Pesapallo: Playing at the Edge of the World

We’re leading by one, but with two outs, when I come up to bat. The staff-student baseball game is a yearly tradition at Päämajakoulu, and part of the tradition is that the game isn’t played for any set number of innings. Whoever is winning when the bell rings for the next lesson is that year’s champion, so the game’s normal rhythms are speeded up and slowed down, tense, the leading team moseying through the batting order and the trailing team fielding with a frenzy. Our opponents are a handpicked lineup of sixth graders, mostly the boys who are hitting puberty faster than their peers. Finnish sixth graders are the age of American seventh graders, and a few of the boys are already much taller than I am, which admittedly is not saying much.

I am buried somewhere in the middle of the batting order, but there’s only one runner on base, the school handicrafts teacher, when I come up to bat. I don’t remember now which student is pitching, but I believe it was Jukkis, the monosyllabic nemesis of my Conversational English classes. Tall and broad and sullen, with spiked, naturally platinum hair, he’s barely talked to me all year. This wouldn’t be such a problem except that being talked to is nearly my only function here at Päämajakoulu. Jukkis, I imagine, after nine months of being asked about his favorite animal, his favorite sport, his favorite flavor of ice cream, finds me as infuriating as I find him. We eye each other balefully, the bright yellow ball seeming to glow in his hand.

Because this is a game of pesäpallo, Finnish baseball, Jukkis is standing beside me, across home plate and just out of range of my swing. To pitch he will throw the ball in the air, at least three feet above my head, and I will try to hit it on its way down. If it falls and hits the asphalt of the schoolyard, that’s a ball. Two balls and the batter walks. If it falls and hits the base, that’s a strike. Three strikes are an out. I have no intention of missing the pitch, but bats and gloves and balls of all kinds have traditionally not paid me much heed. As a clumsy, pudgy kid, a girl who really did throw like a girl, I long ago convinced myself not to care. On this May morning in Mikkeli, Finland, 60 miles west of the Russian border, 140 miles northeast of Helsinki, 325 miles south of the Arctic Circle, eyeing a thirteen-year-old student across the plate, I care desperately. I bend my knees, raise the bat, my stance the same as in the American game, and wait for Jukkis to fling the ball upwards. I concentrate on its speed, its height, and at the same time keep repeating to myself: Remember to run towards third! Run towards third!

The pitching style is not the only thing that separates American baseball from the upstart Finnish version: the base running pattern is also radically different, with first base roughly where third should be. Second is over by first, and third is across the outfield, somewhere in leftfield close to the foul line. The distances between each 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. Technically, I don’t even have to run after hitting the ball; according to the rules I can hit both my first and second pitches and just stand there, making it possible to advance two runners while remaining at bat. If I hit a fly ball and a fielder catches it, I will be “wounded,” not out. (Three outs or eleven woundings end an inning.)

There are other quirks, too: a triple counts as a home run for scoring purposes, but the batter gets to stay on third and try to score again. Stealing is generally not a good idea; anytime a hit is caught, any runner not touching a base is automatically out. If a runner leads off at second and the pitcher throws to third, the runner is out unless he can physically get back to touch second before the pitcher’s throw is caught by the third baseman.

Here in the Päämajakoulu schoolyard we are hardly playing a professional game, and most of these rules are irrelevant, which is just as well—it’s all I can do to remember which way to run. It’s also a burden to know that I am playing to uphold faculty honor, my honor, the honor of “grown-ups,” the honor of the English language, the honor of Americans. This year, the year of the Iraq invasion, being an American has been complicated. In Conversational English classes my students have mustered their best English, their best understanding of global politics, to ask me why: Why is America doing this? Why are you doing this? Without consistent access to English-language news, only dimly aware that the war is even happening, I am the wrong person to ask. But I am the only American my students know, and so they assume, surely, I can explain American foreign policy, and surely, I am brilliant at baseball. In their minds, America is a nation of warmongers and ballplayers.

The crowd of students has been booing the teachers proudly and powerfully, rooting for their classmates, but I seem to divide their loyalties. They are used to encouraging me, soothing my embarrassment, watching me climb back on my skis or stumble through a discussion about the school cafeteria porridge with their “real” English teacher, who thinks it’s hilarious to test my Finnish in class. They tried to console me when I got so lost during the Official School Skiing Day that the headmaster was dispatched to look for me in the woods. (In my defense, I had been on skis only four times in my life, all of them in the two weeks before the Official School Skiing Day.) They want their team to win the pesäpallo game, but they also want me to do well. Their enthusiasm, their confidence, is palpable: this is baseball, she’s American. Finally, something she can do.