Pesäpallo: 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 f lavor 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.

“Go, Caitlin!” they yell as I wait for the pitch, and I wonder where they’ve learned the cheer. Video games, perhaps—a lot of their English is from video games. “Game over!” they occasionally shout at each other on the playground. “Finish him!”

This is the home of Nokia, the neighbor of IKEA and Volvo, a social welfare democracy full of tall, trim, well-educated blondes. Finland’s educational system has been ranked the best in the world, its standard of living among the highest. Most of my students look like extras from Children of the Corn, pale and golden-haired and hauntingly wholesome. They love the place they were born with an innocence, a straightforward pride I envy. I check over their sentence-completion exercises: Finland is_______________. The most beautiful country in the world. The country with the most beautiful nature. The best country on Earth. A place with excellent four seasons. They are very big on this, the fact that Finland has four seasons; I try to tell them most of the United States does, too, except our winter does not last six months, our summer two.

My students speak of “going to Europe” on vacations. When I tell them that to Americans, at least those Americans who could find Finland on a map, they’re already in Europe, they shrug. “Sort of,” they say. “But not really.” This is a country that for hundreds of years was a backwater of the Swedish empire, then a backwater imperial Russian duchy, then a fledging independent state in the shadow of the Soviet Union. This is a country that has been left to its own devices when it comes to language, cuisine, literature, sports.

Pesäpallo was imported and reinvented by Lauri “Tahko” Pihkala, a Finn studying in the United States who happened to watch a 1907 Red Sox game. He found American-style baseball frankly boring, but upon his return to Finland, he noticed how many traditional sports were losing ground to modern imports. He decided to create a new game, loosely based on a nineteenth-century Finnish game called Kuningaspallo (Kingball) but named after American baseball— and more exciting, faster-moving, and more competitive than either. Pesäpallo was officially introduced in 1922, and the Finnish National Baseball Association (Pesäpalloliito) was formed in 1930. After a name change or two, the sport settled on pesäpallo, a direct translation (base-ball) and transcription of how it sounded to Finnish ears: to the Finnish, the English “b” and “p” sound exactly the same. (Hence my third grade students’ hysterical laughter at the phrase “big pig,” and their teacher’s enthusiastic shouting at an exhibition match at Päämjakoulu’s sister school in Britain: “Good bitch! Good bitch!” she praised the English schoolgirls.)

Pesäpallo eventually became known as the kansallispeli, the Finnish national sport, and at least during the spring and summer the title is earned. During the winter, ice hockey takes over; losses, particularly to Sweden, could plunge the entire country into a day of mourning. I never saw pesäpallo inspire such heights of despair or triumph, but it is universally taught to schoolchildren, and in the warmer months it is played in many small town and community leagues, as well as in the professional Superpesis league, which prides itself on its separate-but-equal tournaments for male and female players.

Outside the country, it’s another matter. Baseball has the United States, Canada, Japan, the Caribbean, and most of the Western hemisphere. Pesapällo has Finland, Sweden, Germany, and Australia. There’s a team in New Zealand, too, but it doesn’t have the money to compete abroad. The Pesäpallo World Cup in 2006, held in Munich, had only four participants. Fortunately for national pride, Finland won the gold. Indeed, there has been a proposal that in the next World Cup, Finland be allowed to field twelve separate teams, one from each of its provinces, to increase participation and create more competition.

As a small country with a pool of potential athletes only five million deep, Finland has had to make its peace with almost never being good at anything on the world stage. I once asked a Finn if the national soccer team had qualified to play in that year’s World Cup. He burst out laughing. And yet Finns are ferociously proud of their Formula One race car drivers, their curling team, their ski jumpers, the long distance runner Paavo Nurmi, who has been dead for decades, and a sixth-place finisher at the 2006 European Championships in women’s singles figure skating. In 2002 a sprinter named Markus Pöyhönen won his heat and made it into the finals of the men’s 100m at the European track and field championships, the first Finn ever to do so. He finished fifth in a field of seven, and the country went wild. This was more than respectable. This was enough to get him on the Finnish version of Dancing with the Stars, and to keep the sixth grade female students at Päämajakoulu swooning over celebrity magazine pictures of him for the next nine months.

Pesäpallo is one of few venues for athletic prowess Finns have to themselves, or nearly so. By having their own brand of baseball, they have ensured both that other countries will have to compete on their terms, and that they will never have to compete on those of the United States. But they don’t see pesäpallo as a consolation sport; Finns fiercely defend the superiority of pesäpallo to American baseball. They won’t even be diplomatic about it. To them, there is no contest. They claim pesäpallo is more entertaining, more physically and intellectually demanding—basically, smarter, fitter, faster, better—than baseball. “Are you tired of watching boring baseball?” demands an international rule booklet. “Do you prefer faster and more tactical batting sports?”

To some extent these claims are demonstrably true—pesäpallo games are shorter, with two periods of four innings each, and the ball stays in motion much more. Finns are proud that pesäpallo doesn’t reward power hitters: a ball that goes over the fence is counted as a foul. The goal of a skilled batter is to hit the ball to certain parts of the outfield—where the fielders aren’t, yes, but more than that, there are very specific plays that require highly accurate hitting to move all the runners into position. At the game’s highest levels, teams have playbooks and plans closer in complexity to American football than baseball.

To present the American side of this argument, I defer to sportswriter Red Smith, who had the (mis)fortune of watching a pesäpallo match when it was an exhibition sport at the 1952 Helsinki Olympics. Pesäpallo’s inventor, Pihkala himself, threw out the opening pitch. Smith titled his article “Monstrous Infant”: “They played a ball game here last night, and if there’s a stone left upon a tomb in Cooperstown today it’s an upset. . . . [The game] was invented by Lauri Pihkala, a professor who wears a hearing aid. . . . Somebody must have described baseball to him when his battery was dead.” Smith thought the game lacked elegance, sense, a coherent strategy, or anything to differentiate it from a bunch of far northern yokels running in zigzag patterns across a field. It is hard to tell, though, whether the game offended Smith’s sensibilities simply by being so different from its namesake, or he found it unpleasant to watch, or, perhaps most likely, he simply couldn’t get over the most outwardly bizarre aspects of the game. I suppose any true devotee of a sport has a point at which his sensibilities are irrevocably offended. Even Finns look askance at the Swedish brannboll, a version of baseball in which, among other oddities, an unlimited number of players can stay on any one base—the entire batting order, for example, can huddle on first.

Smith also had the luxury of having grown up with the American version of baseball, the baseball. But what makes the Finnish sport less legitimate than its precursor? Why is pesäpallo seen as a freakish offshoot of its parent sport, while baseball is given the respect of long tradition and sanctified rules? After all, someone had to come up with baseball, or we’d still be playing “stoolball” on village greens. We just don’t know who, despite long-cherished myths like the one about Abner Doubleday’s field in Coopers-town. Baseball has a long history and idiosyncratic evolution, as opposed to being the invention of a single man in the 1920s, but baseball is not sacrosanct. Much as Americans complain about the snooze factor in a five-day cricket test match, I never met a Finn who thought American baseball was anything other than the slow-moving dinosaur of the sports world, a woefully unevolved predecessor of his own sport. Even Finns who don’t particularly like pesäpallo think it is a sport far superior, in design and execution, to the American version. Surely, if the rest of the world would just sit up and take notice, if pesäpallo boosters had one one-hundredth of one percent of the money and resources of American Major League Baseball, pesäpallo would conquer the world.

Finland doesn’t hold out much hope of this happening, but that doesn’t stop the Finns from trying to spread the gospel of pesäpallo, or, as it’s now known in younger, hipper circles, pesis. There are a few teams playing now in Estonia, Japan, and Switzerland. The next World Cup is in 2009, so the Finnish Society of Auckland might have time to raise the money to send the New Zealand team.

In fact, there is an entire world of baseball offshoots and progenitors, a family of fringe sports played with bats and balls. Pesäpallo is hardly on the farthest fringe; it already has thousands more adherents than British baseball, for example, a sport played in three cities that touts its yearly “international” championship: a match among Cardiff, Wales, and either Liverpool or Newport, England. Pesäpallo has also outlived some of its sister sports: while nineteenth-century Finns were playing kuningaspallo, Russians were playing the closely related lapta, Swedes were playing langboll, and Germans were playing schlag-ball. Lapta, Russian baseball, dates all the way back to the fourteenth century, as evidenced by the discovery of seven-hundred-yearold leather balls and wooden bats; the pitcher placement is the same as in pesäpallo (perhaps this is where Pihkala got the idea), but the batter must begin his swing with the bat held between his legs. The game survives as an activity for schoolchildren and an official “Traditional Russian Sport.” Schlag-ball is similarly hanging on, and even stoolball is still played, if only in Sussex, England. Langboll, alas, has gone gently into the great sports beyond.

It’s hard for Americans to realize this anywhere except a dirt playing field in Russia, or an English city green, or a concrete Finnish schoolyard, but American is the not the only flavor of baseball; it’s just the one with the largest reach and the most money, and the only one most Americans are aware of.

And yet Finns, as proud as they are of their homegrown sport, understand that it has a clear kinship with the American version, that eight-hundred-pound gorilla. Finns see pesäpallo as a starter experience for foreigners, especially Americans. It is what a Finnish person will try to teach you to bridge the cultural gap; if the two of you can’t talk about curling, there’s baseball. They bring it up when they aren’t sure if you’re ready for something like avantouinti, a single verb that means going-swimming-by-jumping-in-a-frozen-lake-througha-hole-cut-in-the-ice. Have you gone avantouinti? Would you like to avantouinti? Did you avantouinti and get hypothermia and nearly die? The Finns understand that avantouinti is approximately an 8.4 on a ten-point scale of cultural adventurousness and assimilation. Pesäpallo is a 1.2. Pesäpallo is to avantouinti what karjalanpiiraka is to kalakukko, both of which are specialty Finnish foods.The former is a rice pastry with butter and the latter is a baked bread bowl full of lard and fish heads.

Since I arrived in Finland at the beginning of the school year, I didn’t encounter pesäpallo until the start of the new season the following spring. By that time, I had tried kalakukko and karjalanpiiraka and mämmi, a delicacy that looks like a lump of tar and is a traditional food for Lent partly because its laxative effects help purify the body for Easter. I had also slurped koivunmahla, a traditional spring drink harvested by sticking spigots in birch trees and drinking what comes out. I’d tried to learn to ski, and learned both the Finnish word for javelin-throwing (keihäänheitto) and the location of the world’s tallest ski jump (Lahti, Central Finland). I’d attended events including a Moose Raffle and a First Aid Championship, been beaten with leafy birch branches in a sauna, and had a Russian border guard joke about shooting me in the head. By pesäpallo season, I was ready for anything.

The previous spring, with an English literature B.A. in hand and no clue what to do with myself, I had applied for exactly two jobs: teaching English in Finland, and being an apprentice pastry chef at a bakery in Michigan. I didn’t speak Finnish, didn’t have any Finnish family background—I had stumbled onto the job advertisement online. Why? everyone asked me, both Americans and Finns. Why not? I answered. Eventually I came up with an answer involving my passionate commitment to teaching and cultural exchange, but “Why not?” was more honest. I was unprepared and underqualified for the job. I’d made it to my second round of interviews at the bakery when, one morning, the assistant headmaster of a Finnish elementary school was on the phone, telling me Mikkeli was a nice town with only one bear. “I think you will not meet him in the forest. It is not sure that he exists. Maybe you will. But probably not. And if you do you will run away!” This was my job interview: apply for a visa, arrive in August, run from the bear.

My job title is “Assistant Teacher of English,” which means various things as the year unfolds. I start out visiting other teachers’ lessons: math, science, Finnish, handicrafts, physical education. I’m supposed to engage the students in conversation about anything— numbers, animals, yarn, javelins. I am the school’s pet English speaker, the pet American. My job is primarily to be unintimidating, and I trip over my own feet and tongue so often I can’t imagine this could really be a problem. By winter, I’ve graduated to holding my own Conversational English lessons with the older students and teaching the younger ones English songs and games. When a fifth grader tugs on my sleeve one day in the middle of a conversation group and tells me the assistant headmaster/fifth grade teacher wants me to join his phys ed class out in the schoolyard, I worry I’ve been demoted.

I help haul boxes of equipment out of a shed into the yard that is finally, in late April, free of snow. The kids open the boxes and distribute bats, balls, brown leather mitts. I have heard rumors of Finnish baseball but have never seen a game or the equipment. I allow myself a hint of anticipation. This is not tearing through the forest standing on a pair of someone else’s waxed sticks. This is baseball. This I can do. The teacher tells me he wants me to play, play to win, like I’m one of the eleven-year-olds. He puts me on a team and hands me a glove. For once, he seems to be doing this not as some new way to humiliate me, but because he assumes I will be good enough at the game to provide a productive example for his students. The Finnish winter being as long as it is, there are very few baseball-friendly weeks in the school year, and his students have played only a handful of times in the past few years. No one even asks me if I can play baseball. “Since Finnish baseball is so much easier, you will be very good at this game,” he says. “Don’t all Americans play baseball?”

For once, I’m glad my father made me play baseball. It was his sport, the one he followed, the one he would have loved to be really good at, the one he would have loved for one of his kids to be good at. My father has two daughters, no sons, and to his credit, the only time I have detected any regret in him over this is when it came to baseball. He had been a rising Little League pitcher, poised to be a large fish in his small hometown pond when his arm was badly broken in a schoolyard fight. He still can’t pull his right arm all the way back, but he could spend weekends pitching softballs to his kids, and he still speaks with embarrassing pride about my single moment of sports glory, which happened when I was nine. I don’t remember it, but according to him, I pulled off a double play during a game with my summer softball team. I think it was apparent very early on I had no innate athletic skill, but my father didn’t lose heart. Our baseball playing, our occasional tickets to Detroit Tigers games, were reflexive but sincere: this was what fathers did with sons, or daughters; this was what Americans did with each other. Faced with a child who read a lot more books about unicorns than she caught fly balls, my father still thought I should at least be able to play catch, to hit an easy pitch.

In American baseball, that’s about all I can do. But as it turns out, I can beat the pants off a bunch of Finnish kids. Finnish baseball gloves are larger and rounder than the American version; so is home plate. The pitching style makes it much easier to hit the ball. A reporter from the Chicago Tribune once asked avid pesäpallo player and Olympic curler Teemu Salo if he thought he could hit a U.S. major league pitch. “I think never,” he said. In fact, everything about the Finnish version of the game seems easier. It’s like we’re playing on the moon, or in some parallel universe. Not only are we all running backwards, swinging at pop-ups, constantly moving, but I’m good. It also doesn’t hurt that the opposing team is made up of eleven-year-olds.

After my first at bat the kids back way into the outfield every time I’m up. I’m still not a power hitter, so the balls don’t foul out by overshooting the edge of the field. I can bring runners home without ever going to first base. The only thing I have to concentrate on is remembering to run towards third, instead of the ingrained instinct to run right. My only slipup is missing an easy grounder in the outfield. “Fuck!” I instinctively shout as the ball rolls past me. I look up at my fifth grade teammates, who grin at me. “Don’t tell your teacher,” I say. Then the bell rings and I go back inside to talk about fourth grade girls’ favorite animals: dolphins, always dolphins. I never did see a live professional pesäpallo game—only televised ones, flipping through the state-owned channels on weekends. The players compete in small dirt stadiums, more like a high school facility than even a minor league ballpark in the U.S. They wear light helmets something like bicycle helmets, and full-body uniforms covered in advertisements, like the ones worn by race car drivers. It’s been harder to find sponsors, though, since a gambling scandal a few years back. Some Superpesis players, frustrated by and struggling on professional players’ meager salaries, started betting on and then purposely throwing their games. Like the U.S. MLB strike, the scandal disillusioned fans and drove down attendance.

Although professional pesäpallo is suffering, the amateur version is alive and well. Attendance at the Päämajakoulu staff-student game is universal. A crackling announcement goes out over the PA that I don’t fully understand, but I know enough to follow the exodus down the hallway and out into the yard where the children overflow, climbing the wrought-iron fence to stand on the sidewalk outside; they aren’t making a break for it, just trying to claim a better view. Another teacher spots me and summons me over to the bike racks, where the rest of the staff has congregated. They have heard I am very good at pesäpallo.

“Yeah, against eleven-year-olds,” I say.

My coworkers look disapprovingly at my sandals. Today, everyone except me has brought sneakers. Apparently, my grasp of the Finnish language has not improved as drastically as I might like to think. I shrug and tell them it’s all right; I’ll run and field as best I can. The game has been delayed by a choir performance for the retiring woodshop teacher, so it’s already unlikely I’ll see much playing time. Like baseball, pesäpallo uses nine men in the field; there are lots more than nine teachers, so we send out our best. I insist I am not among them, and to my relief, they believe me. A sixth grade teacher who also happens to be a star player on a regional soccer team makes the first out in the first inning, but the sixth graders manage several runners on base, and one run. The students are making a good showing, and the crowd is ecstatic.

My nonrenewable contract at Päämajakoulu is up at the end of the school year, and I’m not legally eligible to look for work elsewhere. I’d begun applying for teaching jobs in other countries when there was still snow on the ground, when the sun set at two p.m., when I thought I’d vomit if the cafeteria served one more tater tot made of shredded beets. But now, with the beautiful spring weather and hundreds of students laughing and cheering in the sunshine, my heart starts to break a little. Not for the Finnish man I am dating—by spring we both know the relationship won’t outlive my job contract—but for this country, for the fifth-place sprinter everyone adores, for lard and fish bowls, for drinking the clear blood of a birch tree, for my generous, self-confident students. Finland is the most beautiful country in the world. Finland is the best place on earth. I love them and their moon-baseball, their sport played proudly in four lonely countries. I love them for hitting easy pitches and running backwards and not apologizing for it, for saying this, this is the best kind, the truest kind of baseball.

The teachers get two more outs, and the sixth graders grab gloves and take the field. We lead with our best: the soccer star, the lanky assistant headmaster, the school caretaker. Both sides have been playing fast and loose with the batting order; the heavyset headmaster is allowed to bow out cheerfully while I get shoved up to the plate, even though I haven’t fielded. We’ve scored two runs but have two outs and a single runner on base. The children are disheartened, but think they’ll have enough time in the next inning to turn the tide. They can afford to cheer for me.

I don’t want an American to lose the pesäpallo game for the teachers; I don’t want an American to screw up at baseball in front of a bunch of Finnish children. I shoulder the bat and connect with the yellow ball. It bounces in the outfield, and I make it to first/third easily, even with my feet slipping in sandals. Two more batters, two more hits: the woodshop teacher, the long-term substitute for a third grade teacher on maternity leave. The next teacher is thrown out at first as I’m running down the left foul line towards home. The inning ends with the teachers still leading 2-1, and with American honor intact. Our fielders go back out and the next inning begins. Two students make it on base, but two more strike out, and before their side can tie the game, the bell rings. The students howl—not only have they lost until next spring, but they have to go inside to class. The teachers have to go back into class, too, but we march into the school victorious.

In the staff lounge I check my phone minutes and try to decide whether I can afford to make an international call to my father, to tell him I upheld our national reputation in an international exhibition match. I try to figure out how to tell him, if I should tell him, if he will be pleased or offended to learn this: after all his efforts, after being born and bred—every one of us, the athletes and the fans and the clumsy and the dispassionate—to believe that baseball is America’s national sport, it is only here on this May morning in Mikkeli, Finland, an hour from the Russian border, three hours from Helsinki, five hours south of the Arctic Circle, running left towards third base, that I am finally the grateful citizen of a baseball nation.

About the Author

Caitlin Horrocks

Caitlin Horrocks lives in Michigan. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in Tin House, Epoch, Colorado Review, The Cincinnati Review, and elsewhere. She misses Finnish baseball, but not Finnish winters.

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