GET ME INTO SPORTS: BASEBALL

A series of conversations opens with a very special guest.

I’M SO NOT INTO SPORTS: never have been, never thought I would be. But while experimenting with open-mindedness last spring, I began to wonder if my real sports problem was ignorance. Billions of people loved sports. Maybe I should learn what they were before dismissing them?

Welcome to the first episode of Get Me Into Sports, a series of conversations between people who know a lot about sports, and me. Episode 2, on football, will feature Tom Curran, the legendary “Patriots Insider” for NBC Sports, and a household name wherever New England men live. But first we’ll be hearing from the baseball fan I blame for all my problems.

My father grew up in New York City, in a family of ex-Dodger fans trying to come to terms with the Mets. He and my uncle had a simpler relationship to the city’s new team, of unconditional love. After Dad moved to Vermont in his late 30s, he stuck with the Mets for more than a decade before Red Sox Nation finally wore him down. (My uncle ripped his shirt when he found out.)

Dad took my questions over the summer in his book-wrecked study. He wore practical sweatpants and drank the right amount of coffee. I wore decorative sweats and drank too much. Later I edited the transcript for the usual reasons, and to make myself less annoying.

GET ME INTO BASEBALL, DAD!

ALICE: How psyched are you that I want to talk about this?

DAD: Delighted. I thought this day would never come.

ALICE: I guess you won’t mind if I throw you a curveball hahaha.

DAD:

ALICE: True or false. You never taught me baseball to punish me for being a girl.

DAD: Completely false.

ALICE: I remind you that you’re under oath.

DAD: As you know, I bought you a bat, a T, and a glove. You did well on the T. When you couldn’t hit underhand pitches, you threw a tantrum and stomped off.

ALICE: I did that with everything.

DAD: Yes.

ALICE: With piano, you were like, “Go upstairs, get the screams out, come back, and finish practicing.” With sports, it was just, “Whatever. Here’s a cookie.”

DAD: I was choosing my battles.

ALICE: I’m just saying, your choice was gendered.

DAD: Can we try a baseball question?

ALICE: 🤬 [Thumb-scrolls past three questions.] Your next baseball question…“Everyone knows baseball is dull. How can you possibly find it so thrilling?”

DAD: I don’t.

ALICE: Excuse me?

DAD: Basketball games can be thrilling from start to finish. Same with football. Baseball rarely offers that steady charge.

ALICE: You watch it for hours.

DAD: Not for thrills. Look. [His business partner] watches golf. I can’t handle that much sedation. Golf is for catatonics, football’s for adrenaline junkies. Some of us are in between. We need to idle after work, but we’re not ready to let go of the day’s tension. I’m going to sound like George Will.

ALICE: He’s a dork.

DAD: He’s nonetheless written well about baseball. He said something enjoyably pompous, once, about the game’s tempo. [Dad squints the way he does when he can’t remember something.] Never grow old.

ALICE: You’re not old!

DAD: Never say that to old people

ALICE: Sorry.

DAD: Anyway, it’s a simple enough point, if you don’t mind a music analogy.

ALICE: Elevator music.

DAD: I was going to say an adagio that threatens to accelerate more often than it does.

ALICE: That makes it sound gripping.

DAD: “Gripping” is right. More gripping than thrilling.

ALICE: Though when I watch…

DAD: Do you watch? Or do you sit on the floor playing with your phone and complain that the game you’re not watching is dull?

ALICE: I don’t do that with the football I’m not watching.

DAD: With football, you cover your eyes and say, “Too many things happening!”

ALICE: [laughing] There are! Plus, how are you supposed to know what they’re going through when they hide their faces? It’s like watching synchronized robots.

DAD: Their bodies are expressive, and you can impute emotion based on the result of each play. But I take your point. You’d prefer a sport that lets you read emotions directly off the players’ faces. A sport like baseball.

ALICE: Or tennis.

DAD: Tennis isn’t a team sport.

ALICE: Does that matter?

DAD: To me, it does. Rooting for a team ties you to a region and the people who live there. Can you tell me where Roger Federer lives?

ALICE: The Ritz-Carlton.

DAD: [laughs] Switzerland. Which is also not a real place.

ALICE: So you disgraced the family in order to tie yourself to New England.

DAD: Yes. And conversely, I stuck with the Mets for so long out of ambivalence toward New England. I was telling myself this was a temporary stop for us, not our home.

ALICE: You told me that, too.

DAD: That’s something I regret. Unlike piano. But let’s stick to baseball.

ALICE: Just—admit it’s weird how I walk past that thing every day without touching it.

DAD: For me, that’s not weird. It’s sad. My solace is in knowing you’ve internalized the structures and logic of piano music. You’re a better listener than you would have been. You might say, a better fan.

ALICE: I love where you’re suddenly going with this.

DAD: Right. There you have it.

ALICE: Would you spell it out for people who can’t read your mind?

DAD: So I began by assuming there’s a valuable way to experience music that may only be accessible to those who’ve mastered an instrument. I could be wrong about that.

ALICE: No, I think it’s right.

DAD: Then I tied this idea to baseball. Knowledgeable fans can get a great deal out of watching a game, no question. But it’s another thing to feel each play in your bones. Say I’m out at [our local school’s] field. While the pitcher take the sign, the third baseman’s rocking back and forth to keep himself limber, and I’m limbering up, too. When the pitcher sets, Third empties his mind to become one with the space between his glove and the batter. He may not have time to think before the ball reaches him, so he turns his body into a reactive muscle. I do the same with mine.

ALICE: A physical sympathy.

DAD: Yes.

ALICE: That sounds amazing.

DAD: It can be. Or it can be frustrating. Pro infielders always know where to position themselves for each batter, but the kids up here can screw up. The other day, Third was playing the centerfielder too deep. It’s a good bet center’s the fastest runner on any team, and this guy looked fast. But Third wasn’t adjusting. It made me anxious that he was going to have to rush his throw. I was leaning forward, willing him into place.

ALICE: That’s what I want to feel! But you’re telling me I never will.

DAD: I’m not telling you that. We can go out there right now. I can hit you some grounders.

ALICE: That’s very funny.

II. A HISTORY LESSON

ALICE: Sir, my next question [checks iPhone] is dumb.

DAD: Try me.

ALICE: “Why is baseball our national pastime?”

DAD: Most would say it lost that status to football a few decades ago. But if you’re asking why baseball became preeminent in the 1870s and remained so for nearly a hundred years, that’s not a dumb question.

ALICE: Phew.

DAD: I wish I had a short answer. How far did you get with Thorn?

ALICE: Thorn.

DAD: Did you open it?

ALICE:

DAD: So there’s this old chestnut about baseball, that it’s a pastoral game. Its green fields hearken back to our agrarian roots, to villages where neighboring farmers met on the commons for clean Christian fun.

ALICE: I know what you’re going to say next.

DAD: It’s a fabrication.

ALICE: Yes!

DAD: But we need to keep a few things straight. The colonists brought over all sorts of English games with sticks and balls. Some had the equivalent of bases. We’re talking right from the beginning. Bradford mentions one in his journal, “stoole-ball.” He caught the youth playing it on Christmas.

ALICE: And jumped right in!

DAD: You’re correct that he did not. He chewed them out and confiscated their ball.1

DAD: In the mid-1700s some in England called one of this family of games “base ball,” two words. But here’s the thing. That game wasn’t any closer to modern baseball than games called stump-ball, round ball, cricket, wicket, and so on. A number of them shared a certain action sequence. Someone tossed a ball at something, say a stool. Someone else tried to knock the ball away with a stick. Successful knockers had a chance to run somewhere while others chased after the ball.

The earliest surviving mention of “base ball” in America is from Pittsfield, Mass., in 1791. The term showed up in the town board’s minutes. It was actually Thorn who discovered it.2 But again, there’s no reason to think Berkshires “base ball” was more germane to the modern game than “round ball,” say. Same goes for the game Jane Austen called “baseball.”

ALICE: She what?

DAD: She mentioned it, don’t ask me where. This is why baseball nerds love Jane Austen.3 My point is that a variety of ball games were popular here and in England into the early 1800s, and because 90% of Americans lived on farms, the games were popular with farmers.

ALICE: However.

DAD: Go ahead.

ALICE: Oh I don’t know what you’re going to say. I just know it’s However Time.

DAD: It sure is. Because the modern game took root, took shape, exploded in popularity in cities. The first organized games and leagues were in New York, Brooklyn, and Philadelphia: our biggest, most industrialized cities. We still call baseball teams “clubs” because the first teams grew out of men’s athletic clubs: an urban institution, where strangers came from all over to play, not neighbors on the commons. The “New York rules” that eventually dominated were codified by one club, the Knickerbockers. They played the Gothams, the Empires, the Metropolitans, and—in case anyone missed the point—“the New Yorks.” That’s how bucolic.

ALICE: Hilarious.

DAD: Now I don’t know how much of the pastoral innocence crap kids absorb these days. Anyone who’s seen Ken Burns has a more realistic view of early baseball than I had. But the myth sticks around in other forms. There’s still this absurd expectation of virtue in baseball players. You don’t see that in other big sports, not to the same degree. Middle-aged men with jobs and families still fixate on the Black Sox. They can’t be this naive about the rest of the world, but they speak as if baseball lost its virginity in 1919, and barely survived a brush with death. I’ve strayed from your question.

ALICE: I wouldn’t say that. You’re telling me that being popular wasn’t enough to make baseball the “national pastime.” You need all this mythology.

DAD: An aura, yes.

ALICE: So when did baseball lose its virginity?

DAD: The answer shouldn’t surprise anyone because it’s always the answer. “Corruption” was baked in from the start. Before the 1870s, the leagues were technically amateur. But to field the best players you had to give them an incentive to show up. It was a city game, and the fans were city workingmen, mainly Irish and Germans. They gambled on cockfights, elections, raindrops on a window. The gamblers cut the players in, with predictable results.

ALICE: Everyone knew this.

DAD: Of course. I’m not saying gambling had no negative effects. It put a ceiling on the game’s respectability. Prigs in the New York Times deplored it and called for “reform.” But the Gilded Age saw gambling as a mild vice, not a Satanic temptation with the power to destroy. One of the owners’ arguments for professionalization in the 1870s—a public argument—was that salaries would reduce the demand for bribes. Of course the real argument was profit, and once the owners had a quasi-monopoly they underpaid their players, who kept taking bribes. We’re talking about those burly guys with the funny mustaches.

ALICE: You mean, adorable mustaches.

DAD: The adorably mustachioed, yes. They weren’t in a position to turn down cash. Comiskey, the White Sox owner, was one of the stingiest. He had no illusions about his players though he later pretended to be scandalized.

ALICE: We can move on, but just, when did the actual phrase “national pastime” start? I’m guessing after the Civil War.

DAD: It would have to be sooner. There’s a famous Currier and Ives that shows Lincoln with a bat towering over Douglas and Breckenridge.

DAD: OK, I see now it says “national game,” not “pastime.” And Bell is there, too. This is why you shouldn’t grow old.4 Suffice to say the game was popular in the 1840s and became a national craze in 1850s, supplanting cricket. From the captions, you can see how far the game had come, culturally. A mass audience knew all this slang.

ALICE: Douglas saying “short stop” is heightest.

DAD: Little Stephen. Five foot four, and Vermont’s own.

ALICE: Seriously?

DAD: He grew up in Rutland.5

ALICE: That’s so hard to believe. Politically, I mean.

DAD: He hated Vermont. One of those. Impatient for a law career and the state bar wasn’t accommodating. He said he hated the Green mountains for blocking his view.

ALICE: What a jerk.

DAD: He was speaking about the East and its limited horizons, drinking the frontier Kool-Aid. But I wouldn’t be surprised if he talked himself into hating mountains... Can you stand some more about cricket?

ALICE: Please.

DAD: Cricket was still very popular during the War. Less a workingman’s game than baseball, but not exactly posh until the 1880s, when it became a culture war issue. Olmstead wouldn’t allow baseball in Central Park, only cricket. The Times weighed in, pro-cricket of course. Boosters went on to market baseball as a game for manly Americans, men who fought Indians. Cricket was for girly-men from England, or Princeton. It had always been an Ivy League sport. By the First World War, that’s all it was. The Newport crowd sent their kids over to marry English aristocrats. Cricket fit in. 

ALICE: It’s weird I can’t think of a cricket scene in Henry James. 

DAD: You’d know better but I never thought of him as a sports guy. Did anyone ever see him run?

ALICE: He walked a lot in Italy. Later, he rode a bike because his doctors made him.

DAD: What an expression.

ALICE: I think he would have liked me.

III. THE RULES

ALICE: So with baseball, I do sort of know the rules. The big ones.

DAD: Sure.

ALICE: They just seem kind of arbitrary.

DAD: Which do?

ALICE: Like the runners. Why can’t two of them stand on the same base at the same time? Why can’t they catch a ball hit by their own team and throw it into the audience? Why are so many things foul?

DAD: If you’d read the immortal Thorn, you’d know he carries a torch for the 1850s Massachusetts Game, which had no foul territory. Also, runners could interfere with the fielders and flee to the outfield to evade a tag. And fielders could get them out by “plugging” them with the ball.

ALICE: That sounds fun.

DAD: Thorn would agree. Even after the New York game took over, foul rules were subject to revision. But that doesn’t make them arbitrary. If you want a rule that’s truly arbitrary: running the bases counter-clockwise. Runners went clockwise in an early version. The two directions slightly advantage righties or lefties, but there’s basically no difference. Other rules that may seem arbitrary to you do have a purpose, of making the game more itself.

ALICE: That’s tautological.

DAD: I’d say it’s teleological. For each sport, there’s some Platonic ideal of the balance between offense and defense. Basketball’s ideal balance makes it fairly easy for the offense to score. Soccer’s the opposite; the offense is so handicapped, they run like lunatics freed from an asylum after a goal. Baseball’s ideal balance is somewhere between those two. The median starting player gets on base about a third of time. If it happened half the time, getting on base would be an expectation, not an accomplishment worth cheering. If it happened a quarter of the time, the game would be dull.

ALICE: Even for you.

DAD: So most rule changes fine-tune this balance. Pitchers used to “pitch” in the original sense, throwing underhand, as with horseshoes. When batters started crushing the ball in the 1880s, overhand was allowed. In the 1910s, hitting became too hard so the league banned spitballs. They lowered the pitcher’s mound to help hitters in 1969, and now they’re talking about moving the mound farther from the plate.

ALICE: So… that’s a good answer. The rules are not arbitrary.

IV. THE GAME ITSELF

DAD: What’s next?

ALICE: I still want to see what I’m not seeing.

DAD: For that, we may need to watch a game.

ALICE: A whole one?!

DAD: How about an inning?

We watched two at-bats of an old Red Sox game. Before the first pitch, the catcher flashed signs in front of his man parts and I paused the video.

ALICE: People hate the Houston Astros because they stole signs, correct?

DAD: The objection is that they used technology to steal signs and communicate them to the hitter.

ALICE: What I don’t get is: why do signs at all? Why doesn’t the pitcher just throw where he wants?

DAD: The catcher needs to be on the same page to catch the ball.

ALICE: He can’t just catch it wherever?

DAD: Not effectively. You need to understand that pitches aren’t ordinary throws. They move in strange ways to fool the batter. Also, the batter and umpire are crowding the catcher, leaving him little room to maneuver.

I paused the video again after the pitcher took the sign.

ALICE: What’s with the rigmarole?

DAD: Same reason. Pitches aren’t ordinary throws; they need to be more precise. The pitcher needs to clear his mind and envision the ball traveling the best path, to the best spot at the best time. Next you have the windup.

ALICE: So complicated!

DAD: Not when you understand the purpose of each step. Think of a cricket bowler. He takes a running start before releasing the ball. A baseball pitcher has to keep his back foot on the rubber until he releases. So he needs to capture more on his body’s rotational potential and turn it into linear force. The windup coils his body. His center of gravity stays over his back hip until the last moment, when he shifts his weight and uncoils. As a student of mechanics you’ll know why he extends his arm.

ALICE: Leverage! Don’t ask me which class.

DAD: His arm is a third-class lever.

ALICE: The fulcrum’s his big ol’ butt.

DAD: Meanwhile his grip on the ball and his wrist motion, or lack of it, influence the ball’s spin, creating whatever curve or “break” the pitch requires.

ALICE: I love that pitchers know physics.

DAD: Intuitively, they do. The trainers are the ones who really study it. There are labs now where they put sensors on the pitcher’s body and analyze their motion for slight imperfections.

ALICE: That seems kind of unfair.

DAD: Hitters do it, too. Now let’s talk about the mental game.

ALICE: This is a lot to process.

DAD: You’re not going to find baseball interesting without it.

ALICE: I’m not complaining.

DAD: The primary decision before each pitch is whether to aim for the strike zone. Pitches in the zone are more likely to strike the batter out but also easier for him to get the meat of his bat on and drive for a hit. They also decide between high or low, closer or further from the batter, fast or very fast, and the break. Varying pitches keeps the batter off his stride. You want to make it hard for him to time his swing.

ALICE: They need more software.

DAD: They have that. Analysts look at data on all the batter’s plate appearances to find a weak spot. A pro’s weak spot can’t be too weak or everyone would throw there and he’d flop out of the majors. Then there’s the number of outs, baserunners, inning, batter on deck, and the balance of balls and strikes.

ALICE: “The count.”

DAD: Right. Now how would a count of three balls and one strike affect the pitcher?

ALICE: He’s bummed.

DAD: Why?

ALICE: He doesn’t want to do a base on balls.

DAD: How can he avoid that?

ALICE: Pitch in the zone.

DAD: Which the batter…

ALICE: Riiight. I got you. It’s some deep game theory.

DAD: Now consider the batter. Unfavorable counts pressure him to swing. At 0 and 2, the pitcher can prey on the batter’s anxiety. He’ll “waste a pitch,” which means throwing a ball on purpose to see if the batter takes a Hail Mary swing.

ALICE: Why don’t hitters just swing at good pitches?

DAD: You need to see that batting’s an approximate skill. Pitchers work the edges of the zone, slightly in or out. Even the best eyes can’t reliably distinguish in the tenths of a second a batter has to commit. Umpires make mistakes, too. So the batter considers odds. On a 3 and 1 count, the pitch hits the zone 70% of the time, versus 50% with average pitches, or 35% when the pitcher’s way ahead.

ALICE: Most Americans can’t name the Chief Justice, but you’re telling me they know all this?

DAD: Americans care more about sports than politics. You and your friends are abnormal.

ALICE: This is getting dark.

V. NOSTALGIA

DAD: I want to add something about the pastoral innocence myth, and its power. I was pretty disillusioned for a teenager. But when I stepped onto a baseball field, when my cleats sunk into the grass, or dirt if that’s all there was, it felt like stepping into an exalted realm.

ALICE: A what?

DAD: A place of social harmony and justice. Effort and talent rewarded. Sportsmanship a sacred code. Events in a predictable order, with all the challenges clear. Life made sense.

ALICE: You sound like a gamer.

DAD: How’s that?

ALICE: A dude who prefers the world boiled down to heroic contests with transparent rules, with virtue triumphant, et cetera. Life as a comic book.

DAD: I never know what to do with observations like that, but of course you’re right. A deep part of me does prefer that. You were different, and that may be why I didn’t insist on your learning sports.

ALICE: Thank you! This is all I wanted you to admit. For what it’s worth, I always liked it when we went to games.

DAD: Ballparks are extraordinary places. Even with seven-dollar hot dogs and twelve-dollar beers, and the cheesy sound effects. Somewhere in this house there’s a neat book you’ll never read about them, called Green Cathedrals. The title’s not much of a stretch.

DAD: What a terrific shot [of Shea Stadium]. Any idea who took it?

ALICE: The internet?

DAD: He had better seats than your uncle and I ever did. And perfect weather: warm and dry with a breeze blowing out to left. The upper deck’s packed because the Reds are in town, the Big Red Machine: best team of the 70s. You know it’s them and not the Cardinals from the two stripes around the waist. And that burly guy with the “4” on his back, with the black hair falling out of his helmet, that’s got to be Pete Rose, number 14, speaking of gamblers. All-time hit leader, and he’s kept out of the Hall of Fame by the Jesuits. Ken Burns said Rose should only be admitted after he dies, said he “doesn’t deserve to know he’s in the Hall.

ALICE: Ew.

DAD: That’s the moderate view… But I’d rather dwell on this photo, which is from ‘77 or ‘78. Would you like to learn how I know that?

ALICE: I would.

DAD: Start with the scoreboard ads. Through 1973, the Mets’ beer sponsor was Rheingold, with its “ten-minute head.”

ALICE: It’s what?

DAD: Budweiser came in for the 80s. So we’ve narrowed it down to six years even before we do soft drinks.

ALICE: I love when you do this kind of shit.

DAD: RC Cola was the classic Mets sponsor, up in ‘69 when they won the Series. By ‘73, when the Mets lost, you had Getty gas—not a soft drink for most of us. ‘75 and ‘76 were Dairylea milk. (Milk was a stand-alone beverage then. Adults drank it with hot dogs.) Coke didn’t come in until ‘77. Drop ‘79 because Rose had left for the Phillies, and you’re down to two years.

Last thing. If it’s ‘78, it was likely during Rose’s 44-game hitting streak. Three or maybe four of those games were at Shea.

ALICE: OK, Rain Man.

DAD: It’s just called being a fan. Thirty years ago I could have told you the height, weight and batting averages of both rosters, which is like Rain Man. But any Mets fan my age could figure out the year from that photo. The God-obsessed memorize the Bible. The sports-obsessed memorize trivia.

ALICE: Do you still feel, I don’t know, exalted when you go to a ballpark?

DAD: I don’t feel anything as strongly as I used to.

ALICE: Let the record show: Dad’s still mooning over the photo of Shea.

VI. LAST BIT

DAD: Before we wrap up, I want to show you the greatest third-baseman of all time. Nolan Arenado. It’s a privilege to watch him.

Dad makes me watch a ten minute highlight video of Nolan Arenado making truly insane catches and throws. Dad’s bummed he can’t find footage of the guy between pitches (staying limber, becoming one, etc) but his plays are legit thrilling. When Arenado throws while sitting or leaping or running the wrong way, the announcers shout things like, “Cut it out!”; “Stop it!”; “Are you KIDDING me?”

DAD: Not a bad looking guy.

ALICE: Not at all.

DAD: Is he your new favorite?

ALICE: I’m going to say, yes. Because I can’t think of anyone else.

DAD: You used to love Pedro Martinez.

ALICE: You loved Pedro, and I was a monkey who thought whatever you did was best.

DAD: This is why you have excellent taste.

ALICE: 🥰

DAD: Is there anything else?

ALICE: Let’s play catch! Just kidding.

DAD: Why are you kidding?

ALICE: It’s raining, number one.

DAD: I’d call this a drizzle.

ALICE: I don’t want to change into sneakers.

DAD: Your hikers are fine.

ALICE: It would make a great ending.

DAD: You owe it to your subscribers to play catch with your old man.

ALICE: You’re right. I do.

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1

Bradford’s 1620 Mayflower cohort was doctrinally stricter, and more scrupulous, than the newcomers who’d stepped off the Fortune. Christmas was an ordinary workday in Plymouth because the Bible doesn’t sanction celebration.

On Christmas 1621, some Fortunites told Bradford that their conscience didn’t allow them to work that day. The governor opted not to make a whole thing of their error, and left them alone, expecting them to spend the day in prayer. Imagine his vibe when he found them frolicking in the streets at noon.

2

More from Dad: “The town wanted to protect the windows of its meeting hall from stray projectiles. They outlawed seven window-breaking games within range of the hall. One of the few things you can fault Thorn with is that he sometimes recounts this story in a way that lets a reader think “base ball” was a special target of the ordinance. It wasn’t. Thorn also speculates that its making the list meant “base ball” would have been played all over the Berkshires. It seems more likely a Pittsfield lawyer was good at his job and included every ball game anyone could think of.”

3

Northanger Abbey, from the opening description of its heroine, Catherine Morland: “It was not very wonderful that Catherine, who had nothing heroic about her, should prefer cricket, baseball, riding on horseback, and running about the country at the age of 14, to books.”

Less well known is Austen’s reference in Persuasion to an “umpire.” Anne Elliot “staid at home, under the mixed plea of a headache of her own, and some return of indisposition in little Charles. She had thought only of avoiding Captain Wentworth; but an escape from being appealed to as umpire was now added to the advantages of a quiet evening.”

4

Old Dad was half right. The phrase “national pastime” became common parlance after the Civil War, but it does appear before, first in an 1856 New York Mercury.

5

Stephen Douglas was born and raised in Rutland County, but more precisely in the village of Brandon, 15 miles north of the village (now city) of Rutland.