Perhaps I appreciate baseball only because I did not start to watch the sport and follow my home team—the San Francisco Giants—until after I arrived at middle age. My dad followed baseball and his hometown team—the Brooklyn Dodgers—when I was growing up. But, back then, I only watched intermittently when he had a game on television. It’s not that I wanted a faster-moving or more violent sport; my preference was for an old movie on the back channels. He tried to teach me about the game and get me to share his interest, but I only half-listened. Now, years later, I have come to see what he liked about baseball: it’s all about personal behavior, and this is the behavior of gentlemen.
To start with, baseball is not a game played by the clock, unlike football, basketball, or soccer. There is no time pressure, although the umpire will urge the game along if a pitcher or batter takes too long. But the play is not framed in periods of minutes, and there is no end point until one team has beaten the other after nine—or more—innings of play. So a baseball game can take all afternoon, or go on into the night—as one recent Giants night game did, for seventeen innings, long after my bedtime. Gentlemen are not pressured by the clock; they take their time and do things right.
And then, baseball is not a contact sport. Other than a baseman1 laying the gloved ball or touching the ball itself against some part of a runner’s anatomy, players do not intentionally touch each other or interfere with their play. The opponents do not tackle one another as in football, or guard and block one another as in basketball. Sometimes a pitcher will hit the batter with a pitch, but it’s not intentional—usually, unless it’s payback for an earlier incident—and the penalty is that the batter immediately goes to first base. Yes, players do get injured. Outfielders and infielders both dive for catches or collide with each other going for the same fly ball. Runners jam fingers and joints sliding into base, and they can collide with basemen. Catchers and umpires get hit with pitches. But these injuries are never intentional punishment, and there are no bad feelings. Or not usually.
Although the sport is played with great emotion and intense team rivalry, the players clearly do not hate or despise each other. You can see a runner standing next to a baseman and exchanging a friendly comment or sharing a joke. You listen to the announcers, who are generally assigned to one team and are as partisan as any fan, and they will praise the skills of an opposing player. Baseball is a game of personal skills: Can you pitch? Can you hit? Can you catch? Can you run? The announcers and the players in interviews never talk about how badly the opposition might be playing—or perhaps they will say, with some regret, that the other team or player is in a slump—but instead how hard they have to work to beat them. The losing team never talks about how the winners might have used some trick or cheat to beat them, only that they themselves could have done better. When a batter strikes out, he is not angry at the pitcher’s clever use of fastballs and curves or sliders, but angry at himself for missing them. When a runner gets thrown out at a base, he is not angry at the skill or speed displayed by the baseman, but angry that he himself didn’t run harder or slide more purposefully. Of course, everyone gets mad at the umpire sometimes over what he thinks is a bad call. But the anger doesn’t last long.
This is a game that rewards sportsmanship. And the great players are respected for their kindness and good spirits. The fan favorites are the players with the best and most cheerful attitudes.
In the same way, this is a game that recognizes and rewards personal effort and excellence. Unlike football or basketball, where a player’s individual actions can become lost in the flurry of activity that follows the ball across the field or court, in baseball the motion of the ball highlights the efforts of only one or two men at a time. The pitcher is under scrutiny for either a balk or a throw to base with a runner trying to steal until the ball leaves his hand and approaches home plate. The batter is under scrutiny as the ball comes at him and he either watches it go by or swings at it—and then either connects or misses. The catcher is watched to see if he makes a clean catch or fumbles a scud or a wild pitch into a loose ball that lets any runners advance. And when the ball is hit, it falls into the sphere of one or two infielders or outfielders who have the responsibility for catching and returning it. Although everyone plays a part on the team, some more important—say, the starting pitcher—than others—such as any one of the basemen or outfielders—for a few seconds of play the entire stadium is focused on the ball’s flight and the man who is throwing, hitting, or catching it.
Unlike other games where much talk—and sometimes bets—are made about the “point spread” or by how much one team outscores the other, baseball is a game of win or lose. Yes, winning a game by a crushing ten-to-one will send the fans on one side home happy for the night, while fans of the losing side will commiserate and cry woe for a day. But the game goes down in the record books as simply a win whether it’s ten-to-one or two-to-one. In a game that’s played almost every day in a long season, rather than just once a week in the fall, the figures to watch are total wins and losses, not by how much.
While the team is not judged in the long term by whether its wins and losses were crushing or achieved with a single run, each player bears a huge catalogue of statistics, marshalled by his career average, seasonal average, and record against the opposing team—and sometimes against another opposition player, such as a batter against a pitcher. Starting pitchers are judged by how many innings they stay in the game, how many opposing runs count against them, and the number of walks and strikeouts they throw. Hitters are judged by their average number of hits per at-bat, how often they get on base, how many bases they can run per hit—the “slugging percentage”—and how many home runs and runs batted in they score. Runners are judged on how often they can steal a base. It’s through these individual totals and percentages that the team’s lopsided wins and losses become visible. So, while the game is a team effort, it’s the individual records that tell the story.
When I was in high school, I had a teacher who was also a coach in one of the other popular sports—football or basketball, I forget which—who said baseball players weren’t real athletes. He pointed out that they could still promote cigarette brands—back when anyone advertised those foul things—because baseball players only had to throw or hit a ball every once in a while, and then they ran for just ninety feet. Basketball players, he said, were in continuous movement for ten or twenty minutes at a time, and that required real stamina. But now I see that baseball players show a different kind of athleticism, one that’s both mental as well as physical.
An outfielder has to stand a hundred or two hundred feet from the action at the plate and has nothing to do with his feet or hands for whole minutes at a time while the pitcher throws and the batter and catcher contend with a series of balls and strikes. An infielder may stand just ninety feet or so from this action in the same apparent idleness. But all those people playing behind the pitcher must follow the action intently, because a hitter who connects with the ball can send it on a line drive or pop fly to any part of the field, and then the fielder in line with the ball’s flight has just two or three seconds to observe and react. An outfielder may have to run fifty feet to the right or left to catch the ball. An infielder has less time and often has to dive right or left and land with his glove outstretched to catch the ball. A starting pitcher, on the other hand, is in near-continuous movement during the inning and has to throw the ball as many as a hundred times with perfect concentration and control over a game that might last three hours. Baseball is a game of intense mental focus and taut-nerved preparedness in apparent idleness during an inning that can sometimes last as long or longer than a basketball period or a football quarter.
Baseball is a simple game that children can learn and play with enjoyment, or that people at a picnic or barbecue without much experience can pick up and play barehanded. It’s also a game of subtle skills and strategies. A pitcher who can shave a fraction of a second off his delivery time, gain a few miles per hour on his fastball, or master a complicated throw like the slider or changeup can increase his standing in the record books. A batter with the good sense to lay off a pitch that’s headed away from the strike zone can increase his on-base percentage. And knowing when to rein in an eager player who swings at everything, or intentionally walk a skilled batter likely to make a double or triple, can increase a manager’s win-loss record.
Baseball is not for everyone. Certainly, football stadiums hold more people and fill more seats on a Sunday. Basketball tournaments enjoy a more intense following, especially during March. But I am proud that baseball, which plays nearly every day from April through October, is still considered America’s national pastime. A culture that values this game which celebrates patience, concentration, personal excellence, and sportsmanship is still strong at its roots.
1. Throughout this article, I use the term “baseman” and the masculine pronouns “he,” “his,” and “him” intentionally, because that is the composition of players in the major leagues today. Of course, women can and do play baseball and its close cousin, softball. And when women are admitted to the major leagues—finally! again!—it will be interesting to see if the game changes much at all.