A European watches Major League Baseball

I see a shiny grassy green diamond, some guys in uniform. One guy on a patch of dirt in the middle throws a ball, and another guy tries to hit it with a stick. If he hits it he wins, if he doesn’t: the other guy wins. It looks like most sports.
On second glance however, I realize things are not as clear. The guy with the stick — I guess it’s called a bat — seems to be alone against a team. The rest of his team is looking on. Is that fair? Even a soccer penalty — a mostly rare event — it’s still one against one. And how often can he try to hit the ball and how often can this other guy throw it? This is not clear. And what happens after he hits it? And also, what’s an inning? And how many are there? And are there any other sports where they wear hats?

And it’s not just the hats though. Belts too. Which athletes wear belts? Really.
Both teams wear collarless uniforms that look like they haven’t changed in a 100 years, which must be intentional. Some wear long pants, others wear knee socks. Either way, the uniforms are buttoned up and either striped or clear. But always neatly tucked in. Except for the guy trying to catch the ball — behind the guy with the bat — he has his own thing going on.

And then there is this oversized strange looking leather glove. It makes the players look like crabs who lost a claw. But every player wears one like it’s perfectly normal. The glove is mostly used to catch balls, but it also doubles as an accessory to share secrets with teammates that you want to keep from the other team, whose players must all be prodigious lip readers.

So everyone wears a glove. Except the guy with a bat. A bat that’s either made of wood or metal. Okay, so let’s see, if you have the bat you get three attempts to try and hit the ball? If you hit it correctly, you have to run to a first designated stop — or a base — and if you make it to this first base without your ball being caught or you ball arriving there before you — because someone picked it up and threw it there — you’re safe. Three more bases for a point. If you hit it really hard you might try and run to two, or even three bases in one go. But this is hard. Only if you hit it out of the park, you get to go past all bases and collect a point. That’s called a homerun. But mostly you try to make it to first base, and you wait for your teammate to try and hit the ball. If he does, you get a chance to run to second base (or more). Unless of course a ball is caught or hitters haven’t hit the ball for a combined number of three times, then teams switch sides.

Pitchers — as the guys that throw the ball are called — seem to center themselves by straightening their hat — a lot — so that their cap is perfectly perpendicular to their faces. And they like to fondle the ball between their fingers while either specifically looking at it or distinctively not. Then they do a little bit more hat straightening before curling up by pulling their knee to their chest, channeling all their power into their throw to make the ball fly around 90 mph between a small rectangle box that is only visible on TV and not to the players. And they do this again and again and again. He has to throw the ball three times correctly between the rectangle — without being it being hit — for the hitter to be out. If he throws it four times outside the box, the hitter is free to walk to first base.

Hitters also seem to try to get in a meditative state of mind. There are quite a few mannerisms and straight out ticks they perform while standing at the plate. They touch the middle of the plate, swing the bat an exact numbers of times, pull the fingers of their gloves — different gloves — an even number of times. Adjusting, centering, focussing. If you look closely some guys have stains on their right collarbone or shoulder, it’s where the bat touches as they twist and twirl it while waiting for the ball to arrive. It seems that wooden bats are tarred up, for grip, maybe? It’s not as much a physical as it is game about focus and wits. Nonetheless you have to throw the ball really hard, and hit it really hard. It is a multidimensional game.

Players all look very serious and focused. There is no flopping or cheating, everybody knows the rules and umpires are on top of things. And maybe it’s this aspect that I like most. It’s a fair game.

It quickly becomes clear that this a game of variables. Lots and lots of variables. And watching a baseball game must be a supremely different experience from playing the game. Watching the game I am constantly assessing stats, making small calculations, holding variables in my head. There are so many intangibles to keep track of, your head needs to clear out the rest of whatever it is working on. Watching baseball is almost meditative. For the guys on the field however, the only focus can be the next pitch.

I learn that an inning has two parts — a top and a bottom — and a pitcher has to try and strike out hitters three times for a team to change sides, this constitutes an inning. As I learn this the numbers on the screen start to make a little bit more sense, it’s as if I am slowly let in on a secret. A very old and unchanged secret.

A secret that can be endlessly explored and excavated further. There is no shortage of variables to do so. So an RBI is a Round Batted In, that seems important. And I am glad the announcers explain what the 7th inning stretch is. This sport is drenched in tradition and statistics, and if you want you can drown in it. Not only are there 120 years of history to dive in to, even with such a long history the sport is still evolving and historic events occur in this day and age.

Baseball is played all over the US: little league, high school, college, minor league and more. But Major League Baseball is of course where the best of the best compete. There are 30 teams in the Major League Baseball. Which doesn’t seem excessive for a country as big as the US. But teams play 162 games in a regular season. Please read the last sentence again, this is not a typo. This adds up to 2430 baseball games in one MLB season! You might call that excessive and very on-brand for the US. So the number of games and stats to obsess over are dazzling. And maybe it’s because of these numbers, but there is something about this sport. Because special things tend happen or are — statistically speaking — bound to happen. And they do. All of the time.

And so much so that you might even call this sport romantic. This makes complete sense.

A scene from Moneyball.


Also published on Medium.

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