462. Baseball in Time and Space, Part 1

March 20, 2015

It is difficult to appreciate the profound difference between offense and defense in the game of baseball. From the batter’s point of view as he awaits the pitch, he is almost rooted in the ground like a tree, unmoving, watching for signs that will tell him whether or not to swing.

When the pitch comes, again from the batter’s point of view, the ball quickly grows larger and larger, not by any doing of the watchful batter, but seemingly on its own, like an asteroid bearing down on the Earth.

Before he swings, if he does, the batter’s eyes are the only eyes in the stadium that look from that exact perspective, so exist in time, wholly removed from the approaching ball that grows larger in his eyes as it subtends an increasingly wider arc on his retina due to no effort on his part. Just as we all observe the sun moving though the sky due to no effort of our own, its motion serving as the very standard of uncaused movement by which we gauge time itself, and set our timepieces accordingly.

But if the batter swings against the oncoming ball, his personal actions shift him from an orientation in time to an orientation in space within which he is accountable for his movements if he is to keep his bearings, the smack of the ball against the swinging bat being a consummation of his framework of time turning abruptly into a framework of space, requiring him to compensate for his motions if he is to keep a clear head, because now the ball’s decreasing size is the batter’s doing, and he owns it by watching the struck ball fly out over the field of play as fielders jockey to be in the right place to catch that very ball when it returns to Earth. While he, meantime, picks up speed on his run to first base, no longer watching and waiting as time passes, but now on the go along one leg of the diamond, moving, shifting his position in space with all the speed he can muster.

I first became aware of watching and listening in time and acting in space during the opening minute of the film, Lawrence of Arabia, a sequence in which the figure of a distant camel (viewed through layers of desert air shimmering with heat waves) looms larger, ever larger, as I, the stationary viewer in my theater seat, experienced a sense of change over time because I was just sitting there, doing nothing to affect the illusion that the camel was growing larger by moving toward me on its own without any help from me.

Sitting still watching the opening of the movie, I had no need to compensate for any effect I might have had on the camel, so the change in size came to me gratis, on its own, much as the sun and moon apparently move through the sky without any help from me (though secretly powered by Earth’s rotation, which, unappreciated, dips the horizon of my silent chariot, creating the illusion that time is passing before my eyes).

That scene with the looming camel opened the eyes of my understanding, giving me a Eureka! moment in which I grasped in a new way something I had never doubted before. We still talk of “sunsets” and “moonrises,” when in both cases we should admit to witnessing Earth rises and Earth falls or turnings.

The preceding excursion may sound like nonsense to you, but it is the kind of nonsense that when ignored, lets us think of time and space as properties of the universe when, in truth, change may be such a property, but calibrated changes in the case of time and space are properties of human discernment that we unwittingly project onto the universe, while they are truly our own doing because representing different ways of our engaging the world.

Without situated or moving observers being present to impose a calibrated framework on change, there would be no sense of time or space, only change, uncalibrated change in appearance without reference to standardized units of measurement

As Immanuel Kant maintained, time and space exist in our perspectives before we cast those perspectives onto events in the world. In his terminology, time and space exist a priori in our minds and ways of perceiving. We bring them with us as our frames of reference for judging changing events we may come across; they are not inherent properties of the universe.

Or of, since this post deals with baseball, baseball itself. Time and space are inherent properties of the way pitchers, batters, catchers, and fielders see the world around them. Depending on whether or not they are moving or stationary in their points of view, which travel with them wherever they go.

In Baseball, I think we sense the difference between the viewpoints of opposing teams at any given moment, depending on whether they are scattered around the spacious green field of play, or stand in serial order still and alone at the plate awaiting the pitch that is about to come, and so must decide how to respond to that pitch.

That is, players’ perspectives are determined by whether they are moving about the field under their own motive power—and so constantly compensating for their ever-shifting positions and changes in perspective—or they are still-as-a-post, alert, yet poised, waiting for the ball to appear due to no effort on their part, so requiring no compensation, but expecting the ball to appear as propelled by the pitcher’s motive force. To hit the ball where they want it to go, batters have to begin their swings at just the right moment in time. Fielders, to catch a fly ball, have to be in the right position in space.

Hitting pitched balls hurtling toward you and catching balls having trajectories in space are two entirely different skills. Some players can do both, others can do one or the other, still others can do neither very well (but they can steal bases, say, or pitch screwballs). Not everyone makes a great baseball player. As it is, players vary tremendously in their skillsets, some being able to play every position, others being specialists in doing one thing exceedingly well. It takes all sorts of players to complete a team.

Having here raised the issue of time and space as aspects of baseball, I will continue and conclude the discussion in my next two posts (Nos. 463 & 464).



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