If you’re looking for a display of uncorked athleticism, there’s no better show than the NBA All-Star Game. It’s all good fun—soaring dunks, rim-shattering put-backs, off-the-board passes, half-court three-pointers, Steph lying down on a fast break to avoid everlasting embarrassment.
But if you’re looking for a game of basketball, you’d best look elsewhere (start with the Spurs’ 2014 Finals victory over the Heat). The All-Star Game was too jazzy to be basketball; it was jazzy like baseball.
Baseball—jazzy? As Thomas would say, “It would seem not.”
Baseball players spend half the game standing in the field waiting for something to come their way, and the other half sitting in the dugout waiting for a chance to bat. Much of the action is concentrated in the 60.5-foot corridor between the pitcher’s mound and home plate. Apart from three central players, others spring into action only as the occasion arises. If the pitcher’s on fire, few occasions arise.
Jazz, by contrast, is perpetual motion. “Swing” is common to baseball and jazz, but with radically different connotations. In jazz, swing is the pulsing rhythm created by the interplay of instruments. In baseball, an individual batter “swings,” mostly without success.
Sed contra. Despite appearances, the two are historically entwined. Historians trace the word “jazz” to a mediocre pitcher named Ben Henderson, who in 1912 told a reporter about his new curve ball: “I call it the Jazz ball because it wobbles and you simply can’t do anything with it.” The word bumped around baseball for a few years before it was applied to “hot ragtime” in a July 1915 Chicago Tribune article.
Early jazz musicians were baseball fans and amateur players. Louis Armstrong played ball and bought uniforms for a team that adopted his name, “Louis Armstrong’s Secret Nine.” Bands led by Benny Goodman, Count Basie, Tommy Dorsey, and Duke Ellington formed their own teams to play exhibition and charity games against local opponents between gigs.
Are these connections anything more than historical accident? Or is there an inner resemblance between the game of bucolic green and the hot music of New Orleans bars?
Gerald Early stressed their common American origins when he called the Constitution, baseball, and jazz “the three most beautiful things Americans have ever created.” Trombonist Alan Ferber reached for a deeper link: “Baseball players and jazz musicians both strive for a perfect balance between disciplined practice and spontaneity.”
The same might be said about a lot of activities, artistic and athletic, but Ferber is onto something. Most team sports are intricately orchestrated. Every player on a football offense knows exactly where he needs to go, and the blocks, diversions, fakes, formations, and patterns are carefully synced. Basketball, hockey, and soccer are more fluid, but each sport involves coordinated movements of multiple parts. The pleasure of watching a well-executed football or basketball play is like the pleasure of watching ballet, a delight in choreography.
In most major American team sports, defenses aim to disrupt the offensive choreography. The defensive line wants to keep a hole from opening up wide enough for a tailback to get through, and linebackers and safeties blitz to force the quarterback to make a hurried pass or, better, to bury him before he can pass at all. You wouldn’t know it from the All-Star Game, but basketball defenders try to stay between the offensive player and the basket, and teammates are ready to take a charge or block a shot if they get beat. Good defense puts the offense off its groove.
Baseball differs from America’s other major sports in both of these respects. Baseball isolates individual performances—pitcher v. batter, mano a mano, a boxing ring set up in the middle of the infield diamond. Offense and defense never meet. The field is full of defenders, with at most four offensive players on the field at any one time (brawls excepted). The defense tries to impede the batter, but only after the batter hits the ball, and only from a distance. The closest defensive player, the catcher, rarely has physical contact with a batter or base runner.
And baseball isn’t choreographed like football and basketball. Sure, there are plays. A batter tries a squeeze play or a sacrifice fly to advance a teammate. Even then, the batter reacts spontaneously to what the pitcher throws, and defensive players have to improvise a stop. There are rules, and plays fall into regular patterns (grounder to short, pop fly to left center, line drive up the middle), but no one knows who’s going where when the pitcher lets go of the ball.
So, if you like high-wire, no-net improv, try baseball. Basketball players are fun to watch when they jazz around, but they’re better when they stick to the choreography.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute.