Most of us have done it. Holding a bat, a friend tossing balls to us, we have called our shot. As our buddy is getting ready to throw, one of the two of us says: “Bottom of the ninth. Two on, two out. Two strikes on the batter, down by two.”
Then the ball comes hurtling in, and we swing for the fence. What else, after all, could we do?
Generally speaking, we miss the ball entirely.
The crowds are dwindling at most Major League parks these days. You can hardly find a baseball game on network TV, even on the weekends. Most people i talk to don’t seem to get the game anymore. It doesn’t have the flash, the pizzazz, the glitz that basketball and football seem to contain. For the most part, it doesn’t have the divas either. I think there is a pretty substantial reason for this: there’s too much work to be done for people to have time to diva-ize. The great Ted Williams put it this way: “Baseball is the only field of endeavor where a man can succeed three times out of ten and be considered a good performer.” Even he, considered by some to be the greatest hitter ever (not the flashiest, but the most consistent), during his best season was successful a little more than 40% of the time. Hard to be too much of a diva if that’s your success ratio. Unless you are the Babe, of course.
Kids still play baseball as they once did, but somehow they start to lose interest sometime around age twelve. Football is now widely considered America’s spectator sport of choice, having kicked baseball off its throne some time back. But whether or not America wants baseball as its token athletic competition, the game is still representative of the human condition more so than any other contest. Obviously, i don’t believe baseball is intended to have this purpose, but nevertheless there is something old world and universal and endearing about baseball that i hope will never go away. Sure, its slower than football and basketball, slower than hockey, has less action, less impact than these games. But that is exactly why it is truer. Our action-movie CGI-explosion culture has taught us to thrill-seek among the stadiums of the Michael Bay sports and has caused us to begin rejecting the Terrence Malick one.
Thus, i would like to express a few reasons why baseball is still, in my book, the greatest sport in the world, and why for so long it meant so much to a growing America. First of all, it is the the only sport that i know in which the defense has control of the ball. In many sports, you can control your own destiny offensively. If you do things right, you can be very hard to stop. This is not so much the case in baseball. Offense is a matter of fending off the attack that is hurled at you. In a sense, scoring runs in baseball is actually defense, since the pitcher is the one in control and on the hunt. Baseball is also among a handful of sports in which hitting the mark of perfection for a game is actually possible, even if it is exquisitely rare. The idea that it can be done though, that it is actually something to shoot for, the mark of being among the greats of all time, is what drives pitchers to go out there and fail much of the time.
There are few sports in which you are not essentially on offense and defense at the same time. Most sports are simply variations on territorial war. There are two sides, two home zones, and your role is to defend one and attack the other. Footbal does, of course, have offensive and defensive teams, but everything else holds true.
Even tennis, the only other sport even remotely similar to baseball in its principles, is still played on two sides of a standard sized territory. Baseball is unique in this regard. There is absolutely nothing symmetrical about the game. The rules, in fact, seem almost arbitrary at times. Three strikes, four balls, three outs, nine innings. The mound is 60 feet 6 inches away. The games not played in a back-and-forth-across-the-field fashion but in a milling-around-like-crazy-ants fashion. There is not even a standard field size or shape: outfield fences can be practically any distance away and any height, and knowing how to use the field shape is a huge advantage for the home team.
Home field also plays a significant role in the drama of the game. One of the three or four greatest plays in baseball is the walk-off home run. This can only happen at home, and of course the excitement is redoubled because a walk-off is always in front of a home crowd. There are no exceptions. In most other sports home field provides you with nothing more than the cheering of the fans. In baseball it is actually a legitimate advantage: not only is the crowd on your side, not only is the field the one you are most familiar with, but the rules allow you to always have the last chance to score.
Which brings up perhaps the greatest aspect of baseball, phrased so eloquently in typical nonsensical fashion by Yogi Berra: “It ain’t over ’til it’s over.” Baseball is not at the mercy of time. It is, if you will, not only a pastime, but simply past time. You can never be mathematically excluded from winning a baseball game. Never. I will concede that there are undoubtedly exciting endings to timed sports, and that buzzer-beating finishes are exhilarating. But many times when a clock is involved, it is physically impossible for a team to win, and the last few minutes are some kind of farce, some simulacrum of sport, and guys you have never heard of are playing because the game is over before its over. Not so in baseball. This is why it truly is the sport of the human spirit: if at any time you pull yourself up and just get out there, no matter how bad the odds, and start hitting the ball, you can still win. It is never too late in baseball. There is always a chance to win, no matter how far behind you are, and there is no limit to how much you can score if you apply yourself. Every territorial sport limits scoring to once per possession. The potential for success in baseball, on the other hand, is legitimately unlimited.
i am uncertain how “slow” came to be equated with “bad” or “boring.” If it weren’t for the slow moments in life, we wouldn’t really appreciate the boon of excitement. Baseball exemplifies this perfectly. Most of it is a grind, a struggle, a fight in the trenches. Players must maintain their focus, their drive, even when they aren’t involved in the play, because at any moment they might be called upon to be the hero. (Plus, fans can go to the bathroom without missing much.)
Most sports, you pretty much know who the hero is going to be. If it comes down to a last second play in football, it will either be the quarterback or the kicker. And in basketball, the rock is going in the hands of Lebron James every time if they are down by 1 with 2 seconds to play. Baseball does not allow for such deck-stacking. You can’t pick your fate. If the ball is hit to you, you have to make the play when it matters. And if it is your turn to bat, you have to hit the ball when it matters.
In baseball, anyone can be a hero, and it is never too late to begin. A late comer in life myself, i have spent 8 1/2 innings picking daisies in right. But now i am up to bat. Let’s see what i can do.