On America’s Pastime

Bird Dog over at Maggie's Farm posted a great quote the other day from the terrific (sadly now deceased) author Robert B. Parker, he of the wonderful 'Spenser' novels:

Baseball is the most important unimportant thing in the world.

So true.

By any real-world measure, sports is a complete waste of time.  It has virtually nothing to do with the serious issues we face every day.  It's whimsical.  It's fanciful.  It's frivolous.

Then you head for the news sites and read how global warming or the latest pandemic is going to kill you in 20 minutes, then you read about 'Fast and Furious' and how nothing's been done, then about the New Black Panthers invading a voting station and nothing's been done, then about the TSA mauling some 90-year-old woman and nothing's been done.  Then you drop by a left-wing blog site and read how the media is controlled by a vast right-wing conspiracy and that Romney is secretly a fascist dog-killing cancer-producing monster, then you drop by a right-wing site and read how those evil hippies from the 70's are responsible for all your ills, how everyone in California is a drooling liberal, and how San Francisco is full of nothing but whacked-out sign-carrying moonbats.

Then you read how the Yankees beat the Cardinals 5 to 3 and it feels like the only real thing you've read all day.
 

Herein, I shall expound upon this most unique and wonderful of games, present five video clips, and document how something unbelievable happened in the seventh game of the National League playoff series last year that had never happened in baseball before.

Or, perhaps more specifically, had never been witnessed before.

  
The Differences

There are a handful of things that set baseball apart from the other professional sports:

  • There's no time limit.  In theory, a baseball game could last until the end of eternity.  The irony here is, the longer the game draws on, the more tired the players become and the less likely to drive in the winning run.  But they always manage to, thank goodness.  A game lasting to eternity would really screw up the stats.
     
  • The outer boundaries are limited to 'infinity'.  The distance to the outfield fences is left entirely up to the club.  Same with the foul areas, the distribution of sod and dirt and the grooming of the field.  Compare that to the standardized confines of a football field, basketball court or ice hockey rink.  Every single ballpark is unique and different, with its strong and weak points, all depending upon the strengths of the team.  A team with slow, beefy power hitters is going to keep the base paths mushy and the fences in.  A team that relies on the short game and speed will have quick base paths and long fences.
     
  • In every other sport, the team currently in control of the ball or puck is the offense.  In baseball, the team with the ball is the defense.
     
  • In every other team sport, it's total team against team.  The quarterback may initially hold the ball, but both teams are going at it.  In baseball, it's one guy against the entire opposing team.  If the batter gets a piece of the ball, a few defensive players might get involved, but never the entire team.  If the pitcher performs his job well, some of his teammates might not see any action for the entire course of the game.
     
  • There is no other sport where the physical dimensions have a direct bearing on so many plays.  Football, basketball and hockey are just played in big boxes, whereas the 90 feet between baseball bases actually means something:

A.  If the infielders play back far enough to ensure one of them can get to any hard-hit grounder, a bunt will allow an average runner to safely reach first base by… one step.

B.  If the infielders play close enough to ensure they'll get the runner out no matter where in the infield a ball is hit, a hard smash between them will get through and they'll fail to reach the ball by… one step.

C.  If an average runner tries to steal second base and an average pitcher pitches the ball and an average catcher throws the ball down to second, the runner will be out by… one step.

D.  In a double play situation, assuming it's an average infield hit grabbed by an average shortstop and flipped to an average second basement for the first out, who then flips it to first base for the second, both runners will be out by… one step.

Now add a faster than average player, and that one step gets reduced to essentially zero, making for some very close, intense calls, often having an enormous impact on the game.

  • In the other sports, there are lines on the playing area which have great significance, like the yard lines on a football field.  There are no lines on a baseball field.
     
  • And perhaps the biggest difference is the difficulty level.  Consider the following:

   – If a football quarterback completes only a third of his passes, he's benched.

   – If a basketball player only makes a third of his attempts, he's benched.

   – If a hockey player only makes a third of his shots, he's benched.

   – If a baseball player gets one hit out of three, he's in the Hall of Fame.

That's how difficult baseball is.

It's having to use a round bat that makes the difference.  In other sports, the object contacting the ball or puck is either a hand or flat blade, both exhibiting a fair amount of control.  Hitting a round object with another round object puts it in another dimension.  The difference between a home run and a long fly ball is 1/4" of bat space.
 


Cricket: not quite the same thing
 

Statistics

In every good baseball movie, there's always someone who pulls some arcane stat about a player out of his head.  You see this a lot in the TV booth.

"Inside, ball one."

"The good news for the Tigers, Tim, is that Sanchez is batting .331 with runners on base in the 7th inning of away games at night."

"That is good news, Jim."

The thing is, when you play 162 games a year — times X number of years — eventually you're going to have enough at-bats to prove you actually do hit .331 with runners on base in the 7th inning of away games at night — and a smart manager will get you into the game at this point.
 

The Pace

The average non-fan might label baseball "slow".  Actually, professional baseball is much more intense and pitch-by-pitch than most folks realize.

For example, let's say the batter's on his own, the pitcher's a little wild and the count goes to three balls, no strikes.  The manager steps in, gives his instructions to the assistant manager who relays them to the proper base coach, who then relays the instructions to the batter.  If he's a half-decent hitter, he'll probably be given the green light; that is, permission to 'waste' a strike by swinging with all his might on the next pitch almost no matter where it is.

Swing and a miss, strike one!

If he's a decent hitter with a good eye, he might be given the green light on the next pitch but to use more discretion by trying to ensure it's going to be a strike before swinging.

Swing and a miss, strike two!

Now, with a full count and the pitcher being a little wild, the batter's told not to swing at the next pitch.  If the ball's headed down the center of the plate, he'll try to get a piece of the bat on the ball, fouling it off and nullifying the pitch.

Ball four, take your base!

In one at-bat, the player has gone the entire range, from being on his own, to being told to swing with all his might, then to swing with discretion, then being specifically instructed not to swing, all depending upon the strike count, the number of outs, the inning, score, and the present condition of the pitcher.

Likewise, the second baseman can see what pitch the catcher is calling for and relays the info to the other infielders via hand signal hidden by his glove so they can be ready with the jump.  If the called-for pitch is an inside curve ball to a right-handed batter, chances are it'll be pulled toward the 3rd base side of the infield, so the infielder leans that way, ready to jump.  That lean might very well make all the difference between grabbing it and having it just slip by.
 

The Signs

As for those wild gesticulations the base coaches go through relaying the sign to the batter, there's a method to the madness.  Each gesture has its own meaning, but only the team knows which is the 'signal' gesture that's followed by the real thing.

Similarly, base runners can relay observations and intentions to the dugout.  The player might hold down five fingers with one hand and two with the other.  The opposing players might have an idea what the signs mean, but not which hand is 'active'.
 

Game Summation

The more you know about a sport, the more you enjoy it.

While that's true with all sports, none so more than baseball.  As I said above, the uninitiated would deem it a slow, simple game, but such is hardly the case.  With each pitch, infielders have a different anticipation, as does the batter.  A full count with nobody out and nobody on base yields an entirely different approach than with two out and men in scoring position.  And that depends on where in the game they are.  In the late innings, the manager might have the infielders come in far enough to field any normal ball and throw the runner out at first, thus ending the inning, but now they're taking a big chance on a hard-hit ball squirting between them and two runs scoring.  Earlier in the game, the manager might not take such a chance.

While football may be 'a game of inches', baseball is a game of milliseconds. As I noted above, once a faster than average runner is on base, or a faster than average infielder takes the field, or a catcher with a more powerful arm, or a pitcher with an extra-quick delivery, those one-step situations get reduced to the flicker of an eyelash.

And knowing the base speed of the opposing players is important.  The Giants demonstrated this perfectly in the 2012 Series.  With a Detroit Tiger on third, a long fly ball was hit to left field.  In 9 out of 10 cases, the runner would score, so the outfielder wouldn't take the chance on throwing the ball to the plate, which, if slightly errant, would allow the hitter to make it to second base. The proper play is to allow the run to score and get the ball to the infield to keep the hitter from advancing.

In this case, however, knowing there was a big, beefy (read: slow) power hitter on third, the outfielder threw it to the cut-off man, who pegged it to the catcher, who tagged the runner out by a whisker.

When it comes to intrinsic intensity, there is simply no other sport like baseball.

     
Major League Stadiums on Google Earth

If you want look at the stadiums in 3-D and you have Google Earth installed, click on the KMZ file here.  Make sure '3D Buildings' in checked in the 'Layers' area.

Here's AT&T Park, where the Giants play.  That's McCovey Cove down to the left.  Lotsa boats there during game time, betcha, waitin' to get plunked by an out-of-the-park homer.

      
Baseball Books

I've read about thirty biographies and autobiographies of and by various players, managers and umpires.  The ones by the officials are usually the most interesting, simply because they're showing you a side of the game you usually don't see.  The ones by the managers are also somewhat revealing because they detail how wrong the ex-jocks in the TV booth often are regarding why a manager made some move in a particular situation.  The guys in the booth are, after all, ex-players, not ex-managers.

The funniest book I've ever read, of any genre, was umpire Ron Luciano's first book, The Umpire Strikes Back.  Probably the second funniest book I've ever read was manager Tommy Lasorda's book, The Artful Dodger.  Intriguingly, both books were co-written by the same guy, David Fisher, who's written a fair amount of books but, interestingly, most of them of a fairly serious nature, not comedic.  But the fact that his name's on the byline right alongside the main guys (it's not ghostwritten, in other words) can't be a coincidence.  Luciano's second book, Strike Two, is also hilarious.

At one point, he chronicles the first time he umpired home plate with fireballer Nolan Ryan on the mound.  Ryan winds up and delivers a scorcher.

"Ball one.  Sounded low."

The batter looked at him and said, "You're right — that did sound low."

The most real baseball book I ever read was Willy Mays' autobiography.  It was like he dictated it into a tape recorder, and if you didn't know your baseball lingo, too bad.

"I done hit that tater a good'un."

Mays was so good that once, during an intentional walk, he stepped across the plate and knocked it out of the park.
 

Baseball Movies

As for baseball movies, I don't really have a favorite.  I really liked the baseball parts of For Love Of The Game, but hated all the romantic dribble.  To an old-time fan, actually having the aging Vin Scully in the booth talking about the aging star on the field was marvelous.  And I certainly enjoy the classics, like Bull Durham, Field of Dreams, Eight Men Out, 61*, and the rest.

Here's why For Love Of The Game is so much fun: mound mumbling.

      
When it comes to kids getting involved, Little Big League was a hoot:

       
If you enjoyed Major League, the two sequels were also good.  In the third one, the always-likable Scott Bakula is manager of a minor league team.  This is a short clip, but it's my favorite example of giving The Look to someone who's feeding you bullshit.

         
I do, however, have a recent favorite baseball movie.  Moneyball is just terrific.  Here's a scene near the beginning to set the table:

         
As for that baseball 'first', this is literally unbelievable.  That is, if someone told you about it, you simply wouldn't believe it's physically possible.

But welcome to the age of Super Slo-Mo.

The announcer actually got it wrong on his count.  I included a clip from YouTube with a slo-mo close-up and the real count.  Un-be-lievable!

         
The 2012 Series, itself, was absolutely thrilling for a long-time Giants fan.  For those of you scoring at home (so to speak), the Giants also won the World Series two years ago, so this team is the real deal.  They exhibited excellent field work, timely hitting, their pitching was superb, and manager Bruce Bochy made some brilliant moves.

Their opponents, the Detroit Tigers, were so good they'd swept the New York Yankees in the playoffs.

The Giants swept them in the Series.

They shut them out twice.

Giants third baseman Pablo Sandoval hit three home runs in the first game.

Along with all that, throughout the playoffs the newscasters had been using phrases like "the Giants have that magic going for them" as every bad hop and wicked bounce went their way.  The instance above, corkscrewing off the triple-hit broken bat, was just another example of it.

I'm reminded of something a friend once said.  He told me, "I don't believe in luck, but I do believe in placing myself in situations where lucky things can happen."

That's how good teams do it.  You play crisp, professional ball and let the breaks come to you.  If you feel like you need lucky breaks to win the game, then the game — and the season — is already lost.  Winners don't rely on luck.

So here's to you, America's Pastime.  Long may ye reign.