Wednesday, 11 March 2015

Why I Love Baseball

"Baseball was, is, and always will be, the best game in the world," Babe Ruth once said of his craft. And, like millions of adoring fans, I wholeheartedly concur. To me, baseball represents humanity's best attempt at creating something perfect. Without question, it's the most compelling, most nuanced, most versatile game of them all. Baseball has more craftsmanship than football, more guile than gridiron, and more spiritual meaning than basketball. It's chess on grass, but with added passion, drama and crackerjack. 
Perhaps the most appealing aspect of baseball is its thorough unwillingness to be mastered. For more than a century, thousand upon thousands of men have tried to crack the code without success. Even the greatest players are occasionally susceptible to a knee-buckling curve or a melodically-turned double play, because the game is wiser, larger and more cunning than for which it is typically given credit. 

For instance, in baseball, quite unlike any other sport, there is seemingly innumerable ways to score. RBI single, double or triple; home run, sacrifice fly or suicide squeeze bunt; wild pitch, passed ball or bases-loaded walk. Hell, with a run-scoring double play grounder, a guy can even see his success seasoned with failure! Contrast this to basketball, where the only way to score is by shooting a basket; or gridiron, where the methods of scoring are similarly mundane. Baseball is far more creative, far less inhibiting, and far more easily absorbed.

I love to watch the managers during games, especially in the postseason. One can see the various cogs whirring in their mind; the various options being weighed against a myriad of feint possibilities. A manager pulls different leavers and presses different buttons, all in a valorous attempt to manipulate runs from his team like creases out of a shirt. It's an intoxicating brand of theatre.

Similarly, out on the mound, the pitcher is a study of borderline genius; his relentless attempts to deceive, overpower, trick, unbalance, surprise or shock lending an irresistible rhythm and an awe-inspiring imagination to the game. With time of the absolute essence, he must invent and create and sculpt and paint, before a besotted crowd eager for enchantment.

Behind the plate, the catcher squats, stands, and squats again, perhaps two or three hundred times every night. On him, too, the persistent burden of artistic creation is bestowed, for he must complete the most neurotic of tasks: he must call a game. This intangible skill, this unseen quality, of authoring a strategy and navigating a path to victory, afford us, more than anything else in sport, a crystal clear insight into human ingenuity. We get to see how the catcher thinks, how the catcher feels, and how the catcher interprets. A priceless gift. 

Simultaneously, baseball is alive and still. We see power and poise, pause and explosion. It has the aggression of a rodeo, yet the leisurely sprawl of a bar-room conversation with friends. We find solace in its finer idiosyncrasies and its smaller details. A shortstop going deep into the hole to pursue a skidding grounder, perhaps, or a first baseman nimbly digging an errant throw from the dirt. Baseball is the only game where the defence has the ball, and where the onus is placed  upon the offence to prove their worth. This is special. This is unique. This makes you think.

Above all else, baseball reminds me of being a kid. Every game I experience has a direct and spiritual link to my childhood, when I'd watch games on Channel Five in the dead of British night. Those all-night baseball extravaganzas will always rank amongst my purest, most sacrosanct memories. You could say I continue watching baseball in order to honour that legacy; to keep alive the sensational freedom and enchantment of youth.

As a kid, I became besotted with this mesmerising game, and it soon became an integral part of my existence, part of my soul. I grew up with baseball. It's inside me, like a joyful, carefree flame lit in the exuberance of childhood. Now, I carry that flame, guarding it from the elements, by continuing to watch, continuing to love, and continuing to believe in America's National Pastime.

That faith is continually requited, because baseball, more than any other sport, actually loves us back. It affords us the routine opportunity to escape, for an indeterminate length of time, from the banalities and tribulations of everyday life. It encourages us to invest in something larger and more magical than ourselves, whilst still remaining relatable. And it incubates the burning fantasy that, long into life, we could still play the game; that, with just a lucky break here and there, we, too, could chase fly balls at Fenway or crack a wind-assisted homer at vaunted Wrigley Field. Alas, baseball teaches us never to give up on our hopes, dreams, and aspirations, because, one day, they may just bloom to fruition.

You see, baseball is the last bastion of purity in sports; the one sport that hasn't been molested by the king capriciousness of mankind. There's still an unspoiled beauty, an unadulterated wholesomeness, to baseball, which, rather like life itself, makes anything possible.

In baseball, there is no clock. Accordingly, we do not have to be cajoled or forced or manipulated or ushered around, as if our very interest is an inconvenient nuisance. The length of any baseball game is determined solely by the skill of men, rather than by the inhibiting egotism of Master Time. Baseball meanders, slaloms and unfurls slowly, befitting the mood of the lazy weekend man. We love it because, quite frankly, there is no telling when it may end. It holds the beguiling potential to be infinite in a finite world. 

Moreover, I adore the rhythm of baseball; the undulating tempo of its existence. One moment, there could be an explosive bang-bang double play, before all is punctuated by a longing midsummer pause of earth-shattering beauty, when only the winding susurration of the gathered crowd is audible. There is a wonderful choreography and a beguiling oscillation to baseball, which allows for outward conversation and inward contemplation in equal measure. It is, quite literally, a magical way to pass time. 

Just like immortal Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby, "I stare out the window and wait for spring," as baseball meanders through its annual winter cessation, because the game, as if by Divine yearning, naturally follows the seasons. It blooms with hope in the warming spring; it prospers and shows the best of itself in resplendent summer; and it shrivels and temporarily dies with abrupt sharpness in the fall, leaving us to face the bleak winter alone.

Yet, deep down, baseball is the warmest, most loyal companion we'll ever have, because every spring, without fail, it knocks on the door and asks us to rekindle our inner child and go play in the sun. 

Often, those playing are fathers and sons, brothers and sisters, uncles and nephews. Baseball, to many, is a family heirloom, passed down from generation to generation, binding siblings and filling conversational gaps where otherwise silence would dance. It simply unites people behind a common interest.

Even at the other end of the spectrum, in the multi-million dollar stadiums of Major League modernity, far away from the dusty sandlots of suburbia, baseball offers this chance to build relationships. During the season, we spend three or four hours every day watching the games of our favourite team, celebrating when our heroes celebrate, mourning when they mourn. We see them at their best and we watch them at their worst. We see them smile, laugh, wince, cry, grimace, focus, and rage. We become familiar with their mannerisms, routines and idiosyncrasies. And, ultimately, we're actively compelled, by a sense of companionship and togetherness, to root for them, to defend them, and to look out for them.

There's an intangible bond between baseball fan and baseball player that, for familiarity and intimacy, cannot be experienced in any other sport. If a guy does something great in the NFL, a huge helmet masks his reaction. Likewise in the NHL. How can we truly celebrate or commiserate with these people, if their facial expressions are obscured?

Part of the recurring wonder of sport is the powerful sense of human drama derived from looking into an athletes eyes during the heat of battle. I want to see his nose twitch in anger after a mistake. I want to see his teeth gleam from behind a broad smile after a win. I want to feel connected to the ongoing game.

Baseball, inasmuch as being the most sensual of sports, allows you to feel that bond, that spirit, that connection. You hear the crack of the bat; the thwack of the mitt; the grunt of the pitcher; and the scrape of flying dirt. You see the lush green pastures; the pristine white trimmings; and the hustle of men adhering to ancient strategy. You smell the salty peanuts; the processed pork; and the manicured leather of gloves and balls. You feel the warmth at your back; the contentment in your heart; and the joy in your soul, all derived from this most immersive of outdoor experiences. 

The actual game at hand is, overwhelmingly, one of acute failure, rather like life itself. In baseball, the greatest players, just like the greatest humans, are those best able to minimise failure and keep moving forward with optimism. It's a team sport played on an individual basis, with myriad battles between pitcher and hitter; hitter and defence; defence and data. On each of the three or four hundred pitches hurled during a game, nobody, anywhere, has more than a weak hunch as to what may actually occur. Nobody knows what will happen next, which is integral to the games wondrous allure.

As the legendary strategist Earl Weaver once explained, in baseball, "you can't sit on a lead and run a few plays into the sideline just to kill the clock. You've got to throw the ball over the damn plate and give the other man his chance. That's why baseball is the greatest game of them all." 

Indeed, this concept lies at the heart of baseball's claim to be the most valorous and noble of sports. It's made beautiful by a thorough lack of cynicism. In baseball, you can't take a knee, you can't conserve possession in the corner, and you can't roll around feigning injury just to steal some kind of contrived advantage. You have to swallow hard, muster real courage, and put it all out on the line. You have to give the other man his chance.

It doesn't matter if you're 7-foot tall or possess 300 pounds of brute muscle; baseball will welcome you, find a role for you, and give you a chance. The best players aren't separated from the worst by pure appearance alone, but by their natural ability to hit, throw, run and catch.

In this regard, hitting a round baseball with a round wooden bat, as it's fired toward you at 95mph from just over 60 feet away, all whilst attempting to decipher its location and velocity, is easily the single most difficult thing to do in sports. A batter has barely one quarter of a second in which to jam stupendous levels of mental and physical gymnastics, so the ultimate sight of him connecting, particularly for a long home run, is rather miraculous. It restores your faith in true human skill.

Ultimately, we love baseball because we see ourselves in it. The game is animated by human character and ingenuity, by thriving teamwork and endeavour. Nowhere on earth can triumph and tragedy be found in closer proximity than on the baseball diamond, where empathetic juxtaposition pours forth, creating beauty. 

Baseball shows us familiar people, with familiar stories and familiar worries that transcend one particular industry. The journeyman looking for any loophole just to survive one more year. The cocksure kid who still has a lot to learn. The in-prime superstar who can do no wrong. Every workplace has these characters, yet only baseball puts them on an emerald pedestal for all to see.

"In baseball, every day is a new opportunity," Bob Feller once said. "You can build off yesterday's success or put its failures behind and start over again. That's the way life is, with a new game every day, and that's the way baseball is."

Indeed, there is literally a new game every single day, from early-March to late-October, thanks to the most unique schedule anywhere in the sporting realm. Upon first discovering it, most people are utterly flabbergasted to learn that each MLB team plays 162 games during the regular season. Many outsiders, accustomed to the leisurely stroll of other sports, struggle to comprehend baseball teams playing practically every day, for three or four hours, from spring through to winter. Moreover, some find it astonishing that, by and large, most games are watched by at least 30,000 people, making baseball the most-attended sport on Earth. 

I adore the quirky resilience of the mammoth schedule, and find baseball's steadfast traditionalism totally compelling. Just imagine, for one moment, our pampered Premier League footballers playing every day for eight months. You can't. Even the mere notion is incomprehensible. Agents would moan. Players would cry about injuries and fatigue. Fans would bicker.

Yet baseball is different. It's far more attuned to the real world.

For more than a century, the grand old game of bat and ball has been woven into the very fabric of American life, providing escape and sustenance to the attendant masses. Through wars and depressions, civil rights battles and contemporary awakening, baseball was America's one constant; a deeply loyal companion who was always there when needed. 

When a global axis dedicated tremendous effort to extinguishing Hitler's malignant Nazism, still they played, at the behest of President Franklin D. Roosevelt, who deemed baseball integral to the nation's morale.

When New York and Boston had their innocence violated by the shuddering blow of terrorist-wrought tragedy, still they played, resembling a pleasant distraction, a pillar of strength, a soothing salve.

And when Jackie Robinson, that great avatar of American growth, suffered intolerance and bigotry, still they played, learning through the power of sport how to discern right from wrong in the quest for equality.

Accordingly, when detractors decry baseball for being too slow, conservative, or mundane, I cannot help but chuckle because, more than any other cornerstone of contemporary life, the game mirrors the inspiring story of American evolution.

Baseball was, and continues to be, a breeding ground for many of the big and brave ideas that helped forged the American dynasty. It was the first sport to insist on paid admittance; the first to embrace professionalism and unionism; and the first to master radio, television and the Internet in conveying a message to the masses. It was, quite simply, often at the cutting edge, blazing a trail and honing a legacy of which it can be truly proud.

In this manner, baseball hones a special connection to the glory days of yore. No other sport honours, maintains and trumpets its history with greater relish or passion. Baseball has inspired people to keep score, compile stats and store data for more than a century; this thirst for historical inquisition helping to keep alive the spectre of immortal greats such as Babe Ruth, Ted Williams and Joe DiMaggio. In baseball, we not only know that, on 3rd June, 1932, Lou Gehrig hit four home runs at Shibe Park against the Philadelphia Athletics, but we actually care. It actually means something. It gives us a yardstick, a barometer and a guideline by which to measure greatness. It's a contingent part of what makes this the most mystical and magical game known to man.

With such an immaculately preserved history and so clearly defined standards of excellence, baseball lends itself to some of the greatest bar-room debates of all-time. What was the better achievement; Pete Rose's 4,256 career hits, or Hank Aaron's 755 career home runs? How would Babe Ruth fare in this modern age of increased conditioning and advanced analytics? Who was the finest player ever to lace a pair of cleats?

With baseball, we have so much evidence with which to argue either way. We can manipulate statistics or call on historic anecdotes to substantiate pretty much any claim, because the trove of meticulously-collected information, stretching back eons in time, is so widely available.

Football doesn't maintain its history anywhere near as well, making debates about Pele and Lionel Messi as the greatest of all-time exercises in pure opinion, because there is very little reliable data on play beyond this millennium. 

In caring so sensitively for its own fertile history, baseball embraces timelessness and allows romance to blossom. After hundreds of thousands of games played by countless men and boys in innumerable stadiums throughout the land, sacrosanct standards of greatness have been truly established. A .300 batting average; 3,000 hits in a career; 300 wins for a pitcher. If you succeed in reaching these sacred plateaus, you become immortal and, thus, to achieve something truly monumental in baseball, akin to the feats of Ruth, Mays or Cobb, is to totally transcend the sporting realm. 

The players we watch today, in the year 2015, are not only playing against their fleshy contemporaries. Rather, they're playing against the beautiful record books and alongside the legendary ghosts. They're striving to win games, whilst simultaneously racing towards, and striving for, that graceful immortality we all dream of. 

The game itself is immortal. It can be played anywhere, by anybody, from derelict prison courtyards to palatial modern stadiums, so long as a ball and bat are readily available. In any era, at the end of every day, even if life was good or bad, three strikes still equalled an out, four balls still equalled a walk, and nine innings still constituted a game. There will always be 90 feet between bases, easily the most perfect feat of geometry in human history; and the mound will always be 60 feet and 6 inches away from home plate, maintaining a sharp competitive equipoise.

I love this. I love it all.

I love the fact that the strike zone, easily the most important part of real estate on the whole playing field, central to the entire premise of the game, cannot be seen and, to a large extent, is a figment of pure imagination, prone to the vagaries of human interpretation.

I love that each ballpark is totally unique, with personal idiosyncrasies making them distinct and enchanting, from the fabled facade of Yankee Stadium and the obstinate ivy of Wrigley Field, to the verdant heritage of Fenway Park and the architectural splendour of Camden Yards.

I love the terrific team names, often of fascinating etymology, that lend a certain majesty to the game and sound so clean, strong and evocative to the ear. Yankees. Dodgers. Giants.

I love that most of the greatest sports movies of all-time are about baseball, from Bull Durham and Eight Men Out to The Sandlot Kids and The Natural.

I love the literary pursuit of baseball, which has inspired some of the finest writers who ever lived, making it, unquestionably, the most poetically-endowed sport of them all.

I love the language of baseball, where home runs are dingers, bombs and moonshots; a pitcher throws heat, cheese and Uncle Charlie; and the greats have wheels to compliment their cannon.

I love the tremendous nicknames that enrich baseball history, from Shoeless Joe and Joltin' Joe, to Commerce Comet and Roger the Rocket.

I love the hair-raising, tear-jerking rendition of the National Anthem prior to Game One of the World Series, when the emotions of a year-long journey flood forth.

I love the Fall Classic itself, when cold and evocative nights are brightened by churning desire and bravery; when success and failure are separated by a hairs width; and the wildest nine-month expedition you'll ever experience culminates on the planet's grandest sporting stage. 

I love it all.

I love baseball.


It's the greatest game in the world.

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