Baseball 101

by

All my life, I’ve been obsessed with sports. While I’ve also dabbled in reading and music, I always come back to athletic competition. As a kid I was always doing something sports related; whether that meant running the pick and roll with my dad on our backyard hoop, playing one person baseball games in the backyard or even organizing my baseball cards into “teams” to compete with one another, I had a one track mind. With that in mind, sometimes I take it for granted that sports were such a big part of my life and I assume that everyone is as nerdy and sports fluent as I am. The other characteristic I’ve had most of my life is a desire to include and educate others; whether they wanted it or not.
Baseball is a relatively simple sport, but some of the finer points are a bit more complicated. So in order to help anyone who is new to the game, let’s dive right in with the basics.
History: According to the legend, baseball was invented by future Civil War general, Abner Doubleday in 1839 in Cooperstown New York. This has since been proven false, but the legend was firmly entrenched to the point that the Baseball Hall of Fame is located in Cooperstown. In reality, archaic forms of the game were played across the Northeast beginning in 1791 with a game similar to what we see today taking shape in 1846 in the first organized game under relatively modern rules. In its early stages, the game featured players playing bare handed, no protective equipment, legal soak outs (hitting the runner with a thrown ball) and even the ability to record an out by catching the ball off the first bounce. While players began wearing gloves in 1870, they were little more than padded mittens, and it wasn’t until 1920 that players began wearing a webbed glove somewhat resembling those worn by modern players. Later, batting helmets, catching equipment, jumbotrons, t-shirt cannons and sushi lounges were added to the game, slowly shaping it into what we see today. Fan Rule: The importance of your team’s history is equal to the inverse of their current success. If your favorite team has a history of failure, but is successful now, all history is forgotten; the only thing that matters is where things are now. If your team is hitting a down stretch, the focus should be on the past. “We may be terrible now, but look at our history!” If neither the past nor present is particularly glorious, you revert to the extras your team offers: Good looking uniforms, great ballpark food or the attractiveness of your fan base.

The Leagues:
National League:
The older of the two leagues, the National League or “Senior Circuit” was founded in 1876 to replace the original “National Association of Professional Base Ball Players”. The National League still allows pitchers to bat for themselves, leading to more strategic managerial moves in an effort to reduce the negative impact of the inferior batting of the pitcher.
American League:
Originally founded as a minor league, the American League as we know it did not come into existence as a recognized major league until 1901 when A.L. owners exploited the league’s lack of a maximum salary by luring National League stars to their teams with offers of higher salaries. For the first 2 seasons, the league operated as separate and rival entities with their own independent schedules and champions. It wasn’t until 1903 that the 2 league reached a peace agreement and instituted a post season matchup between the 2 league champions to determine one “World Champion”.
Designated Hitter: The American League allowed pitchers to bat for themselves until 1973 when a “Designated Hitter” was added as an attempt to boost scoring and attendance. Originally done on an experimental basis, the change led to a 23 percent jump in scoring and a 27 percent jump in attendance for American League clubs. Needless to say, the “experimental” tag was dropped and the A.L. has played with the Designated Hitter rule ever since. Fan Rule: Whichever league your team plays in is the superior league. If you are a National League fan, your team plays “purer baseball” and clearly stays more true to the original game. If your team is in the American League, you are obligated to make sarcastic comments about how exciting it is to watch pitchers flail wildly at the ball every time they come to bat. (Writer’s Note: the fact that there is not a consistent rule regarding the Designated Hitter is ridiculous. It would be like half the teams in the NFL not allowing field goal attempts or having different point values for touchdowns.)

Not your traditional ‘peanuts and Cracker Jacks’

The Field:
The pitcher’s mound is precisely 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate, with bases arranged in a diamond formation 90 feet apart. The distance to the fences varies from stadium to stadium with Fenway Park’s right field being the shortest at 302 feet and Minute Maid Park in Houston’s center field the longest, at 436 feet. While every stadium is required to have 2 dugouts, 4 bases, a pitcher’s mound and fences, no two stadiums are exactly alike. Some stadiums are better than others, due to either the quality of the stadium, history around the park or even the high quality of the ballpark food and drink offered.  In fact, Fan Rule : A true fan values their stadium, and views it as superior to any other. Cubs and Red Sox fans are notoriously adept at following this particular fan rule. No Matter what you say about their team, the conversation will inevitably come back to their stadium and it’s superiority.

The Season:
The baseball season started as a 70 game jaunt with 10 games against each of the other 7 teams. As the league sizes expanded and profits grew, the season lengthened to 154 games in 1904 bounced back and forth between 140 and 154 and then jumped to it’s current length of 162 games in 1961. Originally teams played only against their own league, with 1 team from each league advancing straight to the World Series to determine a champion. In 1969, a second playoff team was added to each league, with the top 2 battling it out for the right to go to the World Series. In 1993, teams were split into 3 divisions with a Wild Card team being added and finally in 2012 a second wild card was added to each league in an effort to add excitement and further boost profits. In 1997, interleague play was introduced, with teams from the American League playing their divisional counterparts from the National League (East vs. East, West vs. West, Central vs. Central). This was expanded over the last eighteen seasons to include games against other divisions, with at least one interleague series being played at all times.

The Officials:
The rules of the game are enforced by four umpires, one assigned to each base. During the playoffs, Major League Baseball adds two umpires to the foul lines to more accurately judge plays in the outfield. (An important side note to remember: despite its name, any ball that hits the foul pole or foul line is considered fair.)  Umpires are responsible for calling balls and strikes, fair balls vs. foul balls and generally keeping things in order. As with other sports, the very nature of baseball mandates a bit of an adversarial relationship between players and officials. When there is as much pride and financial gain at stake, tensions are bound to be high. Despite the general feeling toward them, umpires are remarkably adept at performing their duties, with the worst umpire getting 85% of ball/strike decisions correct. 
The Rules:  Most of the rules of baseball are pretty basic, but there are a few that are less than clear. The Balk Rule: The rules a pitcher must follow are fairly complex, and if any of the rules are not followed, the umpire will call a ‘balk’. If there are no runners on base, an automatic ball is called; if there are runners on, each runner moves forward one base. Many actions can result in a balk: the pitchers stopping their motion halfway through a pitch, faking a throw to first base or throwing a pitch before coming to a set position. The most common violation is  throwing to first base after starting their forward trajectory to home plate. The strangest balk of all time is undoubtedly when Giants hurler Stu Miller was pitching in the 1961 All-Star Game in Candlestick park. In the middle of his windup, a strong gust of wind blew through the stadium, causing him to wobble and fall out of his motion, resulting in a balk.While Stu had a solid career with more than 100 wins and 100 saves in his career, he was best known for his ill-fated battle with San Franciscan weather. Part of what makes baseball fun, and also drives fans crazy is the subjectivity of most of the rules. While the rules are allegedly set in stone, each umpiring crew enforces them in slightly different ways. The variations are extreme enough that players and managers study their tendencies and do their best to exploit them. If an umpire is known for having a wide strike zone, pitchers will pitch further and further off the plate to see how far they can go. Managers know which umpires have a quick temper and will do their best to stay away from arguments. The subjectivity brings us to FAN RULE:Any close call made against your favorite team was clearly wrong, regardless of video evidence or common sense. You are obligated as a fan to inform the umpire of your displeasure similarly to how you would speak to a violent criminal. And:   FAN RULE: Any close pitch called against your team was called incorrectly, regardless of consistency or previous results. It’s important to remember that your favorite players have a complete mastery of the strike zone. If they felt as though the ball were a strike, they would have either swung, or calmly stepped out of the box. By arguing, they are doing us a service in showing how incompetent the umpire really is, at this point, you will refer to the previous Fan Rule. It’s important to note that some umpires ascribed to this theory regarding some of the better hitters in the game’s history. In an article about facing Ted Williams,  Virgil Trucks tells a perhaps apocryphal tale about a game between Detroit and the Red Sox in Boston: “Joe Ginsberg was catching and Williams came up and walked on four straight pitches, and Joe’s questioning the umpire about it. On the last one, he said, ‘Bill’—Bill Summers was the umpire. He said, ‘Bill, don’t you think that ball was a strike?’ And Bill said to Joe, ‘Mr. Ginsberg, Mr. Williams will let you know when it is a strike.’”
Emotions of the Season:

Sit back, relax and enjoy the game.

As mentioned earlier, baseball has aridiculously long season: 162 games spread out between the beginning of April and the start of October. It’s easy to chalk up a bad game, series or a week to a small sample size, and some people will tell you to stay calm, since you won’t win or lose the pennant in a single stretch. I am not one of those people. I live and die with every win or loss, every blown lead and every stupid error. For this very reason, I spend the majority of my season talking myself down off the ledge. My internal conversations are a series of encouragement and positive thinking “It’s okay, they’ll win tomorrow” “The other team was just hot, they won’t sustain that.” Even with that effort, I can’t help but care too much about every day of the season. FAN RULE: Every game is vital- a single victory is cause for over the top celebration, and a single loss should trigger feelings of despair and doubt about your very choice to follow your team. 

Choosing a team:
My dad is a White Sox fan, his dad was a White Sox fan and my son, unfortunately for him, will hopefully be a White Sox fan as well. It’s something that was passed down multiple generations and I never really had a choice in the matter. While geography and family history are the normal reasons to start following a team, they are far from the only ways. Some people choose based on a team’s uniforms, others really like the food at a stadium. A lot of the time, you grow up without a favorite team and choose one that your friends like as a way to fit in. As distasteful as it is, a lot of people are frontrunners who want to cheer for winners and feel good about themselves. No matter how you arrive at your choice, it’s important to remember a key point FAN RULE: No matter how you chose your favorite team, it was the best method and you should defend your choice to the deathIt’s vital that you view your choice as the right one at all times. Equally important is the ability to scoff at the path that others took to their selection. An example “Oh, you’re a Giants fan? I guess if you don’t have anything else going for you, that’ll have to do.”
Attending a game:
The most enjoyable thing about baseball is attending a game in person. The sounds, sights and smells in around the ballpark are among the most amazing things in life. The way that the crowd buzzes after a great play, boos the umpire in unison or goes from silence to explosion with the crack of a bat stimulates your senses like little else. The smell of grilling hot dogs, popcorn and a season’s worth of sour spilled beer somehow mixes into a wonderful aroma that, amazingly, can’t be bottled. My favorite feeling, though, is the joy I get from my first glimpse of the field. After waiting in the line to get in, going to the bathroom, grabbing a program and finally finding my section, that first view is what I remember most. The perfect way the infield merges into the expertly groomed outfield grass, which is cut at different angles to make patterns and designs, the crisp, clean look of the infield lines and bases and the thousands of fellow fans all dressed in team gear and bustling around the stands; it gives me chills just thinking about it.
Obviously, most of my ‘rules’ are meant to be broken, but there’s one rule that must be followed with absolute strictness. When it comes to baseball, block everything out. Grab a hot dog and a drink, maybe get some peanuts or popcorn and then breathe in the atmosphere and enjoy the experience. Don’t worry about steroid usage, Tommy John surgeries, contract squabbles or whether your favorite players actually care about the game. Enjoy the goofy pitchers in the bullpen who throw seeds at each other and put bubble gum on each other’s hats and all the other pranks they play. Laugh at the mascot as he tries to get the grumpy guy to stand up and dance. Let yourself be amazed by diving catches, 450 foot home runs and laser arms from the outfield. Enjoy the goofy fact that managers wear uniforms and that most pitchers won’t step on foul lines out of superstition. Above all else, buy yourself some peanuts and Cracker Jacks and make sure to root, root, root for the home team. 
Play Ball.

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