I was at a Colorado Rockies game in Denver last year with a pair of Finnish nationals when I discovered the world’s greatest game.
We had just wrapped up a goaltending retreat in the mountains, and about ten of us weren’t set to fly out of Denver until the next day. So we all ponied up for tickets to see the Rockies demolish the Blue Jays, and spent our last night in Colorado drinking watery beer and watching someone else be athletic, for a change.
I wasn’t sure if Finland had baseball, since one of the two Finns with us didn’t know much of anything about the game. But when I asked if they needed help understanding, one of them proudly told me that this was nothing.
“This is like a slower, boring version of Finnish baseball.”
Excuse me, what?
It turns out that in the early 1900’s, a Finnish dude named Lauri Pihkala came up with a ‘stick and bat’ game that resembled baseball in the very loosest of senses — but was faster, more chaotic, and infinitely more fun.
Pihkala himself has a deeply problematic history as a promoter of eugenics to strengthen Finland’s military, and he introduced pesäpallo initially as a way to introduce increased physical training into communities (not unlike dozens of sports around the world). But now, it serves as a way to help unify people across the Nordic country and once they’ve moved elsewhere. Widely considered the only sport that is ‘truly Finnish’, it carries a sense of pride that mirrors that of baseball and football in America, or hockey in Canada.
And frankly, when the new season of Pesis — Finland’s pesäpallo elite league — kicks off in less than a month, it’s the only sport worth watching in quarantine. Move over, Korean baseball.
HOW TO PLAY
Buckle up, folks.
When trying to understand Finnish baseball, it’s kind of best to take everything you know about baseball and throw it out the window.
The pesäpallo field is substantially bigger than a baseball field, and looks more like an upside-down house than a true baseball diamond:
Pitchers stand next to the hitters and toss the ball up into the air, where they need to hit a certain height to the toss for it to count. Then, presumably, they step back to avoid getting smacked in the face by the wiffle ball bats the batter uses to swing at the toss.
This is where things get a little hairy.
The batter has three opportunities to hit a ball into play, although they don’t have to run on the first ball they connect with — they truly have three opportunities to get the hit they want and “round” the bases. They also aren’t automatically out if the outfielders catch a fly ball — those have to be tossed to the bases, which are each the size of an inflatable swimming pool and follow a zig-zag pattern instead of a diamond shape — and if the ball goes into the river or rolls out of the field? Tough luck for the outfielders; that puppy is still in play.
There’s also a multi-colored fan (that looks suspiciously like the NBC logo when fanned out) that team managers use to direct the offense, and the entire defense gathers in a semi-circle around home plate to watch the base runners? It’s all pretty chaotic and incredible.
The game is split up into two periods with four innings apiece, and teams try to win periods to win the whole game. If there’s a tie, they first move to an extra inning, then to something like a baseball shootout, where batters have to take turns trying to bring in a teammate from third base (which, as shown in the picture of the field above, is like 60 miles from ‘home plate’).
If you’re a fan of the designated hitter argument, buckle up: in pesäpallo, the offensive team can have three of them. Add in some kind of murky rules about when a player gets walked and whether or not they have to run to the next base, and it’s all the chaos you’ve ever wanted from America’s most boring pastime.
If you want a taste, there’s apparently a vimeo account that you can find full archived games (and Youtube is chock full of pesäpallo highlights). And I mean, come on:
If you say this isn’t fun, you’re a liar.
Stay safe, stay healthy, and I’ll see you all on the Superpesis Twitter feed on June 2nd!