The Human Condition:

The Asymmetric Beauty of Baseball – September 14, 2014

Home run

As a child, I never cared for sports, either playing or watching them. As I’ve said elsewhere, I was a bookish lad, more interested in story lines than in pure physical—and in my juvenile view, pointless—action. When my father had a ball game on television, I would sit still and watch only because he expected it, but if given the chance I would change channels to an old movie or even a sitcom rerun—anything with characters and a plot rather than sports.

I started watching baseball games with some interest during the 2012 World Series when our local team, the San Francisco Giants, were playing. Since then, I’ve become a bit of a fan—and that perplexes me, because I can’t understand why baseball captures my imagination while I have no time for football, basketball, or other major sports.1

What attracts me to the game, I believe, is its basic artificiality and asymmetry. Baseball did not grow up out of the clash of armies in phalanxes, like football, or from a game of keep away, like basketball. It had to be created from scratch with a stick, a ball, and a patch of grass.2 It is a game of rules, of limits, of precision, and of niceties. It is a lopsided game which ends up being so balanced that its play is pure elegance.

Consider that in most field games like football, soccer, and rugby, or those played on a court like basketball, hockey, and tennis, the two teams are present at all times and are comparably equipped.3 In baseball, nine men from one team take the field for half an inning, while the other team sends individuals into the batter’s box in rotation to try their skill and luck against the whole of the other team.

In most other games, everyone plays with the same equipment and under the same set of personal rules at all times.4 In baseball, the batter has a stick of wood and may use only it to touch the ball, operating under a completely different set of rules from anyone else on the field. Everyone else has a specially shaped glove, designed for the position he or she plays, and may catch and throw the ball with either hand. In most games, one side may take possession of the ball from the other during play, changing the direction of the game. In baseball, the right to handle the ball is strictly limited to one team during its half of the inning.

Consider the lopsided nature of the play between pitcher and batter. The pitcher has four chances to make personal mistakes—throwing the ball somewhere outside the strike zone—before he loses to the batter and must let him proceed to first base. The batter has only three chances to hit a ball that crosses the plate inside the strike zone before he loses his turn at bat. Even then, the first two of those chances include the batter’s connecting with the ball but sending it out of play. And any of the batter’s failed chances may include swinging at and missing a ball that does not cross the plate, or declining to swing at a ball that—in the opinion of the man standing behind him, the umpire—did in fact cross the plate, despite all the subtle twists and turns the pitcher may have put on it.

Four balls for the pitcher but three strikes for the batter seems grossly unfair, but in actual play they balance precisely. And that basic play structure is supported by a fretwork of rules about things like the pitcher physically hitting the batter with the baseball, or the catcher or one of the infielders chasing down a foul ball to catch it before it hits the ground, or the batter actually connecting with the ball on a third strike but the ball’s continuing back—a foul tip—and being caught by the catcher.

Baseball is a game of specific situations and the statistics surrounding them. Not the actual probabilities, mind you—because nobody seems to care much about them—but the history! How many times has the player come to bat compared with how many times he or she has hit the ball,5 how many times has the ball gone out of the park for a home run, how many bases has this player managed to run while the ball was in play after a hit, how many runs did other players score on this player’s hits, how many bases has this player stolen while the ball was in play with another player at bat …? Each situation has its own definition, its set of rules, and a compilation of statistics for each player during the season and—for some major events like home runs—during the player’s career. The same goes for pitchers, who carry a season’s baggage of innings pitched, average number of runs “given up” during a game,6 number of strikeouts made and whether by the batter swinging or the umpire calling a strike, and—most prized of all—number of times he or she has pitched a game where the other side got no hits at all.

Back when athletes and doctors still smoked, I remember someone saying that baseball players could afford to advertise cigarettes because they weren’t much as athletes and only had to run the ninety feet between bases. Compare that with basketball or soccer players, who run all the time during a game. I actually bought into that thinking, until I started watching ball games. Yes, for half an inning most of one team sits on the bench and watches their current batter take swings. And yes, for half an inning most of the other team stands out in the field and watches their pitcher throw the ball. But as soon as the batter connects with the ball, the players burst into action: outfielders run like sprinters to get under a fly ball to catch it; infielders leap like basketball players or dive like volleyball players to catch the ball, then change hands and throw accurately to one of four bases, depending on who is running where; and the batter puts his or her head down and charges off to first base, or as far around the infield as he or she can go.

Any one of these players has about half a second to observe the state of play, make a decision, and follow through on a course of action. Missing or dropping the ball is a personal embarrassment. Throwing inaccurately or to the wrong base is an error that can count against the team. The players on the field may appear to be standing around, but they must have their minds on the game every second they are out there. That takes tremendous concentration, especially when the game is moving slowly, and tremendous athleticism and stamina to shift from standing around into that burst of action. Ball players are real athletes.

Baseball is also the only game I know of where the players do not directly, physically interact.7 Other than tagging a runner with a gloved hand holding the ball, the players are never supposed to touch one another. It’s a deceptively gentle—and gentlemanly—game where balls are hit and caught and bases are stepped on, conferring the magic of mutually observed and accepted actions upon the play and the mystical concepts of “safe” and “out” upon the player. In theory, a player cannot be injured unless by pulling muscles and taking damage from repetitive stress, especially among pitchers. But players often get injured by colliding at base, getting hit with the ball, and break fingers when catching it. It can be a dangerous sport, but with less intentional injury than football and fewer personal fouls than basketball.

Other games have lots of action, relatively simple rules, and almost no rituals or superstitions. Baseball has limited action, a ton of rules,8 and no small amount of ritual and superstition for both players and fans. Like an intricate machine full of gears and levers and balancing and opposing forces, baseball and its rules make for an elegant and sociable afternoon of play. Compared to it, football, soccer, and basketball seem overtly physical, insufficiently mental, and just … crude.

1. And I’ve tried. I can watch a baseball game all the way through and enjoy the deliberate pacing and the sudden changes of fortune. Football is too flashy, the players too anonymous behind those big helmets and shoulder pads, the action too fretfully episodic with all those short plays followed by long setups, and the coverage too distant with wide-angle cameras trying to show the entire line of scrimmage. And basketball to me is just a flurry of arms and legs in motion with the ball caught somewhere in between. I suspect my fascination with baseball is that it focuses on one player at a time, letting you look forward to your favorite player’s turns at bat and giving you a chance to think about the game while it’s still going on. Modern television coverage—with its many camera angles and closeup shots, instant replays, and color commentary—also helps you follow the action as if you were standing right down on the field.

2. Of course, baseball started out in England with country games called cricket or rounders. But aside from throwing a ball, hitting it with some kind of stick and then running to one or more bases, playing different positions on the field, and keeping score by innings, modern baseball shares little with these games. In style and play, it’s an American creation, with its own set of rules hammered out and refined over the years.

3. True, in football, one side fields the offensive specialists on the team while the other fields its defensive specialists, but both sides have comparable numbers in play at any one time.

4. True, in soccer, everyone else is limited to using feet, legs, and head to handle the ball while the goalie on either team may put hands on the ball as well, but the goalie has no other special equipment.

5. And a “hit” is not just connecting with the ball so that it doesn’t go foul. If you hit the ball fair and square but somebody catches it before it touches the ground, that’s not a hit, it’s an “out.”

6. The “earned run average”—because, of course, the pitcher is supposed to be in control of the game and able to throw the ball so that it crosses the plate inside the strike zone but twists, turns, and drops so cleverly on its way there that the batter either can’t hit it or thinks he doesn’t need to. Thinking and perceiving are a huge part of baseball.

7. Except for tennis, where the opposing players are separated by a net and get no play advantage from hitting each other with the ball. In most other games, referees may call personal fouls for hitting, tripping, holding, or gouging another player—but that doesn’t mean such offenses don’t regularly take place with calculated skill.

8. Consider the “designated hitter” rule. In baseball, everyone who takes the field defensively during an inning is also supposed to take a turn at bat. But pitchers are such specialty players that they generally are terrible hitters; so the rule was invented to give the pitcher a pass and let the manager put a better player in the batter’s box during the pitcher’s turn in the lineup. Everyone plays by this rule except the National League in American baseball and the Central League in Japan. Personally, I don’t like the rule. Pitchers should at least try to learn hitting and take their turns at bat like everyone else. An evenhanded approach to a player’s ability should count for more than scoring potential. It’s just a game.