Saturday, 24 May 2014

The Fracticality of Baseball

This afternoon I was struck by a thought. Maybe it's far off from what I usually write about; maybe not.

Baseball has a rhythm to it, a natural timing, a flow.

It's a different flow than other sports.

Hockey has a furious pace, and can change instantly. A team can go from a scoring chance to being scored upon in mere seconds. Football is 5 seconds of mania followed by 30 seconds of getting up and walking around and preparing for the next play. Basketball is near-constant motion, but it's different too. There's so much scoring that a make or a miss is part of the flow.

Critics of baseball say that it's boring and that nothing happens and that mostly there is standing around. The pitcher toes the rubber. Looks in. Gets the signal. Gets set. Winds up. And unleashes a baseball faster than a human should be able to throw a projectile of any kind. The catcher returns the ball to the pitcher, and the play begins again.

Most of the time, the ball is not hit in play.

But then, it is!

What follows next is a furious flurry of motion: fielders charging or chasing the ball as the batter sprints down the first base line. Most of the time, he is out at first. Sometimes, he is not! The ball is in the corner as the batter rounds first! Or, maybe the hard hit ball goes over the fence!

The ball ends up back at the pitcher. Who walks to the rubber, gets the sign, gets set.

Baseball is anticipation, marked by special moments in time. The action is so wonderful because it comes from the calm on the field. The sport is set up so that batters mostly fail; this makes success special.

In a game of baseball, it's true: mostly there is standing. The amount of so-called "action" is small, and irregularly spaced: we don't know when the line drive will be caught, or when it will go through the gap and to the wall. We don't know when we will see the greatest play of the day. Or something we have never seen before.

That's within a span of three or four hours. If we zoom in to any single inning, say 20 minutes, the ratio of action to inaction stays about the same. A few hits, maybe. Some foul balls which might look good for a moment or two. Maybe even a run. Or a home run. Maybe something we have never seen before.

Zoom in again. To a single pitch. 30 seconds. If we are following closely and know the pitcher, we might think we know what's coming, but really, we don't. All of the possible outcomes of a batted ball are still possible, from home run to double play to strikeout to spectacular diving catch. With the right pitcher on the mound, we might see a quality of pitch we thought impossible; the 105 mph fastball; the 80 mph angry knuckler; the 50 mph Zack Greinke slow curve. The gyroball. We might see something we have never seen before.

Zoom out again. To a homestand; a road trip. Periods of unremarkable punctuated by moments of unpredictable with the chance to witness the unforgettable. A 9th inning comeback. Back to back home runs. GIDP with the bases loaded. A squeeze bunt. A double steal. A home run, robbed by the centerfielder.

Zoom out some more. Now it's a week of 30 teams playing a hundred games. Mostly 1-4s, quality starts, usual saves, blowout victories. But among the masses, there are again those shooting star events. They are only predictable in that you know something somwhere is going to happen. Is it a player hitting home runs in 5 straight games? A no-hitter? A shortstop batting .700 for the week? Amidst the regular, there is always a trickle of irregular.

Zoom out even more. Now it is a whole season. The sample sizes are larger now; the remarkable events longer and larger. That filthy splitter that was so noticeable during that one at bat now fades into the mass of hundreds and thousands of filthy pitches. That first-time 20 game winner. That 32 game hitting streak! The team with 7 players hitting 20 home runs. The contender falling from first to third and missing the playoffs. That upstart playing .800 ball in September to seize the wild card! Moments from all teams over all months. Surely there is something we have quite never seen before.

Zoom out again. (Again?)

To my lifetime of watching and following baseball. It's impossible to remember it all, but without the regular there would be no irregular. Those moments: Randy Johnson vs. Ichiro to lead off the all star game. Mark McGwire hitting #62. Joe Carter hitting The Home Run. Game 6 of the 2011 world series. Kerry Wood striking out 20. Pedro Martinez in 1999 and 2000. Mike Trout in 2012. Barry Bonds breaking baseball by being too good. These special moments or games or seasons that stand out, out of the thousands of individual games that each contain thousands of individual moments.

I'm not done there. Baseball is alone in its timelessness, in the way that the numbers and letters on the back of a basebal card, in a box score, or now on fangraphs and baseball reference can make moments and seasons from long ago come alive. Zoom out to the history of the game, since it coalesced into the modern format just as the year was turning to 1900, and even beyond. Baseball fans  know and recognize those seasons and eras and moments, good and bad, that have defined the game over 114+ years in the same way that a key strikeout, diving catch and three run home run can define a single game. The Black Sox scandal. Babe Ruth restoring the faith and interest in the game by hitting large home runs and living larger. His called shot. Lou Gehrig's sudden retirement from the disease that would bear his name. Satchel Paige, Josh Gibson, and the story of black players who would never be allowed to reach the major leagues. Joe DiMaggio and 56. Jackie Robinson! Bobby Thompson and the Shot Heard Round the World! Willie Mays sprinting away from home plate to catch a ball 450 feet away, then whirling to throw to the infield. Roger Maris and Mickey Mantle and the quest for 61 in 61. Sandy Koufax dominating the 60s from atop the mound at Dodger Stadium. Bob Gibson 1.12 ERA. The Big Red Machine. Cal Ripken and The Streak. Sammy Sosa and Mark McGwire. Barry Bonds. It's too early to tell what will emerge from our era as The Story, The Thing That We Will Remember.

In the same time window, we see both the Pete Rose Good, and the Pete Rose Bad. With a different time perspective, it's not unlike a single desperate inning of ball. Down a run. Two outs. Time is running out, but it ain't over til it's over. The batter works the count. Fouls off pitches. Draws a walk! Hope is alive! And then that runner is promptly picked off first. Game over.

Baseball is fractal in time. Whether you are looking at 100 years of history, or one at bat, there are these qualities that emerge the same. Inaction vs. action. A flash of brilliance. Something we have seen a thousand times before happening again. The chance to see something you have never seen before.

No comments:

Post a Comment