FINLAND'S ANSWER TO BASEBALL
Updated: Oct 26, 2020
This article was originally published on June 19th, 2019.
“If you dropped acid and decided to go make baseball, this is what you would end up with,” this is how Minnesota Twins' Andy Johnson would describe pesäpallo.
So, what exactly is pesäpallo?
In the simplest terms, it is Finland's answer to baseball, although one thing is for sure is that it is not the same as any baseball game seen in North America. It is the country's national sport and it can be argued that it is the only sport that is truly Finnish.
When Finland took part in the 1912 Olympic Games in Stockholm, it would achieve success in sports that concerned long-distance running and throwing. However, they identified their need to improve in the sports which included sprinting and jumping.
In a bid to improve the country's future standards in these sports, an investigator, Lauri Pihkala, was sent to the US to study the technique of American athletes.
While in the States, Pihkala would experience America's past time, baseball. Despite it being said that he found the sport boring, he was greatly impressed by the enthusiasm the fans showed towards the sport.
When he returned to Finland he identified that it would not be possible to introduce baseball to Finland, in its current form. Since the neighboring country of Sweden had seen an attempt to introduce the sport ended in failure.
As different national ball games were played almost exclusively in Finland at the beginning of the century, games in which the fundamental elements of baseball appeared: strike, catch and run. It was considered more natural to build an entirely new game based on the principles of baseball, develop it organically, and make rules for it with due consideration to the rules of the parent game.
Pihkala's attempts to test the new sport took some time, a combination between a lack of enthusiasm for sports among Finns and the onset of the First World War. It would not be until 1920 that the first trial match was played. It would be a few more years until he would settle on the name pesäpallo.
In the early years, Pihkala the game was spread through the Civil Guard organizations, with whom Pihkala had been working intensely. With its playing terms such as ‘wounds’ and ‘deaths’, it was presented to the guards as a game that prepares you for war, even though this was partly a question of marketing the sport.
The basics of the game are the same as baseball, two teams of nine players, but each team gets three pinch hitters, called jokers, that can bat anywhere in the order they want.
The games are divided into two four-inning sets. If the game is still tied at the end of these innings, they play a "Super Inning."
The most significant difference between baseball and pesäpallo is the start of play. In pesäpallo, the pitcher stands mere feet away from the batter, instead of throwing the ball from a mound. The pitcher then tosses the ball straight up at least three feet above the batter’s head. This pitching technique gives this sport more speed and tactical aspects as compared to baseball. The fielding team in pesäpallo is forced to use defensive tactics to counter the batter’ choices in an effective manner.
In contrast to baseball, there is no celebration if the batter hits the ball out of the field. That’s a foul, not a home run. Instead, the onus is on the batter to keep the ball within the playing area, aiming for the spaces between the fielders.
In pesäpallo, the baserunning pattern is radically different with players running in a zigzag path. The first base is located about halfway between where home and third would be in baseball. From there, the runner must cross the width of the field to second. The third base is located directly behind first and rests twice as far away from home, following in a straight line.
The distances between each base are different, approximately 60 feet from home to first base, then 96, 108, and a long 114 feet from third to home.
The rules for running the bases are different, too. If a player is able to hit a triple, it counts as a home run for scoring purposes, but the batter gets to stay on third and try to score again.
Players don’t even have to run after hitting the ball; according to the rules, a player can hit both my first and second pitches and just stand there, making it possible to advance two runners while remaining at-bat.
Pesäpallo is not often played in cities. Therefore, it would be unlikely that if you visit Helsinki you are unlikely to see the sport.
Most teams are based in the Finnish countryside, in towns where the local population is around 3,000. Despite being located in low-density population areas, the professional teams of the Superpesis will bring in average crowds between 3,500 and 5,000 per game.
Superpesis is the current incarnation of Finland’s most elite pesäpallo divisions for men and women. Both the men's and women's leagues are equally well supported.
A number of the Superpesis teams' stadiums have a few quirks, that would be unthinkable in North American sports. Vimpelin Veto, from the small town of Vimpeli, play their home games at Saarikenttä, which is located beside the Savonjoki river. The quirk of this stadium is that due to pesäpallo’s ‘first bounce’ rule, a ball can end up in the river and still be considered “in play,” leading to players jumping into the river to retrieve the ball.
In recent years, this national obsession has become Finland’s main recreational export. Small leagues have sprung up in Australia, Germany, Japan, and even Canada.
The sports growing popularity has led to the sport holding nine World Cups since 1992, each one Finland has finished as champions. However, this year's World Cup in Pune, India may see a different outcome.