Take me out to the ballgame
Take me out to the crowd
Buy me a pillow and blanket
I don’t care if I never wake up…
Wait, wait, wait. What?
Baseball is America’s national pastime, but I think a lot of us view it as just that — a pastime. So many people find baseball too boring, too long, too slow, too confusing.
As someone who played college ball, I find that mindset too simple.
You can’t fully appreciate a glass of wine without understanding the region of the vineyard, the grape varietal, and the year it was grown. You can’t fully appreciate a Monet without understanding the artistic elements that constitute a painting, particularly movement and color.
Acquiring the basic keys of knowledge to a craft helps unlock a deeper enjoyment. I hope to share with you the keys to understanding baseball on a new level. Once you have these keys, the game unfolds in front of you and transforms into — what I believe to be — the most thrilling thing your television can display, especially during the playoffs.
Baseball requires the most skill of any sport.
Hitting a baseball is widely regarded as the hardest thing to do in sports. Even Michael Jordan, arguably the greatest athlete ever, struggled to hit. Halfway into the prime of his basketball career, Jordan famously traded in his basketball sneakers for baseball cleats. He only hit .202 during his time playing baseball (which is flirting with the famed Mendoza line, if you’re keeping score at home).
To put that into perspective, the average Major Leaguer’s batting average sits around .250. That’s the average hitter, but Michael Jordan hit well below that. For the sake of sparing my self-esteem, I won’t share what my batting average was during college. Let’s just say… hitting is difficult.
If .250 is the average, this means that most hitters only succeed one out of every four at bats. That’s rough. The average field goal percentage in the NBA is .460. The average pass completion percentage in the NFL is .650.
A 90 mph fastball takes only 0.4 seconds to go from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s mitt. The average fastball in the MLB is 92.3mph, so it gets there even faster. It takes 0.25 seconds for a hitter to pick up the ball mid-flight and decide whether or not it will cross over the 17-inch-wide strike zone. So if you do the math, a hitter has 0.15 seconds to make that little white ball go somewhere with his little brown stick. Pretty insane, huh?
And then! When you start adding into the equation pitchers throwing curveballs, sliders, changeups — pitches at different speeds or that move in and out —, it becomes even more difficult! The hitter has a quarter of a second to discern the difference in speed, the trajectory of the ball, and if it will be worth swinging at or not. Definitely insane.
Baseball has the most style of any sport.
Every player is unique in baseball.
Aesthetically, no uniform in sports allows for as much personality. A player can wear his pants rolled up or all the way down. He can wear high-top cleats, mid-tops, low-tops. I rocked eye black and taped wrists. Most players wear batting gloves, but some guys will add an intimidation factor by wearing none. Even the equipment is a chance for players to show their personalities. The bats can be black or unfinished or two-toned; the glove can be black, black with red lacing, red, blue — the options are endless.
Athletically, style rules as well. Some hitters use a leg kick while others toe tap. Some stand upright while others squat low. Some will follow through with two hands, others with one hand. Some pitchers will throw side-arm, others over the top, still others submarine style. Every player moves distinctly, though they’re performing the same action.
Baseball players are notorious for their distinct (and sometimes superstitious) routines. Each player has his own way of getting in the right mindset. Some will dig into the dirt. I performed the Sign of the Cross (shoutout!). Some will keep things light and joke with the umpire, while others seem like they’re in mid-WWII combat. Even when players aren’t playing, though, they’re constantly pulling pranks on one another in the dugout to keep things interesting. You don’t see football players on the sidelines doing that.
No other sport leans into a player’s individuality like baseball does. While some people get annoyed that a coach will bring in a pitcher to face only one hitter, that specialty is what makes the game so special! A relief pitcher generally has one specialization that he does better than anyone else. Whether it be a particular pitch a specific opposing hitter struggles against, or inducing ground balls to get a needed double play, he’s the one man for that one job when that one moment comes.
A mental war is taking place.
Yogi Berra famously said, “Baseball is 90 percent mental. The other half is physical.” Part of the intrigue to baseball is knowing that it’s not just brute force against brute force like in other sports. It is that, yes, but it’s also much more. It’s chess. It’s like poker met football and had a beautiful baby.
If the pitcher threw two fastballs in a row against me, does he dare throw three in a row? Or does he change it up? If he threw three in a row to me last time, would he do the same my next at-bat? If he’s been throwing inside, does he then throw outside? If the count is 0-2 (no balls, two strikes), and I’m on first base, can I assume the pitcher will throw a ball — maybe a curveball that will take an extra 0.2 seconds getting to the plate, which might be the extra 0.2 seconds I need to steal second base safely? There’s a dozen different situations each baseball player on the field runs through his head with every pitch, and those conditions then change with every pitch.
It ain’t over til it’s over.
There’s another Yogi Berra phrase. Unlike other major sports, baseball has no time limit. You might be thinking, “That’s why it’s so slow!” No, that’s why it’s so exciting. No team is ever out. No team can simply run out the clock when they’re ahead. Both teams have to compete from start to finish. There’s no throwing in the towel, because “there’s no crying in baseball.”
There’s always something happening.
People often think that only the pitcher is involved in every play. Again — I can hear you thinking, “That’s why it’s so boring!” But that’s not true. Everyone on the field is always doing something. With each new hitter, the defense slightly shifts based on his tendencies. The center fielder may move a few steps to his left or right. The shortstop may move behind second base and leave the third baseman to cover the whole left side of the infield.
When the ball is hit, every single player runs somewhere. The second baseman might run out to receive the throw from the right fielder. Meanwhile, the shortstop might run to back him up in case of an errant throw. All the while, the third baseman might be running to cover third base in case the runner continues running. Every player has somewhere to be on every play.
Baseball is a great game. If you keep these things in mind while watching, it not only helps the game make more sense, but it makes the game much more exciting. As the playoffs begin, I hope you see that baseball is not a lull, but it’s actually an intricate, stylish battle moving at light-speed from the first pitch all the way to the final out. Play ball!