461. Baseball: the Basics

March 19, 2015

The genius of organized sports is in having players and teams show their prowess by taking turns at offense and defense, attack and protection, and in the case of baseball, batting and running, pitching and fielding.

The precincts for offense and defense are strictly confined, particularly for the team on offense. Batters are restricted to a home plate and two rectangles, one on either side of the plate, to stand in and swing at the ball; three bases forming, with home plate, a diamond ninety feet on a side; batters having a right-of-way to run the bases around the sides of the diamond.

The defending team occupies the much larger precinct that includes the infield within the diamond, together with the outfield lying between two foul lines meeting in a ninety-degree angle at home plate and extending for a minimum of 250 feet beyond the infield diamond out to the fence defining the far edge of the outfield.

As attackers of the defenders’ territory, batters come up in specified order one-at-a-time until three of them have been put out of play, at which time the teams trade roles. The batting order is based on players’ records for hitting the ball or getting on base.

The defending team, however, is on duty at their respective stations for the full time they are in the field (half of each inning in a string of nine innings). The pitcher throws from the center of the diamond, sixty-and-a-half feet from home plate. The catcher crouches behind the plate to direct defensive play by giving signals with fingers held between his legs to suit the next pitch to the batter’s prowess and situation.

Three basemen stand near their respective bases, with a shortstop to back them up. Three outfielders spread themselves between right, center, and left field, at a distance governed by their expectations of where the batter is likely to hit the next ball.

The essence of baseball is the duel between the defensive pitcher on his mound and offensive batter at home plate. Pitcher and catcher form a tactical team on the axis of play trying to outwit the batter at each throw.

The batter, as lone member of the offense (unless others are on base) tries to outwit the pitcher by carefully selecting the pitches he elects to swing at. Three swings and misses and he’s out, unless he fouls the ball after two strikes, in which case he keeps on until he either gets a hit or third strike.

If the pitcher throws four balls outside of the strike zone (over the plate between the batter’s knees and shoulders), the batter gets a pass to first base, and any runner at first base gets a pass to second.

The umpire standing behind the catcher calls each pitch not swung at as a strike if it passes through the strike zone, or a ball if wide, high, or low.

The ball is in play from any given pitch until the ball is returned to the pitcher’s glove, thereby starting the next play.

The central drama of the game is played out by pitcher and catcher in setting up the play, and batter in making what he can of their efforts. They are playing to get him out; he is playing to reach first base or farther, or at least to help other runners advance around the diamond back to home plate, scoring one point for each round of the bases at the corners of the diamond.

It takes more time to write about the action than to see it happen in actual play. Pitchers these days can throw the ball at over ninety miles-an-hour, mixing fast balls with curves, sliders, knuckle-balls, balls that change pace or break one way or another, and other pitches intended to outwit the batter.

Batters are ever on the alert for balls that look like they’re headed over the plate, but take a detour in the last fraction of a second.

Fans divide their support between teams, and show strong reactions to anything that goes against their personal allegiance, particularly if it leads to a score by the “wrong” team. Hopes on both sides run high, and spirits droop when events or judgments go against the favored team. Odds seem to favor the nine defensive players strategically placed around the field facing only one offensive batter at a time, each needing only three strikes to be put out of play.

But in that small window of opportunity, batters can hit balls through the defense, over its head, or even out of the park. With a runner on base, the situation gets more intense for both sides. With two or three runners in position around the bases, a pitcher can still throw in only one direction at a time, so the odds shift to the offense, unless the next batter hits into a double- or even triple-play, the likelihood of which increases with the number of base runners spread around the diamond.

Or perhaps the next batter slams a home run over the fence, sending four runners across home plate (including himself), releasing pandemonium throughout the stadium and spreading far and wide into the radio and TV audience, echoing within millions of individual black boxes around the world.

More than a pastime, baseball is a state of consciousness to which humans as wayfarers (or base runners) are innately suited by the inherent makeup of their minds as the medium of engagement between their inner and outer worlds of awareness. That engagement between opposing teams is the issue in each game, which must be played out to determine which is the better team for the span of intense activity it takes for that particular game to play out.

 

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