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Mar 19 2000: What To Tell Your Friends Who Think Baseball is Boring/Wimpy

Alright, if you’re one of those people who doesn’t understand baseball, who thinks it’s boring and nothing ever happens, here’s what you need to know if you’re ever kidnapped and forced to watch a game and would like to at least try to enjoy it. George Carlin aside, if what you need to get hooked into the drama of the game is a more aggressive, war-like interpretation, here it is.

1. Think of it as a drama. Remember what you’re watching is a drama, but it’s only one episode of a long-running tv show. If you’re watching the game on tv, turn it off and put on the radio to hear the play by play. The radio announcers tend to explain more of what they see, rather than assuming you saw it, too, and will give more backstory. Listen on a small radio even if you’re at the game, and/or have a friend with you who knows the teams and can tell you the background on each player. You will want to know who the characters are and what’s happened before and your friend will fill you in during the commercials.

2. Follow the game. There are patterns that emerge in every game, that you can see if you keep a scorecard. Look at what a particular batter has done, how his story develops over the course of the game… as well as what particular fielders have done.

3. Understand the duel. Think of each at-bat as a duel between the pitcher and the batter. It may look like nothing is happening, but have you ever watched kick boxing? Same thing here, a lot of dancing around each other, then suddenly, wham! Two warriors face off against each other, each with different weapons and skills, feinting, feeling each other out.

In this case, the batter goes alone to face the pitcher, who has his whole posse behind him (the fielders) to back him up if he makes a mistake. Think of the lone hero going out at high noon to face the bad guy and his gang (that is, if the team you are rooting for is up to bat). Each face off is a man to man battle between two champions.

The pitcher would love to knock the batter out with a strike out. The batter can knock the pitcher out with a home run or hurt him with a hit. The more pitches are thrown, the greater the suspense.

The first pitch is important. If it comes in as a strike, the pitcher is ahead, and taking charge of the batter. But if the first pitch is a ball (and the batter didn’t swing and miss), the pitcher has lost his advantage.

When a batter has two strikes on him, he may try to do what they call “protecting the plate,” where he’ll just try to get the bat on the ball, rather than be called out on strikes. He may foul off pitches into the seats, or may get overmatched and miss, striking out. Or he may get the ball in play.

When the pitcher has three balls on a batter, sometimes the batter will be given the “green light” to swing, because you can be pretty sure the ball will be in the strike zone. Especially if the batter is a home run hitter and there are men on base–because if he hammers a home run out of the park, it counts for a lot. On the other hand, if the batter isn’t a power hitter, or if the pitcher hasn’t got great control, they may signal the batter to just hang on, and see if ball four comes. (On four balls, the batter ‘walks’ to first base.)

And sometimes the pitching goes to a “full count,” where it is both 3 balls and 2 strikes. Neither the pitcher nor the batter can afford to make a mistake. Who will win the face off?

The three main weapons the pitcher uses on the batter are speed, location, and movement. There are tons of names for pitches, and you don’t need to know them all right now. The important thing to watch is how the pitcher tricks the batter. Speed can work two ways. Sometimes a fastball comes in so fast, the batter swings too late to hit it well. Other times, what looks like a fastball comes, but it’s actually a slower pitch (this one called a change up), causing the batter to swing too early. Or maybe he thinks the ball is coming to a certain spot, but it curves, dips, or moves while in flight, fooling the batter into swinging at empty air. (Curve ball, slider, sinker ball, cutter, breaking ball, etc…) Or maybe the pitcher has such good location that he can get the ball right on the edges of the strike zone, where the pitches are called strikes, but aren’t sweet to hit or where they look like balls. Most pitchers use a combination of these techniques.

4. The baserunner is both spy and hostage.
If each at bat is a two-man duel between pitcher and batter, when there are men on base, it becomes more complicated. Now it’s a combination of a hostage situation and a spy infiltration. The diamond is the HQ of the team on the field. Once a man is on base, it’s like he’s a spy who has broken into their stronghold. His goal is to get deeper and deeper in, and then ultimately return “home” safely. His teammates are going to do what they can to advance his mission and keep him safe, but the guy is also potentially like a hostage. A wrong move by the subsequent batters can kill the runner. As the number of outs goes up, so does the suspense. Can they get him out alive, before it’s too late?

Having a runner on base cramps the pitcher’s style, because now instead of just facing his one duel opponent, he’s got to keep track of another guy. If he takes too long with his wind-up, the runner will steal second base, so he has to “pitch from the stretch” (using a short wind up) which may mess up his accuracy.

The batter who is up may take a different tack now than he would if he were first up. For example, if he hits a fly ball to a certain spot, the runner can advance. That’s why it’s called a “sacrifice fly”–he gives himself up to further the cause. But as usual, things are stacked against the batter: the runner needs to advance three bases, but you get only three outs. Maybe he bunts (bops the ball into a slow roll on the grass the infielders will have to scramble to pick up), or maybe he’s a power hitter and tries for the home run. It depends on the player and the pitcher.

The pitcher, with his team behind him, is probably hoping for a ground ball to the shortstop, so he can get both runners out with a double play. Kill two birds with one stone, as it were. But he’s doing more than just hoping, he’s throwing pitches that should lead to that situation, low, but not so low as to walk the batter. Some pitchers are called “ground ball pitchers” because they are good at this.

The pitcher is also allowed to do other things to try to erase the runner, like the “pick off.” If the runner is edging toward second base, the pitcher can throw the ball to the first baseman, and catch the runner off the base. If the runner is trying to steal second, or realizes he is being picked off, he can try to run to second, but then the first baseman will usually throw to the second baseman who tags the runner out.

5. Predict what will happen.
Make bets with your friends about what will happen. The more you watch and get to know the players, even in the course of a game, the better you will be able to guess what they’ll do. And the better you understand the strategy going on underneath all those tossed balls, the better you can predict what should happen. You already know to look for the batter to protect the plate when there’s a full count, but to challenge the pitcher when it’s 3 balls and no strikes.

Take what they call the “hit and run.” You can be pretty sure the runner is going to run no matter what happens if it’s two outs, and the batter has a full count. If he swings and misses, the inning is over, so there’s no reason to stay on first base. If he pops it up and it’s caught, same thing. If he walks, you’re going to second anyway. And if he gets a piece of it and it stays fair, then you can make it all the way to third, or even to home, if you get a good head start. So as soon as the pitcher releases the ball, the runner will be going. The fielders will know that, too, but they want to be in the best position to end the inning–are they playing shallow or deep? Is the batter a righty or a lefty? It’s a high stakes situation for the pitcher, who doesn’t want to walk the batter and then have two men on base, but who doesn’t want to throw a strike right in the middle of the plate and suffer a home run. He has to either overpower the batter with speed, fool him with movement, or fool him with an off-speed change up. But if the batter expects the change up, it could be as bad as the fastball. So it comes back down to the duel–the chess match, where each man is trying to outguess the other. It should keep you guessing, too.

6. Decide who to root for. You’ll have much more fun if you know who you’re pulling for. Did you bet money on a team? Do you always root for the underdog? Do you want to root for the home team so you can get into all the cheers and crowd participation stuff? Who are the good guys, and who are the bad guys for you?

7. Ignore the previous statement. Or don’t root for one side over the other. Sometimes, the best thing about baseball really is seeing the plays, not in who ultimately accumulated the most points that day. As in a kung fu movie, for example, you can appreciate the moves of both fighters, hero and villain. Only in baseball, the devastating moves come in the form of a fine-tuned pitch, an incredible leaping catch, pure speed and chutzpah on the basepaths, a sweet swing that sends a ball four hundred feet from where it started. Ultimately, for me, baseball is a competition of skills, both mental and physical, but not a fight. (Football though, as George Carlin used to say, now that’s a war.) But there you have it. If you need the battle analogy, now you’ve got one!

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