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Luke Putkonen's heritage: Finnish baseball

Baseball is the national sport of Finland. But it is not quite the same as the American pastime.

Luke Putkonen pitches in relief on June 18, 2013
Luke Putkonen pitches in relief on June 18, 2013
Rick Osentoski-USA TODAY Sports

Thanksgiving weekend is a slow time for baseball news, as it should be.  But you need baseball content, to pull you away from Cyber Monday.  Well, the Tigers still need a closer.  Should they gamble on Brian Wilson's arm, or would another character like Phil Coke be too much for a rookie manager?  Is Joe Nathan the answer?  Bring back Benoit, but sign a lefty to face Big Papi?  Or look within for a solution such as Bruce Rondon.  Do not forget that hanging out on the roster is Luke Putkonen.

Any opportunity to revisit the genius that is Phil Coke's Brain and Finnish Hymn should be exploited.  My family journeyed this weekend to Ford Field for the state high school football championships.  We departed from Zeeland, that quintessential Dutch community.  We brought along a high school exchange student from Finland.  We all stopped at Applebee's where folks enjoyed fish ‘n chips, wonton tacos, and hamburgers; a very American scene that encompassed most every continent.  And there this young man told me of the national sport of Finland, Finnish baseball.

Tahvo Putkonen was executed for a murder nearly 200 years ago, and is believed to be the last person executed in Finland during peacetime.  It gives a whole new meaning to "Finnish Hymn".  But somewhere between Tahvo and Luke, the Putkonens likely played some Finnish baseball.  And a bizarre scene it is.

On the surface the game is familiar.  There are three bases and home plate.  The defense has nine players.  There is a pitcher, a ball, and a bat.  The fielders wear gloves.  Batters get three strikes, and the offense and defense switch sides after three outs.

But there are some bizarre differences.  The pitcher stands next to the batter.  He tosses the ball straight up in the air, as if he is practicing catching pop-ups.  Apparently it makes balls and strikes easier to call, as a strike is anything that lands on the plate.  And one ball can lead to a walk.

The field is not a diamond.  It is more like an isosceles triangle, with home plate at the point and second and third base at the corners.  Needing a location for first base, they decided that half way down the left field line to third base seemed like a good idea.

So when the batter chooses to run, which apparently is optional at times, he heads toward third base.  Half way to third he encounters first base, where he makes a right turn and crosses the field to second base.  After zig-zagging across the field to third base, rounding the bag is essential because a straight path home would lead right back through first base.

The Finnish use the designated hitter, but require all defensive players to hit.  The offense can add three designated hitters for a total of twelve batters in the lineup.  The extra hitters are called jokers, the one aspect of Finnish baseball that we should consider adopting.

Lest you think I am the joker, this was a demonstration sport at the 1952 Summer Olympics hosted in Helsinki.

Perhaps Brian Wilson will be too risky for the Tigers, and Joe Nathan will be too expensive.  Detroit could enter 2014 with a closer by committee, and we will occasionally be treated to the Finnish Hymn.