How Baseball Works: Three Versions — An exercise in perspective.

By August 16, 2015Education, Writing

An explanation, three times. An exercise in perspective. An experiment in engaging different philosophies of teaching — different ways of constructing, construing, organizing knowledge; drawing on explanatory details from different origins.

To begin: a (perhaps deceptively) simple example: the game of baseball.

1. From first principles.

Baseball is a sport; a sport is a form of athletic contest wherein teams of humans compete against one another. The overt objective of these contents is to win. But important secondary objectives include showing off the physical capabilities of the human body, displaying the camaraderie and teamwork that arise from a group working in concerted effort, and providing enjoyment-by-proxy for numbers of local “fans” who invest part of their identity in their “home team” and derive pleasure and feelings of superiority from watching “their” team succeed.

Baseball is played with two teams that face off against one another. The basic format is this: for a set period one team plays offense while the other plays defense, then they switch. Each of these cycles is called an inning, and a game normally lasts nine innings. The primary objective is to get players to complete a journey around a diamond (specified by four “bases”) and by doing so score points called “runs”.

To get a run, one player must go around all the bases and come back to the starting one, called “home plate”. The way they advance is by hitting a ball, thrown to them across home plate by a “pitcher” on the opposing team, with a wooden bat. The essential showdown is between pitcher and batter (a player becomes “batter” whenever it’s their turn to hit the ball) but there are many people to a team. As many as 25–30 total, in fact, but nine take the field at a given time while playing defense, spread out all around the diamond (the “infield”) and outfield (beyond it), who attempt to track down the ball if/when it’s hit.

If, after the current batter hits the ball, a defender catches the ball before it hits the ground, or gets it to one of their fellow defenders on one of the bases before the batter (who, after hitting the ball, commences running around the bases) reaches that base, they can get that player out and cut short their journey around the bases. This is all rather more simple to follow when observed in real-time, as the game actually unfolds rather slowly.)

The batter at the plate gets three chances, or strikes, to hit the ball; if he misses three times before hitting the ball, that also gets him “out” (though he can stave off the third strike by hitting a ball foul — making contact, but hitting with a glancing strike so that the ball goes out of play, outside the boundaries of the legal field of play) which means his turn to hit is over. A strike is counted either when the batter swings and misses or when the pitch goes directly over the plate between the knees and armpits of the batter and he fails to swing. Since this is difficult, the pitcher also gets several chances to fail. He can throw up to three pitches outside the “strike zone” which, if the batter doesn’t swing, count as “balls”; on the fourth errant “ball” thrown, the batter is granted a “walk” — free advancement to first base.

Each half of the inning ends after the defending team manages to get three outs. As long as the offensive team keeps getting players onto the bases, more players can come to the plate and make further attempts to hit the ball. Each hit advances the players already on base because everyone already on base runs as far as they can, depending on how far the hit goes and how adeptly it is “fielded” by the defenders. The “lineup” of each team’s nine hitters keeps cycling through as the game progresses inning by inning, so each player typically gets 3–5 “at bats” — chances to get on base — during the entirety game.

There are numerous exceptions and complications to these rules, which one may only learn of through extended study and observation.

2. By metaphor or analogy.

Baseball is one of the most popular sports in America. Not in the world though; it’s no soccer.

It’s like most team sports, in that two teams are pitted against one another.

Games last a bit longer than basketball games, around the same length as football games…not as long as cricket, I don’t think.

The pace of action is much slower than that of basketball, and requires far less physical exertion and constant movement than soccer.

It tends to have fewer natural commercial breaks than football, since there aren’t frequent timeouts or clock pauses between spurts of play. (Breaks are more regular though — after each side of an inning).

The players, on average, are a bit older than those of most other major sports. This may be because baseball requires a high level of finesse and technical expertise (e.g. accuracy and fast reflexes) but one can achieve success without (necessarily) an incredible degree of raw athleticism, as might be required in e.g. basketball or swimming, because there are a great many diverse roles and niches in which a baseball player can excel.

In general baseball is known as somewhat of a slow game, typified by the idea of an intellectual battle; the main duel being, after all, between two people — pitcher and batter — at any given time, rather than between the entirety of both sides at once; and that duel is often mental.

Baseball can be very much a guessing game and a battle of wills…

3. In terms of the spectator’s experience; narrated action; by deduction; impressionistic.

You sit and you look towards the field; you note a dusty diamond with a white square of rubber at each corner, grass stretching out past it a few hundred feet.

Nine players take the field, arrayed throughout this playing surface surrounded by cascading tiers of fans, some watching intently, others enjoying beer, hotdogs, sun.

One player stands in the middle of the diamond on a dirt mound, another crouches sitting down behind the corner that’s furthest from the field, at the origin point of this 90-degree grid.

A player in a differently colored uniform and plastic helmet approaches that same corner. He stands slightly in front of the crouching player, and just beside the rubber square (which actually protrudes toward the rear such that it looks more like a silhouette of a house).

This player holds a bat that looks to be maybe thirty inches long and four in diameter. He hoists it up above and behind his shoulder, tip pointed back around his head.

Once in place, the player on the dirt mound takes a small white ball and hurls it towards the waiting oversized leather glove of his crouching counterpart (who flashes him a hand signal, covert…yes, they’re in cahoots).

The ball zings across the square a couple feet in front of the batter, at about the height of his waist. He watches it fly past, tracking it with his eyes as it smacks into the waiting leather glover of the catcher.

The catcher returns the ball to the pitcher, and after a moment the pitcher throws the ball again in much the same way, though at slightly slower velocity; with a subtly curved trajectory. This time, the man with the bat swings with all his might at the ball as it approaches.

Bat makes contact with ball, but slightly above the ball’s center, sending it bouncing into the dirt. It takes two hops, then one of the players midway out in the dirt diamond, between two of the other plastic squares, strides to the right, gathers the ball up in his glove, and throws it quickly to another player who is tagging the rightmost square with his foot.

The batter has been running toward that square since immediately after making contact, but the throw reaches it before he does. The player already there catches the ball with his foot touched to the square, and an official dressed in black, observing from the side, makes a decisive slashing motion with his arm after which the running batter stops short and heads back to the slightly underground bench of his waiting teammates off to the side of the field, beneath the tiers of crowds in which you sit.

Leave a Reply