The pitcher faces the batter and prepares to deliver. Suddenly he whirls and fires the ball to first base—which is halfway up the third base line—despite the fact that there is no runner at first. However, there is a runner at second base, which is located where first base should be. The first baseman returns the ball to the pitcher, who then throws it to second. But the catcher, who is positioned halfway between home and second, intercepts the ball and pegs it back to the pitcher.
Finally, the pitcher, who is standing rather close to the plate, delivers the ball to the batter—by throwing it about 10 feet straight up. The runner on second takes off for third. The batter lofts a fly ball into the outfield, but he doesn't run. One of the two outfielders hauls it in and throws the ball to third. The runner from second beats the throw. He overruns the base, but nobody attempts to tag him. Nevertheless, the runner leaves the field. But he is not out.
The same batter is still hitting. On the next pitch he grounds a ball to the right shortstop (as opposed to the left shortstop), who scoops it up and returns it to the pitcher. The batter still has not left the plate. The pitcher delivers again. This time the pitch rises to a height of about 20 feet. The batter smacks the ball fair again, and now he takes off for first base. The pitcher waits for the ball to bounce, pounces on it and guns it to the first baseman. The batter is out.
No, this is not some capricious version of baseball dreamed up by the Queen of Hearts in Alice in Wonderland, nor is it baseball as seen by Samuel Beckett. This is pes�pallo, the national pastime of Finland. The previously described action took place last July in a pes�pallo game played during FinnFest USA '90, a four-day shindig at Suomi College on Michigan's Upper Peninsula.
For those accustomed to American baseball, the Finnish rendition takes some getting used to. "It's really hard to learn," said Kalereo (Kelly) Kemppainen, 46, who played for his Thunder Bay, Ont., team at the FinnFest. "If we have someone who wants to join our team, it takes him a whole season to learn this game. And even then he still doesn't know it all."
Pes�pallo was devised by professor Lauri Pihkala in the early 1920s after he had spent time studying in the U.S. The good professor found American baseball too slow for the Finnish temperament, and he set out to develop a game that would involve more players in more of the action, while also contributing to their physical conditioning. Combining elements of American baseball and various Finnish bat-and-ball games, he came up with a hybrid that emphasizes foot speed, endurance and strategy, and moves at a faster pace than the American pastime.
Today, pes�pallo is a required part of the P.E. curriculum in Finnish schools, and there are more than 2,600 teams throughout the country. The sport is also played by Finnish �migr�s in Sweden, Norway, Australia, Japan and Canada. The hotbeds of Canadian Pes�pallo are Vancouver and in southern Ontario along the Great Lakes. The FinnFest game pitted Thunder Bay against a combined team from Toronto and Sudbury.
To the uninitiated, pes�pallo is a bewildering affair. Whereas American baseball unfolds in an orderly fashion, and the open spaces and long pauses contribute to easy understanding, the Finnish game, played on a smaller field, is a kaleidoscopic montage of shifting defenses and scurrying base runners. The action is constant. "In this game, you don't have time to sleep in the dugout," said Kemppainen.
A pentagonal pes�pallo field comes in four sizes—for men's, women's, adolescents' and children's play. The men's field is 308 feet long and 138 feet wide and has a base of hard-packed dirt—a surface similar to the base paths of a standard baseball diamond. While the overall field is smaller than, say, Yankee Stadium's, the zigzag arrangement of the bases and the increasingly greater distances between them (65, 111, 118 and 131 feet) make a trip around the base paths an endurance run of more than 420 feet. "In American baseball a runner on second is in scoring position," said Thunder Bay's Jari Leinonen. "Here, he still has a long way to go." In fact, for a kunnari, or home run, a batter needs only to reach third before the ball is relayed there.
The ball, slightly smaller and heavier than a baseball, is made of dense, hard India rubber with a fuzzy, tennis ball-like covering. The thin bat—either of wood or fiberglass—resembles a fungo bat and has a maximum length of 39 inches. All fielders wear the same kind of glove, a model similar to a first baseman's mitt, with a deep, wide webbing.