The game of baseball is made up of a hundred rituals, athletic tics really, that must have more to do with tradition than performance. They have to, because most of them make no sense whatsoever. As a fan you might take comfort, to pick one example, in the familiar on-deck tableau, where the next hitter swings a few bats, then takes up a warmup bat fitted with a 4�-pound donut and whales away at the night air. It's a reassuring scene, inasmuch as it's been going on for about a hundred years. Still, have you ever asked yourself, What in the world is actually happening? That donut, for instance, what does it do?
Well, it adds weight so that when the batter faces the pitcher with his normal (non-Krispy Kremed) bat, he will feel as if he's shouldering a toothpick and will—presumably—get around on the mightiest fastball. By this specious reasoning, which is typical of a game in which managers wear cleats, the more weight the better. So why not swing a truck axle to get your groove? Why not swing David Wells? In fact, many believe the better way to prepare for a Randy Johnson fastball would be to practice with a much lighter stick, with bat speed as the objective. Baseball, though, is nothing if not a series of stylized motions, the pitcher rubbing the rosin bag then slamming it to the mound, making a powdery poof, and the batter chunking the bat upside down, the donut sliding neatly off the handle. So it's no use asking what the point of these rituals is. Better to wallow in the familiar minutiae that, taken one by one, amount to a baseball game.
Surely there is no more satisfying piece of sports equipment than the Zamboni, the ice polisher that creeps onto the rink after each period of nonstop fury, restoring our nerves as well as a glassy surface. Not that it was developed for its calming effect, but is anything more pleasing than its slow sweep, a machine two Buicks high making mesmerizing loops and leaving a bright shine wherever it passes? Although those benefits are immeasurable, it is the utility of the machine that must be appreciated, primarily. How could they play hockey, how could Snoopy dance, if the ruts couldn't be smoothed? That was the problem a California ice-rink owner named Frank Zamboni (What? You thought somebody made that name up?) solved in 1949 when, frustrated by the amount of time it took workers to drag, squeegee and spray his ice, he rigged up a Jeep that could do it all in one operation. Sonja Henie (below) got a look at the contraption and ordered one for her traveling ice show. Hockey arenas followed suit in the '50s, and today hardly a rink worth skating on doesn't have one of the four-ton behemoths (not Jeeps anymore, baby, but $80,000 custom-made jobs) to lay down that pristine sheen.
Utility alone, however, can't account for its appeal, the way it has become hockey's equivalent of a halftime show. Something else about the Zamboni—its hulking size, its implacable disposition as it grinds up frozen debris—gathers our attention and holds it fast. Maybe it's purely a masculine idea, but could the Zamboni be the ultimate dream machine, an exaggerated riding mower, a huge vehicle you can hop on and artfully maneuver in circles to do nothing less than dominate nature? Of course it is. What man hasn't watched the Zamboni tool round and round (top speed: 9 mph) and thought, Damn, if it just had a cup holder.