by Tom DeMichael
Sigh. I’m old.
This game of baseball tends to even everyone out by the time they reach sixty or so. The legs are pretty much gone; bat speed in the cages is at “turtle” setting; why are there two baseballs coming toward my glove?
There’s nothing like…
Taking an automatic trot to a spot in left field – almost if it were magnetic – and settling under a fly ball as it plops into your mitt.
Positioned, slightly hunched at third base, when a hopping white globe heads toward your right. A quick sidestep, a crossover with the left foot, and left arm stretched out full. The ball jumps with a satisfying “snap” into the web of your glove. Righting your stance, you take a crow hop and arrow a throw to the first baseman, who waits with a gaping outstretched mitt.
Standing at the plate and waiting – seemingly forever – to strike the ball deep in the box. It sails into right field, curling away from a defender in pursuit. You stand at second base, happy to see two teammates crossing home.
Memories of days gone past.
Still, I love that baseball is unique in the vast world of team sports. If I can’t play baseball anymore, at least I can still think about it. I’ve often considered how the game of baseball differs from all the other wonderful team sports that entertain millions upon millions of fans around the world.
Many years ago, as an eighteen-year-old, I found myself as a truck driver delivering appliances in the Chicago area. While that has no bearing on this article, one of my former co-workers from then does. He was from Italy, only off the boat a year or so. One day during lunch, he confessed in broken English that he didn’t know a thing about baseball and asked me to teach him how it was played (not as a player, but as a fan so he could watch the game.)
In view of his request, I found that I was really stumped – how and where would I begin? In many cases, something new can be explained or taught by comparison to something the other person already is familiar with (I have noted that teaching computer software often starts with, “if you know “fill-in-the-blank” program, then you’re already halfway there.”) But baseball – where would I begin?
The upshot is I never got around to properly conveying the game of baseball to the man, due to its unique components. But someone, somewhere, must have taught him how to bowl, because he would go out, get really blind-drunk, then show up on our company bowling nights. While stumbling down the alley, he would consistently throw games over 200 – it was amazing.
Consider then, these games – football, basketball, soccer, hockey, and lacrosse (one could also include foosball, but that’s really just a combination of soccer and shish kebab.) As immensely popular as they are, their structure is essentially the same. Two teams gather on a rectangular area, with a scoring opportunity on either end, be it net, hoop, or end zone. Against the defending team, the offensive team is challenged to take a ball or puck down the field in an effort to score a point or points. Despite the existence of defined segments – be they quarters, halves, or periods – the final closure of the contest is based on a clock – a finite amount of time.
Baseball is nothing like any of those games. The field (while standardized by certain requisites, like distance to the bases and a minimum distance to the outfield wall) is unique in almost every park and stadium. Yes, there is a field of play (called “fair territory,”) but even the “out-of-bounds” area – known as “foul territory” – allows the ball to be played upon. (And, don’t forget – a hit that lands on the “foul line” is a fair ball.)
There are defined segments called innings, but there is no clock. As long as the offensive team safely puts the ball in play and scores, the game goes on. Instead of “sudden death” in the other sports, where the first team to break a tie in overtime wins, the home baseball team will always have the chance to settle up if their opponent goes ahead in extra innings.
In terms of time, the longest Major League game played was more than eight hours in twenty-five innings, between the White Sox and Brewers, in 1984. For some, that might seem like a prison sentence, but it’s Nirvana to me (without smelling like teen spirit.)
As is often noted, no other game begins play with the defensive team controlling the ball. No other game has its manager or coach dressed in the team’s uniform, except for the very rare situation of a player-coach (I’m sure Phil Jackson cut a dashing figure in his day, but would you really want to see him coaching an NBA team in a satiny tank top and shorts? I think not.)
Some believe the leisurely pace of baseball is a negative thing. Witness today’s efforts to quicken the game by instituting the “automatic” intentional walk. Other suggestions include reducing calling ball-and-strike counts by one each (essentially stepping into the box with a one-and-one count – just like my Fall League softball games some time back.)
I have to disagree with these strategies. The pace actually varies (except when Rangers/Padres/Indians player Mike Hargrove used to come to the plate in the 1970s and 1980s. His distracting at-bat habits of adjusting his batting gloves, hiking up his pants, knocking the dirt off his cleats, and wiping his brow earned him the moniker of “The Human Rain Delay.”) The down time between pitching and putting the ball in play allows players, coaches, and managers to consider the options and their possible reactions, and prepare accordingly.
While keen physical reflexes are required – as in all sports – the mental portion of baseball challenges other team sports to provide similar and equal opportunities.
Or, maybe I’m just old.