Postcards from Vimpeli
I traveled to Vimpeli, Finland for pesäpallo playoff game. Vimpeli, who are two years removed from back-to-back Finnish championships were taking on the defending champs from Joensuu, about 4.5 hours to the east. As this was the third game of the best-of-five series, tensions at Saarikenttä — Vimpeli’s home ballpark — were high.
Because Saarikennta is built on an island, it produces unparalleled drama when the ball gets hit into the creek, where it’s still considered in play.
A few years ago, I first wrote about my Finnish baseball story. Over the years, it’s evolved from something I’d talk about at parties, to something my friends tell strangers when I first meet them. It usually leads to rabbit hole of follow-up questions:
- “Wait, they play baseball in Finland?”
- “Why are all the bases in the wrong direction?”
- “How did you find it?” “This is crazy!?”
I’d been watching Pesäpallo off and on for almost a decade. Even before I wrote about it, I’d learned about this odd Finnish variant of our national pastime and found myself transfixed.
Until a few years ago, it was still quite difficult to get any information about the game in English. It’s still not the easiest sport to follow from abroad if you’re not a Finnish speaker, but social media — specifically the Superpesis (Finnish MLB) embrace of it — has improved things dramatically.
So what’s a Finnish baseball game like? Well it’s faster-paced than our baseball, but it’s not speedier at all. Games are divided into two 4-inning double headers. If you win both, the match is over. If you split the series, there’s a 9th inning tiebreaker. If you’re still tied, there’s a “penalty-kicks” style scoring contest where pairs of 5 batter-runner groups attempt to score a run to break the tie. (Needless to say, I never felt more America in finding this part of the game a really unsatisfying way to end a long contest)
At the end of the day, Pesäpallo is really just baseball. Seeing it close didn’t dissuade me from that notion. Sure, the pitching is way different. But it’s still got a lot of nuance to it. Pesäpallo is also a game where every pitch does count, but I’ve described baseball as “an opera” at times, and Pesäpallo has similar arcs that a baseball fan would appreciate once you know the rules.
It was very rewarding to finally get to see a game live. To witness it at the home stadium of my favorite team — even though they lost — still had a lot of meaning. I caught up with two of the people who first helped me learn about the game, answering my questions about the sport online. It was a very full circle moment.
The first trip won’t be my last. Pesäpallo is such a unique way to experience Finland. Driving 4.5 hours each way to watch a game was a really fun way to do something off the tourist path. I’m looking forward to visiting for years to come.