It started in the summer of 2010. June, I believe. The previous decade had been a bad one. If the first ten years were an indicator, the 21st century was really going to suck. I’d gotten married in ’98 and discovered almost immediately I’d made a mistake. In the middle of a turbulent marriage, 9/11/2001 happened. I was born in NYC; my mind rang with grief echos for about a year afterwards.
I was divorced by ’03, and I’d moved twice—once to a rental and then to the condo I bought. In ’04, double-barrels: I had 60 days to find another position after they closed my department (which I did on day 58), and then my beloved dog died. For the next five years I threw myself into my work.
Which brought me, stressed and depressed, to 2010. And baseball.
Like any boy born in the USA, I grew up with baseball. I played it in school and on the corner lot. I was even on a cub scout team. As an adult, there was softball at various large picnics. Some work groups have an annual softball game. In the USA, baseball is everywhere!
Of course, there’s the other big sport here: football. We also enjoy basketball and hockey. Those are the Big Four. Auto racing is a contender, and many people love golf or tennis or bowling. (Apparently there is a sport, beloved throughout the world, that involves feet and a ball. Here we mostly just name our moms after it.)
I’ll be honest: I’ve never found much interest in basketball or hockey. The “playing field” in both cases is small and claustrophobic. And all that constant, constant fast movement—to me—ends up being boring. Both seem too fast to have much strategy, depending mainly on the ability of the players to work together. I’m a thinking person; I like thinking games.
I went through a phase of being really into (American) football, but it faded after a year. It just didn’t grab me. It’s a game that still depends on brute force. It’s true the plays can be very exciting, but just about everything else isn’t. And there seems a lot of everything else. Finally, it’s big on quarterbacks and receivers, but who really cares about the line or the defenders?
So why was it, as I sat mindlessly channel surfing, brain-fried and soul-numbed, that I found baseball so soothing? How did this enduring love for the sport—the first sport I’ve ever loved—find root and grow?
There is, perhaps first of all, the sedateness of baseball, which causes many to describe baseball as “boring.” (This turns out to be completely wrong. Baseball is only boring when you don’t fully understand the game. Once you do, it becomes downright tense!)
It’s not boring, but it is sedate. That seems entirely appropriate for a 19th century pastoral game, and it matches well with lazy summer days and picnics (the season begins in April and runs through September). One cool thing about baseball is you can watch a game and enjoy a conversation at the same time. Try that at a hockey or football game.
Baseball is quintessentially American. And I say “American” rather than my usual USAnian, because I really do mean American this time. Baseball is huge throughout the Americas. The Dominican Republic won the World Baseball Classic this year; many of our players hail from Central or South America.
There may be no more American sound than that memorable crack of a wooden bat on a well-hit fly ball. It may be one of the sweetest sounds, because of all that it means: summer, hot dogs, fun and just maybe a home run.
The ideas of “three strikes” and “hitting it outta the park” and “stepping up to the plate” are deeply entwined in our consciousness. We use these (and many more) baseball terms all the time, perhaps not realizing their origin.
Has life ever “thrown you a curve ball”? Have you ever “gotten to first base” with someone? Has something ever “come out of left field” and forced you to “play hardball”? Were you ever “off-base” about something? Maybe you’ve been “on deck” waiting to “touch base” but needed to take a “rain check”. And if a task is “in your wheelhouse” then maybe “it’s a whole new ballgame.”
One thing I love about baseball is that almost anyone can be a baseball player. You don’t have to be a genetic freak or built like a refrigerator to play baseball. Some baseball players don’t even seem to be in very good shape! (This can be especially true for pitchers, although San Francisco Giants‘ third baseman, Pablo Sandoval (the “Kung Fu Panda”) is often the example cited.)
Soccer and Rugby players (and boxers) have my admiration for being in physically punishing sports using very little protective gear. Compare that with football and hockey where the players wear serious armor due to the inherent roughness of the game. (To be blunt, in my world, kids under 21 would not be allowed to participate in either hockey or football. With apologies to my hockey- and football-loving friends and readers, I consider both sports barbaric and a little repugnant.)
In baseball, contact between players is constrained. Many plays require no contact at all. There is the “tag” play, where a defensive player with the ball in his glove, touches a runner to put him out. The one exception involves a runner sliding into a base, and in this case the runner can smash into the defensive player. But even then, there are limits.
A fairly common play is the double play at second and first. The defense fields a ground ball and gets it to a player who tags second. This puts out the runner coming from first. The player who tagged the base then quickly throws to first for another base tag. Done right, that’s two outs.
It is legal for the runner to slide into second in a way that seeks to knock down the player trying to throw to first. Legal within reason. The play must occur within the context of trying to reach second. If the runner deliberately misses the base in his attempt to knock down the other player, the ump will call the play illegal.
Nevertheless, this is one spot in baseball where injuries—sometimes serious ones—do occur. Minnesota Twin Justin Morneau suffered a concussion sliding into second back in 2010. In fact, that happened shortly after I began watching.
Which brings me back to June of 2010. At first, it was just soothing. Mindless. I knew the game well enough to follow it, and it was a nice change—a different reality from all aspects of my life. My brain could spend a few hours in completely different channel. (And, man, I really needed that.)
The more I listened to the announcers talking about “sliders” and “breaking balls” and “hit and run” plays and why bunting was good (or bad), the more I became interested in the intricacies of the game. And wondrously, the more I explored, the more it fascinated.
There is the whole number and stats thing—baseball is huge on stats. A computer geek such as I finds an entire world of fun in just that part. There is the strategic thinking that goes into baseball. Every at bat (in fact every pitch) has thought behind it, a goal, a plan, a desired outcome. (Think of every pitch as a football play.)
A game with a full nine innings has a minimum of 54 at bats. At an average of three pitches per batter, you’re talking 162 “plays” in a game, 54 of which in some way affect the game.
I’ll leave you today with this: In most games, there is an object that causes a score. The object may be a ball (foot, golf, basket, bowling, tennis, etc.) or a puck, but it must be in the hands of the offense who must do something with that object to score.
In baseball, the object, the ball, has nothing to do with scoring. In baseball, the object is always in the hands of the defense! In some cases, if it touches a member of the offense, that person is out. To score runs, a player must come home.
With its lack of a clock, big field nature, players scoring and umps calling the game, baseball is perhaps the most human sport. With its summer days and the smell of hot dogs and the crack of the bat, baseball reaches inside to remind us of simple times. It calls to us from our youth and speaks to us of possibilities.
Even when you’re behind and it’s the last inning, one batter—any batter on the team—can still save the day.