Gimbling in the Wabe – Peanuts and Crackerjacks
This is my favorite time of year. Baseball season. Early spring, and it’s still cool out. We’ve yet to hit the heat and humidity of summer. So far from October, and the post-season, there is still hope in the air, regardless of the team’s record so far. This year, for my team, it’s a scant hope, but hope nonetheless.
“So what?” many people say. “Baseball is boring. It’s too slow. It’s a snooze fest.”
I will admit, that baseball often moves far more slowly than other organized sports. The action is very focused, and tends to last for a short period of time. The tension of the game often rides on the potential for action rather than the action itself.
But for me, baseball is the best sport to watch, and I think the best sport, period. And even though I don’t have any illusions that I will convince naysayers of that, I will go ahead and explain myself.
Unlike virtually every other team sport, baseball matches up individual battles in a team environment. The main one would be the battle between the batter and the pitcher, and those battles can be epic.
That “matchup” is a bit of a misnomer, though. The catcher plays a huge part in the pitcher/batter dynamic, calling the shots and allowing the pitcher to utterly focus on the mechanics of the pitch and whatever mind games he wishes to play on the opposition’s batters. It’s the catcher who knows the batters, who decides what pitches will be most effective against the guy at the plate and for the situation at hand, who determines the location of the pitch and sets that location with his glove placement. He’s the one who can help pace the pitcher, work the rhythm, signal the pitcher of potential defensive plays and with a strong arm and accurate throw, keep any runners honest who may be hoping to steal a base.
But it’s the duel between the pitcher and the batter upon which almost all the action pivots. Everyone else on the field is focused on the outcome of that duel. The pitcher must throw this hard, round missile from about 60 feet away and hit in a target “box” that is 17 inches wide and varies in height dependant on the batter’s stance: the top point is the midpoint between a batter’s shoulders and his belt, the bottom point is at the bottom of the batter’s kneecaps.
Within those 60-odd feet from the pitcher’s mound to home plate, the ball will go from a speed of 0 to somewhere between 75 and 100 mph, dependent on the pitch and the strength of the pitcher’s arm, and his mechanics. Stop and think of that a moment: from 0 to 100 mph in 60 feet, without anything other than the strength of the pitcher’s body.
Dependent on how the pitcher holds the ball – how he grips it and how he releases it when it explodes from his fingers – his finger placement will determine if it veers right or left, if it drops once it crosses the plane of the strike zone, or if it flies true and fast. And pitchers won’t always aim for the middle of the plate – many of the best ones rarely do. They “paint the corners”, with the ball crossing the strike zone on the inside part of the plate, or the outside part of the plate, high or low, mixing up speeds and placements to keep the batter off balance and unable to anticipate what might be coming their way next. He needs to be able to “hide” his pitch so the batter can’t tell from his grip before he releases the ball what type of pitch might be coming in.
But he also needs to keep his eye on any runners on base, and be ready to pivot and throw a rocket at an infielder to catch a runner straying too far off base, or starting a steal attempt too early, and he needs to be ready to field a bunt attempt or catch a sharp screamer hit up the middle (often endangering the pitcher with their velocity), or to cover first base if the first baseman has to range way in order to field the ball.
There’s so much more to it than just throwing the ball over the plate.
But the batter’s task is no less daunting. He has to determine, in literally a split second, if the incoming pitch is going to be in the strike zone or not, and if it is, if he can he hit it. He has to be disciplined, and not swing at a pitch outside the strike zone, no matter how enticing it may seem (unless he’s really good, and can hit outside the zone). This ball, speeding at him at up to 100 mph, is only about 3 inches wide, and it may curve or drop or spin away; it may even careen out of control and hit him with such a velocity so as to shatter bone.
If that seems simple, imagine how fast a car speeding by at 100 mph would blur as it races past you, and now imagine having to hit a 3 inch wide ball traveling that fast with a wooden stick that is, at its widest part, about 2-1/2 inches, when you’ve only glimpsed it coming at you for a fraction of a second. Amazing.
And these guys don’t just hit the ball. Sure, they are looking for contact, first, but they are also looking to hit the ball solidly, or drive it to one side of the field or the other, often utilizing a turn of their wrists when they hit. They have to pretty much hit the ball square on, or it will pop up, or drift foul (out of the field of play), or dribble weakly into the infield where it can be easily scooped up and relayed to base for an out, even more than one out. Or the batter may be asked to bunt the ball, which means to hit it so gently that it only rolls a short ways from home plate, forcing the pitcher or the catcher or the first or third basemen to break out of the normal formation in order to field the ball.
But when they hit, they don’t just hit with the bat. They hit with their entire bodies; that’s why a hitter’s stance is so important – it meters how quickly they can uncoil that latent energy waiting to be released in their entire body. The power from their arms, their shoulders, the movement in their wrists (someone with “quick wrists” will be a more successful hitter than one without). They unleash power from their hips, the way they torque their bodies, their forward motion, the way their body twists. Yet they must be ready, once they have made contact, to drop the bat and run like a bat out of hell towards first base, to beat the throw or stretch a single into a double, to be prepared to slide in the dirt to the base in an attempt to get there before the throw.
Talk about drama! Talk about strategy and skill and athletic prowess! All that potential in Every. Single. Pitch.
And that’s just the pitcher and batter.
There’s the hit. The race to first base, or extra bases. There’s the play of the second baseman or the shortstop – or any of the basemen, actually, but the middle infielders are the true gymnasts of the game – having to react in yet another split second to field the ball and throw it to the appropriate base to record the out, sometimes standing, sometime from their knees or their butts, sometimes even in mid-air, horizontal to the ground. There’s the diving catch, the running catch, the catch over the shoulder, the leap at the fence. There’s the double play, and occasionally the triple play, the play at the plate. For the hitter, there’s the base hit, the line drive up the middle, the blooper hit, the hit into no man’s land, the drive into the gap, and the hallowed home run, or even better, a walk-off home run (a home run hit to win the game). And there is the holy grail of all holy grails of hitting – the grand slam home run.
This is not action diluted by people running around as part of a group that clashes against another group in the chance that the target – the ball, or the person with the ball – may come within striking distance. This is not a game played with a rotating roster of players that ebb and flow, relying on brute strength or subterfuge or constant, spastic motion. Not to say that these are not great athletic experiences, that they aren’t fun to watch or play, that they don’t hold drama or thrills or that they are perhaps “less” than baseball. But for me, they are more busy-ness than drama. There is less potential for thrill. In baseball, for me, for this fan, there is more chance for finesse and strength, for skill and luck, than in any other sport.
That’s part of why I love the game.
~ Sharon Browning