Why I love baseball

Lately I have been watching the Ken Burns documentary series Baseball, which is a time line of baseball history from its creation to 1994, when the film was produced. The films are interesting and I just got done watching the 8th inning, which highlights the 1960’s. Within this particular part of the documentary, the discussion of baseball v. football came up. So I want to share my opinion on the game of baseball, and why I like it more than any other American sport. This post will probably be just a giant, rambling (and at points, incoherent) rant, so just stay with me.

Baseball is America’s pastime. Or, at least it was. Since the playing of the first Super Bowl, the NFL has soared past MLB in popularity among American sports. However, in the first half of the twentieth century, baseball truly was America’s pastime. Yes, I know baseball was not integrated until 1947, which is a major dent in baseballs case that it was the pastime of our nation. But it was the pastime- baseball was loved by all races. The Negro Leagues was one of the biggest businesses around. I digress though. The point is that baseball was HUGE in America. It was played by everybody all across the nation- in cities, suburbs, and on the farms. The sport was well liked because of the action. I know that sounds crazy today, but back then baseball was considered a lively, fast paced sport. That is because it evolved from cricket, town ball, and rounders, which are similar, but much slower versions of baseball. It was also violent for the era, with lots of rough and tough professional players. Baseball was a game of the poor and uneducated, so games could be rough. People were thrown at and it was dangerous. However, by the mid-twentieth century, football and basketball were growing in popularity. These sports were even more violent and/or fast-paced. While basketball never had the popularity of baseball, football increasingly did. When the NFL had its first Super Bowl in 1966, it drew a bigger audience than any of the World Series games that season. Sure, it was because the Super Bowl was one game and the World Series was a series, but it was a sign that football was increasingly becoming the favorite child of American sports fans.

So with that said, I understand the NFL is way more popular than MLB. I’m not here to persuade people to come back to baseball, or to disparage football- and any other sports I might reference. Rather, I just want to profess my deep love for the game of baseball and explain why it’s the best sport in the world- which I stubbornly consider fact, not opinion.

One reason I love baseball is the history. I’m a big history buff. I love American history, from colonization up until the present day (although I do find the 1800’s very, very boring). Baseball is a sport built on history, so it goes hand in hand that I would love baseball. Baseball has the most storied past of America’s big three sports, which adds to it’s lure. There are records galore, heroes and legends, goats, stories, legends and myths, failures, and lots of personalities. That’s what 171 years of history will give you. So just recollecting on those different facets of the sports brings a smile to my face.

I am also a stat guy, as you all know. No sport lends itself more to statistics than baseball. Why? Just the way it is played. It’s a team game, but it’s an individual game. There are nine individuals on the field at a time, who all fend for themselves, but their individual efforts is what is needed to win as a team. In football the quarterback needs his linemen and the receivers need a quarterback. In basketball, each player relies on each other with a series of passes and rebounds. But in baseball, each man pretty much lives for themselves. They don’t need a teammate to hit a home run. That aspect of the game is just so unique and so special.So because of the individualism, you can really dissect down the game. You can see which players, which parts of the team, did the most to help a team win. You can see who was the best at hitting, or getting on base, or hitting for power, or stealing, or catching a ball.

But back to stats and records. When it comes to football no one really cares about stats. Sure, people look at them. People even make big celebration of them, such as rushing records and passing records. But does anyone remember where they were and what they were doing when Emmit Smith broke Walter Payton’s rushing record? If people do, then it’s a select. Yet if you ask most hardcore baseball fans where they were when Henry Aaron hit home run #715, a great majority will be able to answer the question. Stan Musial had the same number of career hits at home as he did on the road. 1815 hits at home and 1815 hits on the road. You won’t find a random, quirky stat like that in football or basketball. Or wOBA, a measure of a players overall offensive ability. What stat is there in the NFL that measures a players entire performance on one side of the football? I am not a stat heavy football guy, but is there a stat considers passing, rushing, receiving, and blocking and rolls it all into one stat? Maybe there is, but as far as I know, there isn’t. So just the fact that baseball can be broken down under the microscope into minute aspects is a wonderful part of the game.

Some people hate baseball because it is too long, too boring. People want action and speed. That’s why NASCAR and UFC are ever growing sports. For me, personally, I don’t need violence or action. The pace of baseball is just fine in my opinion. I think the reason people don’t like baseball is because they don’t fully understand the beauty of the game. As we all know, there is a clock in football and basketball. Baseball is timeless. A game could go on forever, theoretically. I love that. I mean, think about. In the NFL and NBA, the winning team can just run down the clock. Talk about lame. But in baseball, it truly is never over until it’s over. The losing team always gets a chance. That is why baseball is considered democratic. In football the losing team can’t win unless they get the ball back. In baseball, the losing team always get a last chance to bat. A last chance to rally. A last chance to win. Isn’t that just great? Because of that structure, there is always a slimmer of hope in baseball. If there’s three minutes left in a football game and you’re down by 20, you’re not going to win. But in baseball you could be down by seven in the ninth, and still have a shot at winning. Isn’t that just great?

I mean, just look at the game chart. You’ll be hard pressed to find games like that in the NFL or NBA. Yes, there are a few games in those sports where there is an epic comeback. But it rarely happens because of the format of the sport and the rules, where the winning team is allowed to run out the clock. Baseball doesn’t have that clock, so there is always hope. As a fan, having that hope, however small it is, makes those improbable comebacks even more thrilling.

Speaking of those thrilling memories, I feel like baseball is prone to greater memories. Thrilling moments lead to great memories, and baseball has the most thrilling moments. The reason is because it’s like a series of snapshots in time. On the other hand, football and basketball, for the most part, are a continually active game, with little downtime. As I already mentioned, records are a lot bigger in baseball than football, and the comebacks are more thrilling. Comebacks and records give fans memories. So just be sheer volume there should be more memories in baseball. Not to mention each team plays at least 162 games a year, compared to 82 for basketball and 16 for football.

Going back to the downtime in baseball- I think that helps make baseball so awesome. I mean, the actual play can take a mere couple seconds, whereas the in-between time can take quite a while. From the time a pitcher starts a windup to the time the catcher catches the pitch, the play might take 1-3 seconds. After that though the pitcher will walk around the mound, rub up the ball, and wipe the sweat off the forehead. The batter will step out, take a couple swings, and then dig back into the box. Meanwhile, fielders will kick dirt, pace around their spot in the infield, and take some glances at the scoreboard. That is the action of baseball. It is wonderful in that it adds to the suspense in baseball.

Suspense in sports is the ultimate feeling and no sport brings it more than baseball. Yeah, two minute warning drives in football can be nerve wrecking, and a last second shot can play with your heart. But the tension, the drama is not the same as it is in baseball. Why? That downtime. Think about this situation: it’s the bottom of the ninth, two outs, and a man is second. The score is tied at three. The home team’s best hitter, the MVP of the league, is at the plate. However, the road team’s best pitcher, the Cy Young, is on the mound. Those thirty seconds of downtime between pitches just inflates the suspense, the tension so much that your heart is beating a hundred times faster than normal. You can’t look. The crowd is on its feet, going nuts. The pitch is in on it’s way, and it takes what seems like an eternity to reach the plate. What’s going to happen? Ball one. Time to do it all over again. Isn’t that just great?

But for me, the memories are one of the biggest reasons why I love baseball. I have memories of my father and grandfather teaching me the game of baseball. One big memory of mine is going to a park in Pennsylvania where my grandparents lived and live. There was a big, wooden pirate ship playground there, and a grass field. In the field my dad and granddad would toss me a whiffle ball and I would try and whack the ball with my whiffle bat. From there, I have memories from playing the game across many levels- tee ball, little league, travel, high school, and American Legion. I have memories of teammates, weird stories and plays, tournaments, practices. I remember going 3-3 with two bases clearing triples in my Little League’s championship game. I remember getting the first ever base hit in the Cherry Hill Stealers baseball organization, which is an organization that today boasts several state winning teams at various age levels. I remember all my standout defensive catches. My best catch was in travel ball for the Stealers. We were playing at a middle school field against our biggest rivals. We were up by a few runs and the bases were loaded with one out. For some reason my dad thought they were going to bunt, so not only did he have me play up, but he had me playing IN FRONT OF THE PITCHER’S MOUND! Obviously, I was on the verge of shitting my pants. And sure enough, the ball was lined right at me from fifty feet away. I dove to my right, caught the rocket of a line drive, and fired to first, to double off the runner by an inch.

Baseball gave me that lifelong memory. I have memories from watching the professionals. Games 4 and 5 of the 2001 World Series will always have a special place in my heart, soul, and mind. I was and still am a hardcore Yankees fan. In 2001, on 9/11, my dad was New York on a business trip. He was in the seven building, which was a neighboring building of the Twin Towers. He made it out safely, but that tragic day could have been even more tragic for my family and I. So like many Americans, Yankee fans, and those who lost a loved one, that World Series had a bigger than usual importance in our lives, because it gave us a distraction and a sense of community and togetherness. On consecutive nights the Yankees dug themselves out of impossible holes to win the games. It was a message to America that while we were down, we were not out. Baseball was not just a sport or a game. It was a passion.

Errors. Baseball is the only sport to truly recognize a players failure. In football and basketball there are turnovers. But “error” is a much more piercing word. When a receiver drops a wide open pass, he is not given an error on the play. He is not given a subjective mark of failure. He was not told “you messed up”. But in baseball, that player is criticized by a man sitting in the press box. Errors.

Strategy, strategy, strategy. I’m not saying there isn’t strategy in football or basketball. I know that in the NFL, players and coaches look at hours upon hours of film. But when it comes to the game theory of baseball, there is nothing like it. Every pitch changes the game, changes the strategy. Do we bunt here? If we bunt, what do we gain? If we bunt, what do we lose? Should we walk this batter? Well, who’s up next? Is that hitter good? What reliever should I bring in? When should I bring him in? How long should I keep him in, once he comes in? There are so many winkles in the game theory of baseball that no other sport can really compare to it. That intricacy is why I love the game. And of all the facets of game theory and the game of baseball, my favorite aspect is the so-called “head game”.

A few years ago I read a book called The Head Game by the great Roger Kahn. In the book, Kahn recalls a conversation he had with former Dodgers pitcher, Clem Labine. Labine asked, “Do you get bored watching baseball after all these years?” and Kahn responded with my favorite quote of all-time. He said:

As a matter of fact I don’t get bored. Not at all. I study the pitcher. What’s he going to throw? I study the hitter. What pitch is he looking for? I make myself become the pitcher and the hitter. Clem, they’re playing chess at ninety miles an hour and that’s not boring at all.

“They’re playing chess at ninety miles an hour and that’s not boring at all”. That, to me, describes the game of baseball better than any other quote about the game. Chess at ninety an hour. Perfect, just perfect. The quote in it’s entirety shows the beauty of baseball. It’s a thinking man’s game and truly is a fast paced game of chess. What’s the count? What pitch is the pitcher going to throw? Will he go up and in with the fastball, or go low and away with his slider? What is the batter looking for? Is he going to sit on the fastball? Is he going to try and go the other way, or look for a pitch to pull? That tug of war between the batter and the pitcher is the most beautiful aspect of the sport, or any sport in the world for that matter. One v. one. Mono v. mono. Man v. Man.

In a single phrase, Labine had summed up the essential core of baseball magic. One man stands in the center of the diamond, surrounded by four umpires, eight teammates, and thousands of spectators. He is alone. The other, also alone but armed with a club, stares hard. The pitcher moves. The battle joins, and it is waged with wit and strength, with muscle, guile, and guts. Statistics? The numbers that fill fat record books are secondary, commentary after the fact. The battle itself, the head game, is a duel.

Much like that paragraph written by Roger Kahn, baseball is poetic. The batter and pitcher are engaged in a battle, a war. In football and basketball, isolated match-ups are hard to come by. Sure, you have to man-man defense in both sports. But the whole premise of baseball is man v. man. I love that. The pitcher has a ball. The batter has a club. And they attack each other with their weapons, spurred on by that head game. It’s a thing of beauty. Poetry in motion. Art.

I cannot add much more to what Kahn wrote. He summed up the greatest facet of baseball perfectly. Baseball is a thinking man’s game and I suppose that is why not as many people enjoy the sport today, with so many other sports to watch in today’s day and age. In order to truly appreciate little quirks and charms of the game like the head game, one must truly be a thinker and understand the tiny nuances of baseball. Yes, football has some similar battles are the team level. Will they run or pass? But baseball is a lot more involved, a lot deeper.

To reiterate, baseball is the best sport in the world because of how unique it is. Unique in the way it is played and the way it lends itself to memories. For me, baseball is my life. It’s in my blood. Ever since I was five years old, it’s been the biggest influence in my life. I have been playing baseball, watching baseball, talking baseball, listening to baseball, or writing about baseball since that young age. When I read books, I read about baseball. When I write papers, I write about baseball. When I turn on the radio, I go to 880 WCBS, home of the New York Yankees. I check box scores EVERY NIGHT. Baseball is my addiction, my heroine. I breathe, I eat, I live baseball. It is not just a sport. It’s my life. It’s my passion. It’s what keeps me going, what keeps me sane. Baseball gives you hope. There is always a chance for the impossible to happen. You can go from the ultimate low to the ultimate high. Each game can be a microcosm of the long 162 game season. There are highs and lows, peaks and valleys. Through the season, you get to know the team. They become like family to you. So it makes the successes that much more enthralling, and the failures crush you that much more. I love that the season is all spring, summer, and fall, with games played everyday, because I can’t get enough of it.

That picture shows the true emotion and passion of the game. The game of baseball caused a grown man to skip and jump like a kid on the playground, and caused a nation of millions to shout for joy. There’s nothing like it.

This long post might have been an incoherent ramble. The grammar might have been sloppy and I probably could have penned a better piece had I sat down and looked it over. But I sat down and spoke from the heart. I let my heart, blood, and passion do the writing. There are charms of the game I probably am forgetting that I would love to add. Either way, the message is clear. Baseball is my lifeline and I believe it truly is the greatest sport to be ever be played.

People ask me what I do in winter when there’s no baseball.  I’ll tell you what I do.  I stare out the window and wait for spring.  ~Rogers Hornsby

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