I like all sports. I’ve played many different sports and I like to watch any sport, whether I ever played it or not. But I have a special place in my heart for baseball, not just because I was involved in that sport for several years as a minor league executive and then as the public relations director of two different Major League teams, but because there is something unique about baseball.
Any sport can be exciting for its fans to watch, and to excel in any sports demands athleticism on the part of the participants, strategic awareness, and a high degree of physical, mental, emotional, and attitudinal discipline. Natural ability is important, of course, but determination and hard work can sometimes compensate for a player’s lack of natural ability. Coaches appreciate players who are always hustling, always giving the best they have to give.
What, then, is unique about baseball? For one thing, it’s the lore. To a larger extent than any other sport baseball lends itself to story telling. Again, I will agree that every sport has its lore —stories of its heroes and heroines, stories of its memorable characters and their crazy antics or incredible exploits, stories of impossible victories and improbable feats and indelible defeats.
But baseball abounds in stories, especially humorous stories, because while it is a team sport, there is so much interaction among individual players with their teammates, their opponents, their managers and coaches, the umpires, the fans, the front office, the press, the media reps. Baseball lends itself to the development of “characters.” Other sports have them, too, but not to the same degree as baseball, which was the ideal environment for the Yogi Berras, and the Dizzy Deans, and the Casey Stengels, and the Bobo Newsoms, and the Earl Weavers, of my era. That may not be as true today as it was back then, but the stories still abound. There are plenty of characters around; they’re just not as funny, and that may be a product of our times.
Yes, baseball lends itself to story telling, and to poetry, and to song. That’s why there have been so many baseball movies, and why Ernest Lawrence Thayer’s immortal, Casey at the Bat, is an eternally favorite poem to recite for appreciative audiences of all ages, and why everyone knows and likes to sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.”
A real fan knows that every player on the team in the field has something to do on every pitch. They are not just standing there waiting for a ball to be hit in their direction. They have to be thinking about all the countless possibilities that can occur with every pitch, and what each of them has to do in any and every situation, backing up or covering a base, getting into position for a relay, calling for another player to make the catch, signaling to another player about taking a throw, holding runners on to prevent a steal or playing off the base for wider coverage, and so on. There is constant secret communication taking place among the players, and with the manager and coaches. I was explaining all this to a friend at a game one night, and she exclaimed, “My goodness! I had no idea there was so much going on all the time!”
Every sport has its statistics and records, but baseball has more than its share of them. That’s another part of its uniqueness. I would argue that baseball fans follow the pitching, batting, and fielding stats of their favorites players and teams more closely than do the fans of other sports, and there are far more to follow than in most other sports. Baseball fans are constantly evaluating and comparing the strengths and weaknesses of team personnel, and they do not hesitate to express their agreement or disagreement with managers and coaches. That’s one reason why fantasy baseball leagues are so popular.
For those who know the game baseball is fun to watch on television, because television, with its zoom cameras, split screens, instant replays, and other current techniques can capture so well the drama of the game. But of course, the best fun is to be had at the ball park. Fans can sit back and take it all in —except when a foul ball comes your way, and everyone near you wants it just as much as you do! They can and do interact with other fans, the venders, the mascots, and to some extent before and after the game, especially in the minor leagues, with the players. Of course, the ultimate enjoyment is to see your team win, especially when they come from behind to do so.
Because of the unpredictability of the many possibilities that can occur on every pitch, the game lends itself to grandstand managing to a greater degree than most other sports. Should we bunt, or hit away? Should the batter take a strike or do you give him the green light on a 3 and 0 pitch? With two men on base, should we pitch to this guy or walk him to get to the next batter, whom we may have a better chance of getting out? So it goes throughout the game, as the fans strategize with one another, and the banter is enjoyable and often hilarious.
Another unique aspect of baseball is the reality that the game is never over until the final out. You don’t run out of time in baseball, the way you do in football or basketball, when the clock is winding down and there is no chance of catching up. Lop-sided scores in other sports are much more boring than they are in baseball, for the reasons I’ve already stated. In baseball there is always, to quote a line from the aforementioned poem, “the hope that springs eternal within the human breast.”
Still another way in which I think baseball is unique is the degree of athleticism required to excel at it. Let me reiterate what I said at the outset: to excel in any sport requires a high degree of athleticism. But to excel in baseball, it can easily be argued, requires a greater variety of athletic skills than does any other sport.
To start with, baseball players have to be able to run, hit, field, and throw, and that is true of at least eight of the nine positions on a team. Pitchers in pro ball are not expected to be able to hit well, although some do. Each of those basic skills has a variety of sub-skills. Running includes base-running, base stealing, knowing when and how to slide, running to field batted or thrown balls, running to cover a base, or to back up a play, or to receive a relay.
So, too, throwing is a highly demanding skill, requiring infielders, for example, to be able to throw accurately from any position, often off balance, or while running in the opposite direction from the target base. For pitchers throwing is a more specialized skill, requiring different grips, arm motions, and changes of speed that cause the ball to curve, flutter, dip, rise, or move in other ways that make it difficult for a batter to hit.
Fielding requires speed, agility, and superior eye-hand coordination, especially of infielders, including the pitcher, who have to react instantly and be able to catch a ball on a short hop or however it comes to them. They may have to field a bunt or slow roller with their bare hand and throw it accurately to first base or wherever in one motion. Pitchers have balls hit back at them at 150 miles an hour from less than sixty feet away.
Batted balls take longer to reach the outfield, but they can still be traveling at tremendous speed and outfielders have more territory to cover. For that reason they have to make instant calculations as to where they need to get to in order to catch a long fly ball. They have to judge the trajectory of the ball in order to arrive at the catchable point before or as the ball gets there. They can easily tell whether to start to the left or to the right, but a ball hit right at them can present a difficult challenge: whether to go in or go back, whether the ball is catchable or one that must be played on the bounce, whether to leap for it or play it off the wall, whether to play it safe or dive for it. Outfielders need strong, accurate throwing arms.
Catchers have to receive balls coming at them at tremendous speeds and doing all kinds of tricks, with a batter swinging at it and possibly tipping it; they have to be ready to throw to any base to try to prevent a base runner from stealing; and they have to be to quick enough on their feet to be able to field a bunted or mis-hit ball near home plate and fire it rapidly to the appropriate base to throw out a speedy runner.
Batting a baseball may be the most difficult athletic skill of all (see post of July 17, 2012). At what other skill is an athlete considered a star who is successful only 30% of the time? None that I can think of, yet a baseball player with a .300 batting average is considered to be a good hitter!
There is much more to be said about the various skills required of a baseball player, but I hope these brief descriptive comments will warrant my assertion that baseball is unique in terms of the number of athletic skills required of its players.
Finally, and perhaps most important, baseball is unique in its relation to America. Since its beginning in late 1790s and early 1800s, the history of baseball has been inextricably linked to the history of our nation. It has impacted and been impacted by the great social and political issues that have challenged our nation, such as racial equality, women’s rights, unionization, and interstate-commerce law. It has reflected the development of other industries, like transportation, radio and television, the computer, and sports medicine.
Baseball has been called America’s national pastime, and I think it still deserves that distinction precisely because it is so intertwined with our history and so reflective of our culture. That opinion is bolstered by the sheer number of young people and adults playing the game. With the expansion of the Major Leagues, the rebirth of the Minor League baseball, the innumerable grade school, junior high, senior high, college teams, sandlot teams, and rec teams, extremely popular age-specific programs, like Little League, Babe Rube League, and American Legion baseball, tournament baseball, summer baseball camps, and many other organized programs, more people are playing and watching baseball now than ever before.
There is much more to be said about the uniqueness of baseball, but I’ll rest my case for now. I’d be interested to hear your thoughts on the subject.