Who's on first? Where is first? Pesapallo: For more than 75 years, Finns have been playing their own brand of baseball, which they say is a decided improvement over the slow, boring -- and difficult -- American game.

Sun Journal

September 28, 1998|By Anne Miller | Anne Miller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

HELSINKI, Finland -- The ball field nestles between two downtown city streets. As the sun edges toward the horizon on a late summer evening, baseball smells waft on a gentle breeze: popcorn, roasting sausages, cut grass.

The crowd waits silently as the pitcher takes the plate, flips the ball into the air above the batter's head and steps back. The hitter connects and dashes up the third-base line with a single.

Wait a minute: He dashes up the third-base line?

Of course -- that's where first base is, about halfway down the path toward third base. When a teammate hits a home run a few minutes later, the runner on first zigzags across the infield, the distance between the bases steadily increasing, and loops back to home.

This is Finnish baseball -- pesapallo, literally "nest-ball." Finns have played it for more than 75 years.

Some things are baseball constants: nine players on a side, nine innings, four bases, three strikes and you're out, three outs to an inning. And it's a game of bat and ball. But why are pitcher and batter facing each other on either side of home plate? Doesn't this game have a mound for the pitcher?

Pesapallo, says one professional player, reflects "the national character of Finland." There is even a postage stamp depicting a swinging batter.

Many who play pesapallo have watched American baseball, at least on television. They say the American game is staid, slow, boring -- and too difficult. The Finnish game, they agree, is a decided improvement.

In 1907, Lauri Pihkala visited the United States and attended a major-league contest. Unimpressed, he decided he could devise better game. Fifteen years of devising followed before Pihkala's improvements were introduced to the world as Finnish pesapallo in 1922.

The biggest difference between the two games is the way the play begins. The Finnish pitcher stands opposite home plate, which is round and sits about two inches off the ground. He tosses the ball vertically into the air about 3 feet above the batter's head. This makes the ball about as challenging to hit as slow-pitch softball, and this, in turn, speeds up the game.

If no one is on base, one bad pitch -- the batter lets the ball go and it misses the plate -- entitles the batter to advance to first. If someone is on first, it takes two bad pitches. A foul ball after two strikes retires the hitter, so there is no fouling off pitches endlessly. And no timeouts as the batter paces around the batter's box. In short, no long stretches of scoreless innings as the pitchers duel.

But some things stay the same. Between innings, youngsters dance the Macarena, and the candy and beer vendors are busy all evening. At the entrance to the Helsinki Tiikerits' field, fans can purchase T-shirts emblazoned with the Tiikerit mascot -- a bright orange and yellow tiger -- plus flags, beer glasses and yellow-and-black tiger-striped scarves.

The professional season lasts from May to September, with 12 teams in each league -- men's and women's -- competing for a berth in the championship tournaments that begin the third week of August.

Last year, more than 600,000 watched men's and women's pesapallo games, compared with about 350,000 for soccer.

Finnish baseball is played as far away as Japan and Australia, with leagues and national teams that meet each year in a world championship in Finland.

Of course, ice hockey is the true passion of 5 million Finns and probably always will be. But pesapallo draws its own ardent fans.

As players leave the locker room, well-wishers greet them with handshakes as they cross behind a sausage stand on their way to the playing field. Leading the way is the "Funky Team," a pom-pom squad of teen-agers.

Tickets cost 50 Finnish marks, a little less than $10.

The stadium resembles a large Little League field, or a small, poor minor-league one. The grass is splotchy; the base lines barely visible.

The players are walking billboards, wearing ads for Molly Malone's Irish Pub down their shins and for Nokia across their helmets -- which they are required to wear at all times. The padded leather covers their ears and foreheads, and exposes the tops of their heads. It looks more like a boxer's practice headgear than a major-league batting helmet.

The dugout is a simple wooden bench on the edge of the field. Photographers are permitted to roam the foul lines shooting VTC pictures at their leisure as long as they do not interfere with play and stay well behind the umpires.

Pesapallo gloves, lacking defined fingers, are more like mittens and come in an array of bright colors -- white and orange, lime green and maroon.

The manager flashes secret signals from the sidelines, but instead of signaling with his hands and body, he uses a brightly colored fan with several hinged parts. Umpires also use a prop. They signal foul balls, close calls and home runs with a wave of a large square card that is blank on one side and has an X on the other.

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