Exchange students and other young persons visiting Sweden this summer may be pressed into service on a team playing an exotic game called Brännboll. The game bears a superficial similarity to softball, which for you Swedes is a mild, slower-paced version of the American sport of baseball.
Do not be fooled by this apparant similarity! Brännboll is in fact a bewildering, unstructured game that will leave you yearning for the crisp, elegant, and unforgiving rules of the American pastime.
Brännboll bears many similarities to the American game. Two teams take turns batting and fielding on a playing field with four bases. After hitting the ball, the offensive players circle the bases.
On closer inspection, however, the similarities stop there. For one thing, there is no pitcher (kastare) and consequently brännboll lacks the tactical struggle between pitcher and batter that you’ll find in baseball. Instead, the batter just tosses the ball up in the air and gives it a whack. Where is the sport in that, your kulturCHOCK! reporter asks? On top of that, the ball is usually a tennis ball or some other harmless sphere, something that the defensive team will probably be able to catch easily without a glove. The bat (slagträ) will, in relatively organized situations, resemble a baseball bat, but in a pinch it may look more like a canoe paddle or even the barkless limb of some unfortunate tree.
Even more distressing than the lack of a pitcher is the fact that the batter (slagman) can advance on the bases regardless of the quality of his hit. Do not make the mistake that this reporter has made in thinking that hitting a ball that is caught by the opposition or that merely dribbles a few meters towards the infield will somehow disqualify you from continuing to run the bases! In fact, this aspect of the game is its clearest expression of the Social-Democratic ideas that have steered the country for a large part part of this century: your own effort or skill in striking the ball matters not. Everyone gets to participate in running the bases, regardless of how much one has contributed by strategically placing the batted ball.
Then there are the curious rules, or lack of rules, regarding one’s conduct on the bases. There do not seem to be any guiding principles. For one thing, more than one runner is permitted to take up residence on a particular base at the same time. One man per base is one of the most fundamental of the rules in the American game. This rule lies behind much of the strategy involved in baseball, because the runner must be aware that, if the gentleman on the previous base advances, so too must he advance. In brännboll, on the other hand, players congregate freely on the various bases, socializing and not really in any great hurry to advance to the next base. Disturbing indeed.
The treatment of what we Yanks call a "fly ball" is another curious aspect of the Swedish game. In the states, catching a batted ball before it hits the ground is a decisive act, one that "retires" the batter. He must sit down; he may not run the bases; and, most significantly, has committed one of the three "outs" that his team is allotted each inning. In brännboll, however, the batter is not penalized for having the poor sense of hitting the ball where the other team can catch it. The other team might be awarded a point for catching the ball (another disturbing characteristic of the Swedish game: one can score points on defense), but the batter can continue to run the bases. This, to the American mind, is intolerable.
But perhaps the most profoundly distressing aspect of brännboll is that (and baseball purists should be sure that they are sitting down as they read this) the game is not played in units such as our "innings"; rather a CLOCK is employed to determine how long each team may bat before switching with the other team. The absence of a clock is the one truly unique feature of baseball. The Swedes seem to have thrown out that noble principle in favor of socialistic notions of giving everyone a fair chance at bat regardless of ability, and other such nonsense.
In short, American visitors to Sweden this summer should be aware that brännboll is a game far more exotic and troublesome than they might imagine. They should be prepared for feelings of confusion and disorientation as they play a game that is familiar on the surface but that on a more fundamental level departs radically from the principles that our so important to the American game. Having said all this, this reporter must admit that he enjoys a good game of brännboll despite its bizarre and unstructured nature. So do the students of Umeå University, who every year organize what is undoubtedly the world’s largest brännboll tournament. The organizers of this world-class event have graciously made available an outstanding Web site full of information about the tournament, its participants, and the social excitement surrounding it. There is even an explanation of some of the rules of the game.
To sum up: hit the ball and run like hell. Have fun. If anyone asks, be sure to remind them that baseball is far superior. But be nice about it.