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| October 24, 2017

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Baseball, A Personal and Biased Perspective

Baseball, A Personal and Biased Perspective

“A hotdog at the ballgame beats roast beef at the Ritz” — Humphrey Bogart

I’m not sure just when I became a fan. In truth, I don’t think anyone ever chooses to do it. I don’t think anyone ever woke up on a Saturday morning and said to themselves, “Today is the day I learn something about baseball.” Baseball isn’t like that. Baseball, it seems to me, chooses you.

I know this: most of what I learned about baseball is thanks to my dad. And I suspect that most baseball-loving people over the past 100 years would say the same thing. Baseball is like your great-grandfather’s pocket watch handed down to you with care. A kind of inheritance, if you will, from your father, grandfather, uncle; often – but not always – a male authority figure.

Baseball fans are a unique breed. While your average baseball fan can discuss the finer points of the game in great detail, the real love the sport engenders in the avid fan is not easy to define. If you spend any time around baseball, it seeps into you in a hard-to-explain way. It’s a connecting thread in the linens of one’s life. Somehow, game by game, inning by inning, it gets in your blood, and once you’ve got it there’s no cure. Once really exposed to baseball, it will be, for now and always, a wonderful infection, deeply ingrained in your psyche. If all of this metaphor talk about baseball sounds maudlin or overly-sentimental, you are not a baseball fan. But don’t worry, there’s still hope for you.

My first exposure to baseball, as I mentioned, was thanks to my dad. Specifically, via the games we would go see played by Portland’s minor league team, the Beavers. I suppose I was about eight or nine when I saw my first game. I don’t recall the score or who the opposing team was. Maybe surprisingly, I don’t even remember whether our beloved Beavers won or lost. Being so new to the game, I didn’t understand strikes, balls, outs, steals, or anything else that seemed to be happening in some odd mixture of quiet, deliberate order counterbalanced by sudden, riotous chaos. There were cheers, boos, some running, some dust kicked up, some ball throwing, even some stealing (when my father said that a runner stole 2nd base, I recall pointing out the obvious: “No he didn’t. It’s still there.”)

I didn’t know any of the players, and couldn’t tell the catcher from the mascot. I really had no idea what was going on down there on that huge green and brown expanse. I was a baseball newborn, seeing, hearing, smelling the myriad of sensory experiences unique to this bizarre game for the very first time.

I can only recall aspects of the game that really don’t have anything to do with sports or statistics.

I will never forget my first sight of the baseball outfield as we entered the stadium, almost blindingly green. I remember the foreign bittersweet smell of beer. I remember the loose crackle of peanut shells under foot. I remember the musky smell of sod and moistened dirt, and of course, the tantalizing scent of hotdogs, and salty popcorn. There is a perfume to a baseball stadium, and it can be found nowhere else. I remember the crack of a 33 ounce bat against a five ounce leathery sphere that sounded like a gunshot echoing in the stadium while the players took batting practice before the game. Most of all, I remember the ever-present noise of the fans, like an ocean, sometimes a quiet drone, sometimes a raucous tidal wave of cheers or boos interspersed with yells of “Get your glasses on, ump!” or, “He’s gonna bunt!” or, “Pull that pitcher, he’s done!” None of this made any sense to me whatsoever.

Although I was a small boy, experiencing a hundred utterly alien and weird things on that day over 30 years ago, I was overcome with an unexpected feeling – not of being in an uncomfortable and unfamiliar place, but of being at home.

I know that this experience of mine isn’t unique. In fact it’s almost a cliche. Talk to anyone who loves the game and they will likely have a similar story to tell. But while baseball has not been my life’s passion, my appreciation of the Grand Old Game has reached a point with me where I have no choice but to look a little deeper at this odd phenomenon and explore the game in my own way.

“I see great things in baseball. It’s our game – the American game. It will take our people out-of-doors, fill them with oxygen, give them a larger physical stoicism. Tend to relieve us from being a nervous, dyspeptic set. Repair these losses, and be a blessing to us.” ~Walt Whitman

In 1979, the Pittsburgh Pirates, led by Dave Parker and Willie Stargell, won the National League pennant. Anytime I hear their theme song, “We Are Family,” by Sister Sledge, I can’t help but envision Stargell rounding the bases in his black and yellow Pirate uniform, like some exuberant bumblebee, after one of his famous mammoth home runs.

As it happened, our local minor league team, the Portland Beavers, were the farm team for the Pirates at that time. This resulted in dad and me meeting both Stargell and Parker when they visited Portland during a Beavers exhibition game. Whatever they were like in their personal lives, I remember that Stargell and Parker exhibited all the hallmarks of the gentlemanly demeanor the institution of baseball somehow seems to instill in so many of its stars. And I recall that both of them, while graciously smiling and autographing a nonstop supply of baseballs, seemed to have hands and arms of superheroes, which, in a sense, they really were.

“When they start the game, they don’t yell, “Work ball.” They say, “Play ball.”‘ ~Willie Stargell

It was then – having met some of its legends – that I began to pay attention to baseball. Although I was already a fan of basketball and football, I found myself constantly mesmerized – if not downright confused – by baseball and its intricacies. That seeming contradiction between simplicity and complexity is but one of the enigmas of the game. Baseball is, after all, unique. Let’s remember a few things about baseball that, in my mind anyway, set it apart from other sports.

First, the game is set upon a field arranged in a rather unusual geometric shape. Rather than having a goal of some sort on each end of an elongated field (as most other sports) there is no such goal. No basket, no goal, no net. There is no linear movement from one endzone to the other.

While the specific dimensions and configuration of the lines and bases on the field are constant in major and minor league baseball, the fields themselves can vary in size and shape. The distance from home plate to the center field fence, for example, can vary as much as 35 feet from park to park.

Second, baseball is not a game depending so much on constant action as it is on moments that can unfold in a split second fastball strike, or a single swing that sends a ball over the fence and brings a home crowd to its feet (or leaves them cursing in despair). Once the pitcher fires the ball toward home plate – a journey that takes the ball about half a second – virtually anything can happen. Anything.

Critics of baseball say the game lacks athleticism and hard play. This is a little like complaining that tennis lacks enough slam dunks, or that golf doesn’t involve enough tackling. But as anyone who has played or paid close attention to the game can attest, there’s plenty of physicality in baseball. The power it takes to smack a ball over a fence 410 feet away may only be eclipsed by the sheer superhuman effort it takes to launch a fist-sized hardball into a space the size of a hubcap sixty feet away…at nearly 100 miles an hour…100 times a night…accurately.

Still, say critics, the game is slow, not enough action to satisfy the short attention spans of the modern sports fan. While the criticism seems misplaced to us baseball fans, do the critics have a point? During an average game, how much time elapses during which “something’s happening?”

To get to the bottom of this question, Wall Street Journal reporter David Biderman recently analyzed the amount of time spent in action during an average major league baseball game. “Action,” includes the time it takes for a pitcher to throw the ball, as well as the more obvious time a ball is in the air after a hit, or a player is stealing base, etc. Biderman determined that the average game had about 14 minutes of action in it.

However, as noted by Biderman, the time not spent in action during a game isn’t exactly time wasted. Between pitches, a myriad of decisions and strategic options may be weighed out. Managers may be busy consulting the hitting chart on an opposing batter before he even steps up to the plate. Catchers and pitchers are having a constant silent dialogue regarding what kind of pitch to throw and where to place that pitch, depending on a range of factors. And fielders may shift positions depending on the batter, or the game situation to increase their chances of saving runs. While the casual observer may grow frustrated by “all the standing around,” in baseball, the more involved fan knows that this time spent between pitches is where the real game of baseball is played. In short, there is always “something happening” during a baseball game.

But the critics who persist in impatiently drumming their fingers on their knees and yawning over the “slow pace” of baseball may find it interesting to learn that Biderman also determined the amount of play action during an average professional football game. Just 11 minutes.

While it’s interesting to consider these aspects of time where baseball is concerned, most aficionados know that baseball has far more to do with timing. To the novice fan, baseball looks like a sport centered on the pitcher trying to strike out the batter, and the batter trying to avoid such a fate. But to the trained eye, the battle between pitcher and hitter is one of keen decision-making and split-second timing, and it’s not a simple thing to analyze. Take pitching, for example.

It would take a supercomputer to properly determine the variables in physics involved in throwing a pitch. From the way a pitcher regulates his breath before the pitch, places his feet on the mound, and adjusts his balance, to the grip on the ball, to the wind-up (often looking like a pained contortionist, but carefully developed by each pitcher to maximize velocity and balance), to the release point (the precise moment the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand), and the amount of spin or torque applied to the ball as it is released (the arm swing measured as fast as 5,000 degrees per second!), muscles from neck to toes flexing and releasing, pitching is a perfect symphony of physiological exertion unlike anything seen in other sports.

The speed, movement, and break of a pitch largely determines its success, so the slightest deviant motion or off-balance release can make the difference between a perfectly placed strike or a wild pitch. To master all this, a good baseball pitcher is certainly more than an athlete. He’s part physicist, part sleight-of-hand magician, and part gambler.

Batting is no different. A skilled hitter is a combination of laser-like focus, spring-loaded power, and gymnastic balance at the plate. The position and angle of the bat before the pitch is released, as well as the stance, head angle, and knee bend, can be different from hitter to hitter. And then there is the swing itself. There is, as it turns out, a specific way one is supposed to swing at a pitch. Turning the upper body toward the pitcher as the ball is released, rotating the shoulders, and extending the arms only through the strike zone – not before – while following the ball with your eyes, and throwing the entire weight of your hips, arms, and shoulders into the (hopeful) contact. Got it? Good.

Of course not everyone hits this way and keen observers can recognize some ball players merely by their unique stance at the plate. For an object lesson in contrasts of batting styles among players, observe the differences between Ichiro Suzuki, Alex Rodriguez, Manny Ramirez, Kevin Youkilis, and Alex Pujols at the plate; all outstanding hitters, and yet all possessing radically different batting stances and swings.

Obviously, not everyone cares about such things as whether a hitter is “pulling the ball to left field,” or how a pitcher manages to throw a ball in such a way that the trajectory actually changes in mid-flight. As fascinating as these things are to me, I know that the average sports fan probably doesn’t spend much time thinking about them. Of course many baseball fans are not “average” sports fans. They may never have held a bat in their hands, but they are students of the game and they devour minuscule pieces of baseball data the way mice gobble crumbs.

Baseball statistics are like a girl in a bikini. They show a lot, but not everything.” ~Toby Harrah

Truthfully, the one element of baseball that was, for a time, off-putting to me is the absolute pervasive worship of The Statistic. Baseball, more than any other sport outside of world economics, maybe, takes statistics very, very seriously. Some have compared the lust for baseball statistics to a drug addiction. It seems that almost nothing can happen during a game – no matter how trivial – that isn’t being meticulously documented by somebody somewhere. We’ve all seen box scores, displaying the runs, hits, and errors, by innings for a given game. Some of us have even looked up things like “lifetime batting average,” for a given player, or “best ERA for a closer since 1955.” But this does not scratch the surface of statistical obsession with which baseball fans preoccupy themselves.

For example, were you aware that on September 5th, 2006, seven teams shut out their opponents? Or that on July 24th, 2006, the Detroit Tigers became the first team in 115 years to score 5 or more runs in the first inning of three consecutive games? Or that only two brothers ended up with the exact same batting average in the same season (Mike and Bob Garbank, in 1944, a.261 average for both). Still awake?

Well, let me let you in on a little secret: you do not need to concern yourself with such trivia in order to thoroughly and genuinely appreciate the game of baseball. But here’s an even deeper secret: the more you watch baseball, the more you will become genuinely fascinated by such seemingly meaningless facts. And you might just learn something in the process. Thanks to baseball, I learned how to calculate a pitchers ERA, a hitter’s batting average, and other (gasp!) mathematical feats.

One of the most compelling aspects of baseball to me is that it’s really a game within a game, within a game. It’s like some sort of fractal image: the closer you look, the more you see. The greater your attention, the more details are revealed. To commit to becoming a student of the game means becoming a kind of archeologist who digs deeper and is rewarded with ever more intriguing information. After more than 30 years of personal appreciation and observation, I am still learning the game. From pitch selection, to situational fielding positions, to the strategy of the batting lineup based on the strengths and weaknesses of the opposing starting pitcher, baseball is a bottomless well of fascination for anyone intrigued by variables, odds, statistics, and just plain luck.

I’ve rambled on about the ins and outs of baseball for some time now. But what is it about this game that really so grabs me as a fan?

I guess the answer to that runs deeper than hits, home runs, and hotdogs. I think the real answer is that baseball delivers something to my life I’ve found nowhere else: A sense of belonging. Belonging to a history, a tradition, a heritage that not only stands the test of time, but also makes time somehow irrelevant. Think about it. This game has been played, essentially the same way, since the Industrial Revolution. Through world wars. Through political upheavals. Through social unrest, and times of economic boom and dark depression. It has served as both a focal point and a distraction for numerous generations. It’s been a touchstone of American history, both reflecting and deflecting the stresses and influences at work outside the ballpark.

And it’s not just an American phenomenon. It’s nearly impossible to find a town of more than a few hundred people anywhere on the planet that doesn’t include a group of kids swinging a stick at a ball, many with dreams of one day knocking a walk-off homerun out of the park in the bottom of the 9th inning of a World Series game 7. (Hey, I still have that dream too!)

“The other sports are just sports. Baseball is a love.” ~Bryant Gumbel

Baseball has it’s losers and champions, heroes and goats, its integrity and, yes, its scandals. Like the men who play the game, baseball itself isn’t perfect. But somehow, in some mysterious way, baseball inspires, enthralls, and entertains like no other sport.

As for me, I’m grateful dad took me to that first game. I’m happy to have baseball as a part of my life and education. And I’ve learned more than a few things from baseball over the years. From Babe Ruth, I’ve learned that the mystique of history can endure into the postmodern age. From Jackie Robinson I’ve learned that the power of a man’s spirit and skill can overwhelm the bitterness of prejudice. From Lou Gehrig I learned that we are all ultimately mortal, and yet all capable of performing superhuman feats. From Derek Jeter I learned that you don’t have to be a jerk to win: it’s possible to succeed with both style and grace. From Cal Ripkin Jr. who played a staggering record 2,131 consecutive games, I learned the value of resilience, determination, and guts. From Bill Buckner I learned that major league mistakes don’t change the fact that life goes on. From Yogi Berra I learned that “Baseball is ninety percent mental, the other half is physical.” The list goes on.

A few years ago, my dad and I took my son to his first Portland Beavers baseball game. I don’t remember much about the game. I don’t recall the opposing team. I don’t even recall whether our beloved Beavers won or lost. What I do recall is a great feeling of satisfaction, that I was now able to do what dad had done for me by introducing him to this strange and wonderful world of strikes, steals, and sliders.

Little had changed since my first game. The smell of beer and hotdogs still permeated the air. The field was just as green, the fans just as boisterous, the crack of the bat just as sharp. And, sometime around the 6th inning, sitting there in the stands with my father and son, I recall the distinct and irreplaceable feeling of being at home.

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It’s been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and it could be again.” — James Earl Jones (as Terrence Mann) in Field of Dreams

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