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Blue Jackets' Finns united by a sport you've probably never heard of

Pesäpallo, or 'Finnish baseball,' is a pastime of the Nordic country

by Jeff Svoboda @JacketsInsider / BlueJackets.com

Markus Nutivaara grew up in Oulu, Finland, the most populous city in the northern part of the Nordic country, where the average high temperature tops 60 degrees in just June, July and August.  

Veini Vehvilainen hails from Jyväskylä, the largest city in central Finland in what is known as the Finnish Lakeland region. There are 328 lakes in the city limits alone. 

Markus Hannikainen, meanwhile, is from Helsinki, the Finnish capital that lies on the southern border of the country along the shores of the Gulf of Finland.  

All three members of the Blue Jackets organization grew up playing ice hockey, of course, and the sport's popularity has helped Finland become one of the best countries in the world on the ice. Soccer is also a constant for Finnish youth, even if the country has never qualified for the World Cup. 

But there's also a sport most Americans likely know nothing about. Nutivaara, Vehvilainen and Hannikainen -- as well as Blue Jackets goalie Joonas Korpisalo -- all grew up playing pesäpallo, a bat-and-ball sport that in many ways mimics the American sport of baseball. 

"We did it in school -- yeah, for sure," Hannikainen said. "It's a lot of fun to play." 

"We played pesäpallo all the time," Nutivaara said.  

"It's very fun," Vehvilainen added. 

There are many similarities between baseball and pesäpallo, all the way down to the fact pesäpallo is colloquially known as "Finnish baseball." Invented in 1920s by Finnish sports legend Lauri Pihkala, pesäpallo features two teams playing a sport that features bats, balls, gloves, bases, balls, strikes, innings and outs just like its American counterpart. 

Of course, there are plenty of differences, too. Instead of being arranged in a diamond shape, the bases zig-zag. The pitch is thrown vertically into the air from beside the plate, not horizontally from a mound 60 feet, 6 inches away. Hitting the ball over a fence for a home run isn't the goal -- it must be kept on the field of play and between parallel lines, not foul lines that diverge from home plate.  

Watch: Youtube Video on pesäpallo

That leads to some major differences between the games. While American baseball has seen a turn toward less action -- strikeouts have spiked and home runs are leaving stadiums at a record pace -- in pesäpallo, the tactics are the point of the game. Aim is much more important than power for the hitter, and power simply doesn't exist for the pitcher.  

That's one thing that took Nutivaara aback when he took in his first American baseball game in April when he went to Huntington Park to watch the Columbus Clippers.  

"It looks way harder when they throw the ball at you," Nutivaara said. "Like, how do you hit that? It's crazy." 

While baseball is known as "America's pastime" in the United States, pesäpallo has been called Finland's national sport. The Finns questioned all have been to baseball games in America and agreed they enjoyed the opportunity to see this version of the sport played on this side of the pond.  

Still, there are certainly differences between the way the game is played.  

"I don't mind this here," Hannikainen said of baseball. "The thing that I like more in Finnish baseball is that it has more action. You hit the ball every time, so there is going to be something going on every single time. It's a little different than American baseball."  

Vehvilainen, whose only experience with American baseball to this point is watching a Dodgers game a few years ago when he attended a summer development camp with Anaheim, agreed.  

"I think it was fun," Vehvilainen said of his trip to Dodger Stadium. "I think it's a little bit more boring than Finnish baseball. It's action all the time in the Finnish (version)." 

Pesäpallo isn't just a Finnish game, with such countries as Sweden, Germany and Australia also playing the sport. But it's biggest in Finland, where players can go pro and there's a 14-team male professional league and 11-team women's league. 

And whether you're from the northern outpost of Oulu, the central lake country of Jyväskylä or the cosmopolitan capital of Helsinki, it's a sport that unites the Finnish people. Much like how American kids grew up playing kickball at recess or pickup basketball with friends, Finns can point to pesäpallo as a uniting childhood memory.  

"Usually like on the weekend, you gather your friends and go play pesäpallo," Nutivaara said. "Everybody knows how to play. It's pretty easy to play if you're a rookie. Everybody can come and stuff like that. It's fun." 

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