In Praise of Foul Poles

Perhaps you’re wondering why I chose Off the Foul Pole for my soap box of all things baseball. Yes, it’s kinda catchy.  And the URL was available for a nominal price. And I happened to have  a nice photo of the right field pole at Citi Field to use on my home page.

But most importantly, the foul pole is a metaphor for what makes baseball so special, and in some ways unique from other sports. This has become ever more evident during the World Cup. I love watching soccer, in part for the same reason I love watching a 14-inning scoreless pitching duel. Low scoring, tactical affairs may bore many people, but I am captivated by the drama, intensity and tension that they create. Most of all, the tension. I love to be on edge when watching sports, knowing that any second my emotions can ricochet one way or the other. The next goal or run, could, and often does, seal the outcome of the death match unfolding before our eyes.

I’ve been to three World Cup finals (’94, ’98, ’02) and engulf myself in this quadrennial one month tournament, thrilled by the notion that a single goal, be it by Brazil or Slovakia, Argentina or New Zealand, can send giddy or nervous tremors throughout the world. The mere sight of a red card can incite riots across an entire nation. Great stuff.     

So, what does this have to with foul poles? Honestly, it drives me crazy when someone hits the post or crossbar in soccer. An inch this way or that and millions celebrate or mourn. Careers are made or lost. It’s one of the beauties of the game, but it’s also one of the curses. Hit the post, no goal. Same in hockey — hit the pipes, no dice. In football, hit the upright, no field goal. Find  a new kicker. In basketball, the ball hits the rim, bounds away, game over. Another Knicks loss.

But in baseball — totally different story. You hit the foul pole and it’s a home run. Never will you hear an announcer say, “Oh, he hit the foul pole and he’ll have to head back to the batter’s box.” You’re actually rewarded for hitting the ball off  the damn thing! Carlton Fisk became a legend by actually willing the baseball to hit the left field pole at Fenway. Pele? Maradona? Zidane? They became legends by avoiding things like poles, posts, crossbars,etc. Nothing but for these soccer legends.

If you’ve ever sat near a foul pole when it’s struck by a ball, you know what  a beautiful and mesmerizing thing it can be. The noise. The vibrations. It’s elation if you’re guy hit it. Sickening if the other guy hit it.

So as I watch the USA-Algeria soccer match tomorrow, with everything on the line, and Landon Donovan fires a 20-yarder off the cross bar in the 86th minute of a  0-0 match, I’ll be one of millions who groan in agony. Like I said, it’s both a maddening and beautiful reality of the game.

But I can only take so much of it. Eventually, I gravitate back to the ballpark, taking solace in those towering foul poles.

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