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10/22/05

baseball...

As I write this, I'm watching the first game of the World Series. Into the 8th inning, it's a terrific game--good pitching with some home runs and base hits and scoring sprinkled in for good measure. It was a bit sad to see Roger Clemens knocked around in the early going and taken out after the 2nd inning. I am rooting for the White Sox, though, so it's not too sad.

The rookie closer for the Sox just sent a nasty 99 mph fastball right through the center of the plate past an empty swing by Jeff Bagwell.

One of the best things about baseball is that it is filled with moments in the game when there are confrontations of competition between two individuals. Between the pitcher and batter--who does their job better. Between a fielder and a baserunner--who does their job better. In every play of a baseball game, (except, maybe, during an intentional walk), there is a test of skill versus skill taking place.

Bagwell just struck out on another 99 mph burner. This time the pitcher was better.

At the same time those individual confrontations are going on, the game remains in essence a team sport. There are many times when a player must consider the game from a larger perspective, remain patient, momentarily lay aside his competitive instinct, and trust that his teammates will be able to win their individual confrontations, in order to achieve the overall best results for the team. The most obvious example of this is a hitter who chooses to take a walk rather than try to get a hit off a ball out of the strike zone. Sure, he could look heroic if he sends a tough pitch into the gap or over the wall. But, it's probably a better bet that he'll serve his team better by simply ensuring that he doesn't make an out and then give his teammates a chance to bring him home. Barry Bonds is the case-in-point of this principle. Regardless of his probable use of illegal performance enhancing drugs, Bonds became the most powerful offensive force in baseball since Babe Ruth not by increasing his home run numbers (though that was obviously a factor) but primarily by becoming so patient at the plate that he began receiving record numbers of walks every year. Because of him, the San Francisco Giants are among the league leaders in runs scored every year, even though nobody but Bonds is much better than an average major league hitter.

Scott Podsednik just hit a triple in the bottom of the 8th. The triple is the most exciting play in baseball except an at-bat with a game winning run on the line.

Baseball is also a game of beauty. The infield is a diamond stretching into a semi-circle outfield. And the whole field is simple, natural grass and dirt. (Artificial turf is a crime against baseball and is thankfully almost gone from the major leagues.)

That kid pitching for the White Sox is amazing. It's the first time I've seen him (and them) play this year. He can throw gas.

Even better, the field has a minimum of artificial markings, unlike a football field which is covered in chalk lines and numbers. Every baseball diamond simply has the two lines heading out from home plate to mark the foul lines. Yet, every field is also unique. They have unique dimensions and shapes for the outfield walls and even the way the grass is mowed creates a distinctive visual pattern that distinguishes every ballpark. What's more, the action is beautiful. It's amazing to see a baseball travel 60 feet from from the pitcher's hand at 88 mph and find out in the final 15 of those feet that the pitch was a curveball as it falls from the level of the batter's shoulders to just above his ankles. And, there's nothing more graceful in sports than to watch a smooth left-handed hitter like Will Clark or Ken Griffey Jr. take a long swipe through the strike zone. And, there are few things as awe-some as a right-handed power slugger like the aforementioned Jeff Bagwell (in his better days) or Albert Pujols crushing a fastball 400 feet into the leftfield upper deck.

The Chicago White Sox just beat the Houston Astros in game one of the 2005 World Series. I'm glad; especially for my uncle who is a lifelong Sox fan even though the last time they were in the World Series was the year before he was born. That's a long life of futile fandom.

My final comment is that baseball is a game of precision. Baseball apologists often make the claim that hitting a round baseball with a round bat is the most difficult skill in sport. I don't know if that's true--but it's gotta be up there. Especially if you consider the fact that the baseball is rarely coming straight toward the strike zone. Usually, even with a "straight" fastball, it is moving left or right, up or down (well, not up). I've even seen balls that started off moving right toward a right-handed hitter, but then finished up moving down and left away from him. And don't forget, as I mentioned before, most of the movement takes place in the last fifteen feet while the hitter has to decide whether and where to swing at the pitch. There's precision outside of batting too. Fielding a ball, turning a double play, and throwing out a runner all require careful skill. One of the most amazing feats I've seen in baseball was accomplished by Mark "Hit'n" Whitten, who is best known for once hitting four home runs in one game. But that's not what I'm thinking of. Instead, Whitten, who always had one of the strongest throwing arms in baseball, once threw out a runner at home plate from about two steps in from the warning track in right field. That would be incredible enough. But he actually threw the ball on the fly (i.e., without having it touch the ground) from where he was into the catcher's mitt.

There's lots else I could write about baseball. And, I hardly did it justice by what I've said (or how I've said it) here. If you want to read some fascinating stuff about baseball, I suggest The New Bill James Historical Baseball Abstract by Bill James. It begins with the most interesting (if not the most exhaustive) history of baseball I've come across. But, James is primarily a statistician (he now works for the Boston Red Sox) who has helped a lot of people think differently about what stats can tell us about baseball and baseball players. I certainly have a different view of baseball after reading the book (and other works by James and people in his circles like Rob Neyer). The book then explains how James uses stats and through the bulk of the text rates the top 100 players in history at each position. But, it's definitely not just a stats book or a book of lists. James has written a little (or large) blurb on every player. Sometimes they explain a statistical fact or principal, but most often they give personal or historical insight into the player and thus into the sport. Often they are amusing, sometimes they are touching, and always they are well-written and interesting.

So, let me sum up by saying: 1)read the book; 2)watch baseball.

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G.K. Chesterton...

"The Bible tells us to love our neighbors, and also to love our enemies; probably because they are generally the same people."