Baseball is one of the most unique sports. There are many things about baseball that make it unique. It’s the only one of America’s big four sports (baseball, basketball, football, & hockey) where the defense possesses the ball. It’s the only game where a player is not allowed to reenter the game once he’s removed. It’s the only game where the managers wear the same uniforms as the players they manage. And on and on and on we could go. Here are what we think are the ten best things about the game that make it so unique (and great).
Out of Play Is Fair Game
Anyone Can Play
Each Stadium Is Unique
Length of the Season
No Comeback Is Impossible
Cannot Run Out The Clock
All stadiums have foul territory. Some, like Oakland Alameda County Coliseum, have an abundance. Some, like Wrigley Field, have very little. Regardless of how much or how little there is any ball hit in the air in foul territory can still result in an out if the defense catches it. Unlike balls hit in fair territory the defense can choose not to catch a ball hit in foul territory without the player safely reaching base or any baserunners having the opportunity to advance. Balls can also go into foul territory after passing first or third base as long as they hit the ground in fair territory and still be considered in play. Really, the entire field between the stands is a part of the playing field.
While being 6’4″ and 220 pounds has its advantages in most athletic endeavors it does not guarantee success any more than being an average size person guarantees you won’t have success in baseball. The smaller player can thrive as much as the larger player. Dustin Pedroia (5’9″, 175), Andrew McCutchen (5’10”, 195), and Jimmy Rollins (5’7″, 175) have all won MVP awards in the last ten years. And Tim Lincecum (5’11”, 170) won back-to-back Cy Young Awards in 2008 and 2009. They also have a recent history of shining brightest on the biggest stages. David Eckstein (5’6″, 170) was the 2006 World Series MVP while Placido Polanco (5’9″, 190), Marco Scutaro (5’10”, 185), Cody Ross (5’11”, 195), and Ivan Rodriguez (5’9″, 205) have all won LCS MVPs in the last ten years. As a general rule taller and more built players are not as quick or agile as their smaller counterparts so they tend not to be able to play the middle infield positions as well. They also generally don’t possess the speed that is preferred by managers for the lead off spot. Anyone of any size who possesses a strong work ethic coupled with above average ability to hit, play defense, and run the bases can excel at the highest levels of baseball.
All baseball fields have identical infields. Each pitcher’s mound is 60’6″ away from home plate and the pitching rubber is 10 inches above home plate. There are exactly 90 feet between each base. That is where the regulations and similarities end. The outfield areas and walls in both fair and foul ground vary from stadium to stadium. This uniqueness has made a few parks become some of the most iconic stadiums in North America. Imagine Fenway Park without the Green Monster or the “Triangle” in center field. Picture Wrigley Field without the ivy on the outfield wall or the basket that hangs on the top of the outfield wall or the bullpens sitting just outside the foul lines in the outfield. PNC Park has a 21 foot high right field fence in honor or Pittsburgh Pirate great Roberto Clemente. A home runs to right field at AT&T Park wouldn’t be the same without McCovey cove. It wouldn’t be as much fun watching a center fielder chase a deep fly ball at Minute Maid Park without Tal’s Hill. Some of these quirky features are the result of limited space but others are just there because, well, because they can be. I use to not be a fan of this but over time I have come to love this aspect of the game.
Baseball is a sport that cherishes its stats, unlike any other sport. If you don’t agree ask Hank Aaron or Barry Bonds. Aaron received hundreds of death threats as he approached Babe Ruth’s all-time home run record. Many people want asterisks by all of Barry Bonds’ record because of his steroid use. Why do people take these numbers so seriously? Because the game today is basically the same as it was played in the early 1900’s and before (I’m talking about rules of the game, distance between bases, pitcher’s mound, etc) that it is easy to look at two players who played 50 or even 100 years apart and come to a conclusion of who’s seasons was better by comparing batting averages, home runs, rbi, stolen bases, runs scored, ERA, wins, strikeouts and other very simple and readily available stats. We know, however, that games played in different eras considered different skills to be valuable and thus players would or would not have attempted to attain an outcome. For instance, Ty Cobb famously said in response to Babe Ruth said he never tried to hit home runs. Compare that to the 1970s Baltimore Orioles whose manager Earl Weaver’s strategy could be summed up by “Pitching, defense, and the three-run homer.” To compare these two distinct types of ball players sabermetricians have developed such stats as WAR, BABIP, wOBA, ERA+, K/9, WHIP and a whole plethora of others that attempt to compare the player to other plays during his playing days. The more stats that we have and the more we understand what these stats tell us the better we can understand how effective players are at playing the game.
Baseball might play the most games of all four of the major US sports but its season is the second shortest when measured by days. The difference is baseball is played every day. To me, that makes it great. You cannot stand on yesterday’s accomplishments too long and you cannot hang your head because of yesterday’s failures. You enjoy the day and move on. Today’s 4 for 4 can turn into tomorrow’s 0 for 4 and vise versa. Yesterday you lost 10-2 today you can win 4-0. One of the beauties of this game is it requires a commitment to consistent focus or even the greatest teams can lose more games than they win. The grind, as its often called, is how this game separates the men from the boys. It’s not as much about brute force or strength as it is about mental toughness. 162 games can wear down anyone who isn’t prepared for the road ahead.
A player can hit a leadoff triple in the top of the eighth inning and not score a run. You can endure three outs while he’s trying desperately to get home and not make it. He can see teammates strikeout, groundout, or flyout without giving him a chance to score. You may have to experience multiple pitching changes and commercial breaks all the while biting your nails waiting for him to score. If you were lucky enough to watch Game 7 of the 1991 World Series between the Atlanta Braves and the Minnesota Twins you experienced one of the most nerve-racking World Series games in history. A 10-inning 1-0 walk-off win by the Twins. It became apparent early on that the first team to score a single run might be World Series champs. Games and situations like that happen almost nightly in baseball yet those uninitiated may not realize the intensity of the situation or they may be craving instant gratification where the outcome is immediate and definitive. Baseball makes you earn it. You have to have the patience and strength to endure in order to enjoy the thrill of victory or know the agony of defeat. Regardless of the outcome, you get to experience it all over again tomorrow (see #6).
While baseball is a team sport it is essentially a series of one on one matchups. Hitters are one on one with the pitcher. When a ball is put in play the fielder is in a one on one matchup with the ball. Baserunners are in a one on one matchup with the fielder trying to get them out. If a batter strikes out he has to take the walk of shame back to the dugout. When a fielder makes an error the entire stadium sees it and a big E6 is put on the scoreboard. If a runner makes a baserunning error his mistake will most likely be played on the jumbotron for the viewing pleasure of all 40,000 fans in attendance. There is no escaping accountability either from your team, the fans both in attendance and watching on tv and the entire fan base of your particular team. The ultimate display of accountability though has to go to the pitcher. An ineffective pitcher has to stand on the mound while his manager slowly walks out to meet him only to retrieve the ball from him so he can give it the pitcher relieving him. Then he has to walk back to the dugout. No escape.
One thing that is unique to baseball, at least among the big 4 American sports, is it has no time constraints. Each team is allotted 27 outs. This means that it is never physically or mathematically impossible for a losing team to come back and win the game, regardless of how improbable. A team can be down 7 runs in the bottom of the ninth with two outs and their worst hitter at the plate and there is still a chance they can win. Improbable yes, but not impossible. In fact, two teams have scored 13 runs with two outs though neither team was behind at the time nor was it the ninth inning.
One of Yogi Berra’s most famous sayings is, “It ain’t over til it’s over.” The reason no comeback is impossible is because baseball has no artificial time constraints. Instead of using a clock to determine when the game is over each team is allotted 27 outs. If a team has not used all 27 outs the opposing team has to throw the ball over the plate and give the other team it’s chance to win. If you win the game it’s not because time ran out while you were ahead it’s because you scored more runs than the other team with the same amount of opportunities. What’s more American than that?
I believe that the home run is the greatest spectacle in all of sports. Each year, the day before the All-Star game, 40,000 fans pack a venue to watch eight of the biggest and strongest men in the sport attempt to hit the ball as far as they can. The most spectacular display ever put on was when Josh Hamilton hit a record 28 home runs in the first round of the 2008 Home Run Derby at old Yankee Stadium. One might think that seeing a man hit one ball after another over the fence might get boring but its, actually, the opposite. There is something majestic about a home run. The drama of the home run is something unmatched as well. A home run is possible on every single pitch in every single game ever played. Yet, when looked at through that lens, is a rare occurrence. You never know when or where or by whom a home run will be hit. From a leadoff homer in the first game of the season to a bottom of the ninth inning walk-off to win the World Series, here’s to you Joe Carter, the home run still and will always remain king.