A Love Letter to Baseball: Why I Watch the Game
Sports: people either love them or hate them. They either love to play, or they hate to play. They can’t get enough of it, or they’ve had way too much. It’s either a bonding activity or it’s alienating to those who don’t know how or can’t play. My sport of choice is baseball. I understand that baseball is not everyone’s cup of tea, even for some sports fans. It has been labeled boring, ruined by steroids, fixed by its organizers, corrupted by segregation, and even to this day, is still only played at the professional level by men. So, why bother watching? Below are some reasons why I love the game and why it means so much to so many.
Unique Rules and Objectives
I had a teacher in high school who once said, “I’d rather watch paint dry than watch a baseball game.” For many, it’s too slow paced. An ideal inning for your favorite team can mean having the pitcher throw three strikeouts with no movement in the field. The mental struggle between the pitcher, the catcher, and the batter are so internalized that you don’t realize the excitement that is going on in these players’ heads. You’re just ready to hear the crack of the bat as it connects with the ball so that the fielders have something to do. However, as a game nears the final innings and the pitcher has done his job, you begin to hope for a no hitter. It’s a strange feeling to want to suppress action in a game while you’re watching a no-hitter or the even rarer perfect game. Suddenly, the desire to have the pitcher achieve this in a game makes every strike a victory. By the ninth inning, if the no-hitter or perfect game is still underway, other games are interrupted, social media blows up, and everyone’s eyes are glued to the mound, waiting for that last out so that they can cheer for the one guy who made it all possible.
Baseball is also like fishing in many ways. There is long awaited anticipation for a moment of excitement. For those who love suspense, it is the perfect sport to watch or play. Nothing can happen for several batters at a time. Then, suddenly, something happens to cause the crowd to go wild. A batter could hit one out of the park, knock in a run, or just get a base hit. Runners can steal a base at any time, and when they take off in the middle of a play, it’s extra exciting because there is no pitch to set off the motion. Players show their athleticism in the field when they dive for balls, jump several feet in the air, or flip over a railing to catch a fly ball.
All sports have their lag time. Hockey players can skate up and down the rink for minutes at a time without taking a shot. Football players could only gain a few yards in four downs only to have the other team do the same. Just because the players are not constantly running around a field doesn’t mean that they are less exciting. They are just saving their energy for a great moment.
Baseball arrives with the warm weather, and in the northeast, that’s a big deal after a long winter. Opening day arrives with the spring thaw, and the bulk of the season is played at the peak of summer. Many summer activities can be accompanied by a game playing on the radio while sitting out on the back porch swatting at mosquitoes, waiting for a movie to start at the drive-in, or fishing by the lake. The days get longer, and the nights get warmer. Fans can sit at the stadium under the bright stadium lights at night in shorts and t-shirts. Caps and sunglasses shield from the bright sun during afternoon games. Players wait out rain delays while the field is covered by a giant tarp. As the season winds down, so do the long days, folding in on itself until The World Series wraps everything up, and we go back inside to hibernate for the winter.
Uniforms and Equipment
Honestly, how many sports require their players to wear a cap and a belt as part of their uniform? There is a unique design to baseball players’ uniforms and equipment. The short pants and long socks give players a lean, lanky look. The shirts are loose and relaxed, and the cleats are tough and aggressive. Catchers look like they’re ready to tame a wild animal with their wiry mask and protective padding. The first time I ever put on catcher’s equipment, I felt like I was going to fall over, but once that bat started to swing over my head, I was grateful to have it between me and the flying objects. The balance and strength that catchers need to squat the way they do for so many hours at a time is further proof of their athleticism.
The equipment can be as bare bones as a bat and ball or as elaborate as a major league game. When I played backyard games, we used windows, trees, and fence posts as bases. We had one dented aluminum bat and a tennis ball as our game ball so that the fielders wouldn’t need to use gloves. There was no pitcher’s mound. The pitcher moved up close for smaller players and further away for larger, more experienced players. Balls typically weren’t hit foul, but plenty of missed swings ended up across the street in the bushes, halting play until the green felt ball was located among the similarly colored leaves. It was a far cry from the precisely lined infields and professionally landscaped outfields that the professionals used, but it didn’t lessen the game in the least.
Still, there is nothing like buying your first glove. You try on dozens before you find the one that you want. It’s stiff and reeks of that musty, leathery smell. You pound your fist into its deep palm and tighten the knots on fingers. When you get home, you oil it, place a ball inside, and wrap them in a rubber band. The next day, it’s loose and form fitting and ready to catch flies.
Choosing a bat while on deck is another important decision. Feeling for the weight and swing of the perfect bat is like trying on shoes. No two bats are the same, and there is some unknown connection between the player and the bat they choose to take on the pitcher. For some reason, one bat just fits, and the crack it makes as it connects with the ball, and that split second when you see the two objects collide before the bat launches it forward is the closest anyone can get to slowing down time.
Errors, Averages and Statistics
I love statistics. I like to know what someone is up against, and baseball is full of them. Every movement on the field is carefully recorded from how many times a player bats left versus right to how many strikes a pitcher has thrown in their lifetime. I love how everything is recorded and catalogued and mentioned during the game as an interesting tidbit as well as an indication of how each play is likely to pan out for each player. No one wants to be labeled, but in a game full of anticipation and suspense, statistics help to predict the future. We know which players are most likely to get hit by a pitch, how well a particular batter goes up against a particular pitcher, and how many games a team has won in a particular design of uniform.
Statistics also help to show how imperfect the players are in a comforting way. In our daily lives, we are constantly making mistakes, fumbling over ourselves, and fighting against our weaknesses. No one is a well rounded individual yet we expect our players to mirror perfection in their job. A quarterback is expected to throw a perfect pass every time. A goalie is required to block every shot that comes their way. People are more lenient on baseball players, though. That’s because you cannot expect a player to get a hit every time they are at bat. No pitcher has ever thrown only strikes. More errors are made than victories, and that’s okay and expected. It makes the game more real, and it makes you appreciate the successes more. When a pitcher hits a home run, it's better than when a star player hits two in a game. When infielders turn a triple play with the bases loaded, the crowd goes wild. Any time somebody beats the odds, it makes us all feel better about our own.
If a player gets two hits in a game out of the four times they bat, it’s a good game. If they hit for the cycle, it’s a great game. If they don’t get any hits, well, maybe next game. Team work comes in when the right combination of players work together to score runs or make plays on the field. If one player messes up and leaves men on base or fails to make an out, it affects the efforts of all of the players involved. A great batter still only hits about 30% of the time. A great pitcher still gives up an average of 1-2 earned runs regularly.
Until recently, even the umpires were not without fault. They are forced to make split second decisions when they watch a shoe slide into base or a ball rocket towards them at 90 miles per hour or more. Sometimes they got it right; sometimes they got it wrong. It didn’t always work out in your team’s favor, but it was the best decision that could be made in that small window of time, and you might not have liked it, but you accepted it. Even when a playback showed an apparent missed call, the game wasn’t stopped to determine whether or not the umpire made the right decision. The game moved on, and that was the end of it. Whether things work out or not, it’s important to keep moving forward.
Baseball players are also admirable in their ability to make mistakes in front of millions of people and shake it off. A pitcher may give up a home run and then has to get right to pitching to the next batter and hope that their nerves don’t get the best of them. A second baseman can miss a dive to stop a ground ball and keep runners from advancing on base, but they have to be ready to catch a fly ball on the next pitch if necessary. Many of us need a minute after we trip and fall in our daily lives. Baseball players don’t get a minute. If a player strikes out to end the inning, they have to run to the dugout, get their glove, and hope that they can at least aide in defense. One advantage is that they play almost every day and don’t have to wait long to make a comeback in the next game. While playing baseball isn’t as crucial as performing heart surgery or putting out a fire as in many professions, it’s inspiring to watch players continue under stress, shake it off, and move on.
No Time Limit
Most games are broken down into timed sections, either periods or quarters, but baseball is one of the few sports that are not timed. Each game is going to be at least nine innings (unless the rain has other plans), and it could last 90 minutes, or it could last six hours. There is no rush to get done. There is no clock to watch. There is always a chance that your favorite team can come from behind, and this makes for some great comeback stories. I like the idea that it’s not over till it’s over. There is always hope. In a world where the day is sliced into timed activities, it’s refreshing to watch a game linger on the radio, on the T.V., or in the stadium itself. It also shows the dedication and discipline of the players, coaches, and umpires. It’s not easy to squat, pitch, field, and bat for hours on end, but they stick with it and battle into extra innings, sometimes to go home and do it again the next afternoon.
Non-Violent but Still Scary
While not a contact sport, baseball can become violent, scary, and even deadly. Balls and broken bats can hit the crowd and other players. Players can tear muscles and break bones sliding into bases, running into walls, or awkwardly hurling a ball in play. The worst is when someone gets hit in the head or face. I’ve seen blood gush in the stands and players doubled over in the field. Storms are always a threat, and a bolt of lightning can send the entire stadium running for cover. Anyone who is missing the danger factor in the game can use any of these references to keep their thrill-seeking selves interested in what could possibly go wrong during a game. Hopefully, though, that’s not why you watch.
Baseball has always been a family friendly sport, and every game is an event. From door prizes and giveaways to dance cams and player introductions, there is a game show atmosphere in the stadium. In place of cheerleaders, there is organ music and chants. Some franchises have people dress up as pierogies or presidents and race around the field each home game. T-shirts are shot out of special launchers. Everyone stands in the seventh inning to sing, “Take Me Out to the Ballgame”. These things give you something to do besides watch a pitcher warm up each inning and grounds crew smooth out the field.
What sport is more American than baseball? It’s a sport that is ours, and it’s a sport that has endured wars, attacks, controversies, and other setbacks. Some of the most popular and beloved sports figures in the world are baseball players. Everyone knows the names Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron. Even non-sports fans can point out a New York Yankees cap or knows that Wrigley Field is in Chicago. Baseball has been affected by wars, segregation, and even the more recent Baltimore Riots. Many have fought for their right to play, and many have proven themselves worthy of the game.
Now, people have gone from collecting baseball cards to choosing their fantasy teams. They’ve gone from sitting on bleachers to sitting on folding chairs. They went from paying a few cents for a hotdog and cotton candy to shelling out $20 for a bucket of wings or a few beers. The culture changes around it, but the field remains the same, the rules don’t change, and the game itself is preserved so that it’s understood by every generation still living on this earth. It’s a nostalgic and comforting thought.
Baseball in Film
Many of the best sports movies ever made are baseball movies. It’s a very photogenic sport that utilizes its sounds, sights, and anticipation factors to create great pieces of cinema. Watching the kids of The Sandlot hitting homeruns while the fireworks explode on the Fourth of July or seeing the women in, A League of Their Own slide into third base in a skirt are iconic moments. Baseball is a sport for anyone to play, and everyone in the movies do play from angels to dogs to housewives to scrawny kids. While it takes skill, there are a number of useful positions, and everyone is bound to be useful in at least one of them from pitching to catching to batting to even coaching. Every strength is harnessed, and the many strengths work together to achieve a win. Movies show this time and again. The world needs more baseball movies.
I haven’t sought out to change anyone’s mind about the sport. There is no law that says that everyone must love baseball. Instead, I just wanted to show why baseball is so beloved and what makes it so great. Even if baseball is not everyone’s favorite sport, it still contains elements that appeal to everyone. Despite its shortcomings and downfalls, its imperfections make it great, and I hope it’s something that will never die.