The Human Condition:

A Child’s Science in Baseball – October 16, 2016

Home run

As a child, I was never much interested in baseball.1 My father always wanted to see the game when it was on television, and I would sit nearby moping, wanting to watch an old movie or teleplay—something that told an actual story. But I learned some of the basics because he would patiently try to explain them while I half-watched. I also played a few games in grade school—never good at it, always the last picked, and usually sent to play outfield in that part of the schoolyard that lay inside the edge of the woods. But still, I picked up a sense of the game.

What has stuck with me is that baseball depends on a child’s mystical sense of basic scientific properties. The game is rooted in them in a way that affects only a few other sports.

To begin, the baseball itself is endowed with a primitive energy, a kind of life force, that has nothing to do with the velocity of a pitcher’s throw or its impact in a glove or elsewhere on arrival. The ball is considered to be “live” and playable in certain parts of the field and at certain times during a play, and “dead” and out of play at other times.

The ball is live or “fair” from the point at which it leaves the pitcher’s hand until it arrives securely in the catcher’s glove or within his2 possession and control, at which point it becomes dead for further play on that pitch. If this arc from pitcher to catcher is interrupted by the batter’s hitting the ball, then it remains live until someone on the opposing team within the confines of the field catches and holds on to it, in which case it also becomes dead and ends not only the play on that pitch but the batter’s turn at bat. But if the player catching the ball drops or fumbles it, the ball remains live and in play.

If an opposing player catches the hit ball in foul territory before it hits the ground, it is also dead and ends the at bat. However, if the ball first touches the ground outside the extended baselines, it becomes foul and out of play, but it only ends play only on that pitch, and the batter gets another chance to hit. What happens to the ball after it clears first or third base on the infield is subject to other rules and conditions, mostly determined by where the ball ends up. Note that it is the position of the ball, not the player touching it, that conditions its status.

If the catcher fails to catch or hold on to the ball after the pitch, when the batter has failed to contact it and no member of the opposing team is on base or in a position to advance, the ball is technically live but everyone simply ignores it, because it has no more use in play. However, if the opposing team has one or more members on base, then the catcher may throw it to stop them from advancing to the next base. And a fumbled ball remains fully live and those players may advance until the catcher recovers it and throws to one of his teammates to tag a player out.

If the ball is hit and lands beyond the outer limits marked on the field between the two foul lines, it remains live but unplayable, and all the men on base may advance to home and score—a home run plus runs “batted in.” If the ball lands on the field and then bounces out of play, so that the outfielders cannot retrieve it, the ball remains live but the batter is limited to taking second base—a “ground rule double”—while any runners ahead of him may similarly advance only two bases.

What I’ve given here is just the briefest sketch of the most common states of play. Many others exist, such as what happens if the pitcher enters his “set” position and starts his windup to throw the ball home and then does something else—like move his foot off the rubber strip on the mound or turns to throw out a runner at one of the bases—or makes any of about a dozen other errors in protocol. This is a “balk” and the batter automatically advances to first base. The batter also advances if he is hit by the pitched ball—but not if his bat has contacted the ball first.

This concept of a ball being alive or dead is not limited to baseball, its offshoot softball, and its English predecessor cricket. Balls can be in play or out of play in games like tennis, squash and handball, badminton, basketball, and other contests arising from polite, rule-based play in the last few centuries. Even football—which I don’t consider very polite—has rules for when the ball, which in this case is not really a sphere, can be played and when it is dead.

The liveness of the ball can also contribute its power through a kind of electrical current to the things and people that touch it. For example, if a baseman—or any of the opposing team’s players—catches a live ball while standing on the base, or with at least one foot in contact with the base, or touches the base after catching the ball, then the energy of that live ball is transmitted to the base itself, and any runner trying to reach that base is ruled out. Similarly, if the baseman or another opposing player catches the ball and then touches the runner with the ball or his gloved hand before the runner reaches and touches the base, the runner is out. But if the player touches the runner with some other part of his body—an elbow or a shin, say—the runner is not out. And again, many rules apply to this process, mostly for the safety of the baseman and the runner, such as what line the runner must follow and whether the baseman can block the run or slide into base.

These various conditions emulate the closing of a circuit and transfer of energy. We see this concept of touch and transfer in simple children’s games like tag and, with a certain amount of physicality, in red rover. We also see the concept in the most cerebral of games. For example, in the formal play of chess, a player is considered to be finished with a move only when he takes his hand off the piece he has touched. And in the game of go, a player’s stones are considered to establish a “house”—an area of captured space surrounded by a kind of unbreakable force field—when they form connecting lines around a certain number of empty spaces into which the opponent cannot legally place his stones.

Games like these are made up of rules which usually start out simply and become more involved and complex as play matures. In their simplest state, however, and especially when played by children, those rules can parallel the human mind’s attempts to see, interpret, and understand the visible universe and then play according to that understanding. In this sense, games are an elemental form of education, shared communication, and obedience to forces outside the individual’s will—as well as being fun to play.

1. See also The Asymmetric Beauty of Baseball from September 14, 2014. I only became interested in the game when our home team, the San Francisco Giants, started winning the World Series in even-numbered years—a trend that everyone here thought would continue in 2016 (“Keep on BeliEven!”). Unfortunately, the team ended the 2016 National League Division Series by blowing a three-run lead to the Chicago Cubs in the top of the ninth. So close …

2. Throughout, I will use the masculine pronoun instead of my usual choice of “he or she,” “his or her” to represent both sexes. Yes, women play baseball and softball. Someday, I have no doubt, women will join the majors and play well, because baseball is a game of skill at throwing, catching, running, and paying attention to the state of play—not physical contact, like football and basketball—and these are tasks at which women can excel. But for now, at the time of this writing, major league play is still a man’s sport.