in the “World Series?” Or why don’t we change the name? By refusing to do this, we exclude great baseball countries like the Dominican Republic, but it serves as a defensive measure. Claiming that our championship is representative of the entire world is a delegitimizing force against the baseball copycats in Finland and elsewhere. We’re telling the rest of the world, “Hey! You can do whatever you want with a bat and a ball and baserunning and innings, but unless it’s 90 feet to first and three outs in an inning, you can’t sit with us.”

So unless you want to watch Jeurys Familia throw a ball straight up into the air for Lorenzo Cain to chop at, don’t call for the World Series to expand worldwide. Baseball is weird, but it’s our weird.

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Raynell Cooper is a writer and the best pesäpallo player in the DC metropolitan area. You should follow him on Twitter.

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