Once considered America's national pastime, baseball is on a decline, especially among young Americans who seem to prefer more active sports such as football and basketball. But in Finland, the game's popularity is at an all-time high, especially in rural areas, where it is a favorite in schools and fans in stadiums often outnumber the local population. The reason? Pesäpallo, the Finnish version of baseball, is a faster-paced game that is exciting enough to keep fans of all ages at the edge of their seats!
Pesäpallo, now deemed Finland's national sport, was invented in the early 1900s by Finnish athlete Lauri "Tahko" Pihkala. The Olympic track and field star came up with the idea, after attending what he thought was a “lackluster” baseball game in America. While both sports involve a ball and a bat, the similarities end there. Unlike the familiar diamond-shaped baseball fields in the US, the Finnish game is played on a long narrow arena. Instead of scoring by running counter-clockwise, the players sprint in a zigzag pattern, resulting in progressively longer distances. They begin by running to the left to get to first base, then zip diagonally across the infield to get to second base on the right, then straight across the field to third base, before finally making the long trek back to home base.
Though batters get three strikes, they don't have to run if they get a hit on the first two. The ball is also much easier to hit, primarily because the pitcher stands just over an arm's length from the batter and throws the ball straight up in the air instead of from a mound. As a result, almost every ball that gets pitched is put into play with very few strikeouts, swings, and misses. A pesäpallo player runs an average of about 6.5 miles (10.5 kilometers), or about the same as a professional soccer player, during each game. In comparison, most baseball players average 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometers) per game!
"It's much more active because almost with every pitch you have a strike and the ball is on the move, and the runners are on the move, so there are no empty moments in the game," Jussi Pyysalo, chief executive of Finland's top professional league, Superpesis, told CNN.
Since the highest salary averages about $55,000, even the best pesäpallo players have to keep their day jobs. However, they seem to have little desire to trade spots with professional Major League Baseball (MLB) players, who often have multimillion-dollar contracts. "I have followed and do occasionally watch baseball, but since I've gotten so used to the speed and dynamics of pesäpallo, baseball seems more sluggish," says Tuomas Jussila, a two-time league MVP, who helped lead his team to the championships in 2018.
Pyysalo agrees, saying, "In our towns these guys are stars. They are not superstars, no. They don't need to make a lot of money, no. But, still, they are proud of it, and their hometowns are proud of them too."
Perhaps MLB officials can adopt a few ideas from the Finnish and help revive interest in the sport, which has given the world legends such as Joe DiMaggio and Jackie Robinson.