erik lundegaard

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Pointing Fingers

On July 18, 2004, the Seattle Mariners were officially kicked out of major league baseball.

Didn’t hear about it? You should have been reading The New York Times that morning. In their baseball standings only 29 teams were listed: 16 in the National League, 13 in the American League, and only three in the A.L. West: Texas, Oakland and Anaheim. Since The New York Times gives us “All The News That’s Fit to Print,” I figured they must know something.

Turns out it was just a typo. But doesn’t it sum up the season? The Mariners had become so lousy it wasn’t even necessary to list us in the standings.

We have now entered that time of year when fingers are usually pointed at those responsible for such lousy seasons — hello Mssrs. Lincoln, Gillick and Bavasi! — but, for once, I’d like to talk about a more positive kind of finger-pointing. The kind you see on the field.

It takes two forms: a pitcher strikes out a batter to end the game and points to the sky to acknowledge a) his dead father, b) God, or c) some combination of the two. A batter sometimes does the same thing when touching homeplate after a homerun. The message is: Thank you for looking after me. Thank you for giving me this power. Thank you.

But I prefer the second, more secular kind of finger-pointing.

Say there’s a runner on first base and the batter slices a single to right field. There goes the runner trying to make it third, and the right fielder guns the ball to the third baseman who tags him out. Now what does the third baseman do?

He points to the right fielder.

He’s saying: You’re responsible. I made the tag, I’m holding the ball, attention is on me, but you’re responsible. Nice job. Good effin’ throw.

It’s probably the most common gesture — besides adjustments of clothing and equipment — you’ll see a player make on the field, and it exemplifies the best of baseball. We’re part of a team, you and I. If you hadn’t thrown it, I couldn’t have caught it.

This should be obvious, right? I mean, to gun down the runner from right field, or second base, or wherever, takes a good throw. Catching is easy. The third baseman should give him credit.

Except transfer this scenario to another sport: Football. The ball’s at midfield and the quarterback drifts back and unleashes a bomb. It spins forty yards downfield, the wide receiver catches it, and trots in for a touchdown. Now what does the wide receiver do? Does he point at the quarterback to acknowledge the throw?

Rarely. Generally he’ll dance around in some fashion. He might slam-dunk the ball over the goalposts. If he’s from Green Bay he’ll jump into the stands. If he’s Terrell Owens he’ll…well, who knows what T.O. will do? But the meta-message of all these actions — even the Lambeau Leap — is the same: Look at me. Lookee what I did.

Comedian George Carlin once made a very good living joking about the difference between baseball (meek) and football (martial), but this is one of the main differences for me. Football is a grandiose celebration of the self while baseball is a subtle acknowledgement of the team. If baseball is no longer our national pastime — and I believe, unfortunately, that it isn’t — it says something about the direction our country is heading: Away from “Nice job” and towards “Lookee what I did.”

Over the last few decades major league baseball has even threatened to have its own version of the TD celebration: the homerun trot. Players all but moonwalk down to first base after sending it deep. In 1998, Mark McGwire and his teammates got into an elaborate ritual of stomach-punching after every homerun. It was just…plain…stupid.

These little gestures add up. We’re an imitative species and kids act like their heroes. Hell, adults act like their heroes. I play Sunday softball and I’m often pointing my finger in acknowledgement of something good Jeff or Leonard or Brent or Barry did. Good job, guys. Nice throw. Nice catch. Let’s win this one. Basically I’m imitating Mark McLemore, who was the consummate teammate. He was always pointing his finger at someone.

Even in a season as lousy as this one, seeing that little gesture always makes me smile. Here’s hoping it’s the main kind of finger-pointing Mariner fans will see next season.

—originally published in The Grand Salami