Today is the last day of the All-Star break. Monday was the Home Run Derby, and Tuesday was the All-Star Game itself. Wednesday and Thursday are days off for everyone in Major League baseball. In fact, yesterday and today are the only two days during the entire season that there are no baseball games played.
Tomorrow the season resumes, and all 30 teams begin working their way towards winning their Division and getting the pennant. At this point in the season, just past the halfway mark, no one is out of the race, but for some teams winning requires a major change in team performance. And some teams already stand out as the presumptive winner.
It’s the season’s “weekend,” so let’s talk about baseball stories!
One of the many wonderful things about baseball are the stories, both real and imaginary. Baseball has provided a famous, touching poem and one of the best comedy bits ever (by one of the best comedians ever). Baseball has even given us a couple jaunty tunes (and quite a few memorable quotes).
As I’ve tried to communicate these past few days, baseball is filled with joy and a sense of almost childish wonder. It takes us back to our own childhoods. And it’s deeply entwined in our national consciousness; it’s one of the things, like mom and apple pie, that things can be “as American as.”
The real stories it brings touch us all: stories of courage, dedication and success against all odds. The Lou Gehrig story. The Babe Ruth story. The Jackie Robinson story!
[Speaking of Robinson, did you know that all of Major League baseball honor Jackie Robinson Day every April 15th? On that day, every player on every team wears the number 42 to honor the man who changed the face of baseball forever. What’s more, although teams retire the numbers of their very best players over the years, #42 is the only number retired throughout all of baseball.]
There are many wonderful imaginary stories about baseball. Some are based on real events or events that could have been. Quite a few are comedies. A few are magical and mystical.
Two of my favorites fall into that last category: Field of Dreams and The Natural. Throw in Bull Durham—an extremely realistic (and sexy!) baseball movie—and you have three of my all-time favorites. Recently a newer film, Moneyball, has been knocking on that door demanding admission. Three of these films are based on books; Bull Durham is based on the minor league experiences of its director/writer, Ron Shelton.
In my second tier are such gems as A League of their Own and the Major League movies (all three of them).
I also really like For Love of the Game, Kevin Costner‘s third baseball movie. My favorite part of that movie is the pitcher’s “tunnel vision” as he focuses on the batter. The crowd noises fade away and everything—except the batter—goes out of focus. I suspect something very much like that really does happen.
[I believe major league pitching plumbs the limits of human possibility. It’s not just that some of these guys throw over 100 miles per hour, but that all of them do things involving grip, release and spin that are just astonishing. (And hard on the arm!) A major league pitcher doesn’t really ‘aim’ or ‘throw’ the ball. They go through a series of steps (their “mechanics”) that—when things go right—result in the ball doing exactly what they want. That’s why even the best pitchers can have a bad day. The mechanics aren’t falling into place, so their pitching is out of control.]
These just scratch the surface of baseball fiction! There are plenty of sports movies. Wikipedia lists: 100 football, 78 auto racing, 89 basketball, 136 boxing, 63 soccer, 62 horse racing, 24 hockey, 37 wrestling and many, many others.
Oh, and 127 baseball movies. Only boxing (surprisingly) has more movies than baseball!
I mentioned a poem. Of course I mean the most famous poem in baseball, Casey at the Bat, (written by Ernest Thayer in 1888), from which we get these immortal lines:
(Again, the idea of joy in baseball.) I urge you to take a moment to read the entire poem!
I also mentioned a comedy routine and a jaunty tune.
The comedy routine is George Carlin’s bit comparing baseball and football. The bit is funny enough, rich enough and true enough to earn its own article in the future. It’s possibly my favorite Carlin routine. I’m running low on words, so for now, I’ll just leave you with a link to the text. And a video:
As for the jaunty tunes, we can start with the perennial Take Me Out to the Ballgame from 1908. (A poem from 1888, a tune from 1908. I keep tellin’ ya: baseball is tradition!) Most recently we have team songs, such as Go, Cubs, Go and We’re Gonna Win Twins (sadly wishful thinking lately).
These are topics we can pick up another time. The break is drawing to a close, and this will be the last baseball post for a little while (actually, I do have a Sideband planned for soon-ish). Judging by page hits the last few days, my readers aren’t baseball fans, so most of you won’t miss it. But mark my words; I’m not anywhere near done talking about baseball!
[It’s funny how the All-Star break has given me a sense of “weekend” or time off from something. It somehow feels like tomorrow will be different in some fashion, as if I was returning to work along with the baseball players. (Can you imagine a job that involves playing? Not that they don’t work their asses off, but many baseball players—and many in the film and TV industry—feel like they have the greatest jobs in the world. They get to play for work!)]
I want to leave you today with a little number fun. (That’s very appropriate for a game so rich in stats.) None of what follows actually means anything. (Numerology is nonsense, but it can be fun to play with the coincidences.) This is just a little riff on how the numbers 3 and 9 keep popping up in baseball.
Let’s start with the obvious: 9 innings in a normal game. Each team gets 3 outs per inning. One way, perhaps the “perfect” way, to get an out is with 3 strikes. If all your outs in an inning occur that way, an inning is 9 strikes. Also, there are 9 defense players on the field and 9 offense players in the lineup.
We see plenty of 3’s and 2’s (and 9 is 3 to-the-power-of 2). There are 3 Divisions in each of the 2 Leagues. There are 3 bases (plus home plate, which admittedly is technically a base, but is still very different) and there are 3 outfielders. The focus of the game is on 3 players: the pitcher, the catcher and the batter. There are 2 teams in a game.
A normal baseball season consists of 162 games. That’s 9 x 9 x 2, which exactly matches the 9 innings, 9 strikes and 2 teams! That 162-game figure means a season can be exactly divided not just by 2, but by 3. Speaking of division, the 3 innings divide into 3 groups of 3, splitting the game into thirds.
The average fastball is roughly 90 MPH. I know 90 and 9 are completely different things, but it gives me a segue to another 90 that’s really cool.
It’s 90 feet from any base to the next base. In particular, it’s 90 feet from home plate to first base. Many believe this is the perfect distance. Any closer, and reaching first base would be almost trivial. Any further, and it would be almost impossible. As you watch more and more baseball, and see all the “bang, bang” plays at first, you begin to realize the truth of this.
That 90 feet seems an almost perfect distance to balance offense and defense. It’s just one of many of the subtly exciting things about baseball.
I hope these articles the past few days have opened the door to some of those things.
Baseball is our national pastime, an echo from our childhoods, a rich source of great stories and often a wonder to behold.
It’s filled with exciting moments and boundless joy (and, of course, the occasional joyless day in Mudville, but that is part of the game and part of life).
Play ball! (And pass the hot dogs.)
July 21st, 2013 at 8:08 am
When I was a kid, the New York Daily News printed a two-page spread of “Casey at the Bat” every year. And every year, my father would read it to me — and I would always be stunned at the end when Casey struck out!
Another great post, WS. A couple of additional minor details. Kevin Costner played a retired pitcher in The Upside of Anger. And the very first World Series was best out of nine games.
July 21st, 2013 at 10:52 am
You’d have to figure that one of those years he’d finally get his home run! According to the Wiki article, sports writer Grantland Rice wrote a sequel, Casey’s Revenge, in which he does hit the ball. (You’ll find the sequel on the Wiki page.)
Oh, I remember when The Upside of Anger came out (I don’t think I ever saw it). How did it slip completely off my radar?! Okay, so my man Costner has done four baseball movies. Maximum cool! Costner was at a game recently (Red Sox, maybe?) when the Twins played them. He spent a half-inning with Twins announcers, Dick and Burt, and it was fun to hear him talk. He’s one of very few Hollywood people I wish I could meet.
I’m reaching the point in my baseball fanhood that I need to start memorizing famous moments in baseball. Okay, so let’s start. I went and looked it up. First World Series, 1903, Boston Americans vs the Pittsburgh Pirates (Boston won). Let’s see if I can remember this… (I really suck at memorizing trivia… worst Trivial Pursuit partner ever!)