Learning to Baseball – Really Learning to Baseball

You don’t really need to understand baseball to watch great baseball movies because at their core they are metaphors for life rather than sporting action. If you are going to support a team though and watch some games it all gets pretty bewildering pretty quickly so you’d be wise to seek out some help. There are basic concepts like what’s going on when a fly ball is hit into centre field and everyone stands watching the catch before making a move? For that matter, what’s a fly ball and what’s centre field? And a language all of its own. How do you tell when the pitcher is throwing a slider or a curve or a change up?

I’m a book guy so while I was spending a week or so in Mountain View I took the opportunity to raid the local store for baseball material (and there is plenty to go at). I carried out a tidy haul that would introduce me to different aspects of the history of the game but top of that pile was Zack Hample’s Watching Baseball Smarter and I recommend that any new fan gets hold of a copy of this invaluable handbook.

Zack manages to introduce you to all of the basics of the game and its mindboggling terminology whilst also entertaining you with a host of trivia and anecdotes. It’s a great introduction to read straight through but also a reference to have close at hand when you’re sat in front of your computer screen watching MLB TV.

Which brings me nicely to my second recommendation, but it also comes with a warning. MLB TV provides the type of sports coverage that fans of UK sport can only dream of. For a fee of roughly £90 you get access to every MLB game right the way through the season and because you are an ocean away from the action you don’t suffer any blackouts.

Of course a lot of games happen in the middle of the night for the same reason but you can access them in full or in a condensed version after the event at your convenience. You can also choose commentary for either team so you get your favourite voices calling the game for you. The warning is that without due care this could be end of your social life for a large part of the year.

Commentary is something that I often want to turn down when watching football on television but with baseball it is a central part of the enjoyment. As a Mets fan I get to listen to a couple of my ’86 heroes in Ron Darling and Keith Hernandez as they chat their way through the evening alongside play by play announcer Gary Cohen. Affording us a bit of continuity Cohen used to broadcast minor league with the Durham Bulls (amongst others), the North Carolina side that provided the back drop to the classic baseball film Bull Durham. These guys have knowledge and experience and their apparently idle chatter will build your understanding of what you are seeing and also give you vital context for this thin slice of a season that you are watching.

Because beyond all the new rules and phrases that I had to learn, I was also quickly struck by the sheer scale of the game. We talk about the 46 matches of the Championship in the English Football League being a marathon but what does that make the 162 games of regular season play in baseball? It’s something that you really have to get to grips with as you need to put yourself into a different emotional state of play.

Your team can actually go on quite a bad losing streak and still recover so individual results don’t carry the same pressure as they do in shorter seasoned sports. That can be a surprisingly hard adjustment to make, as can be not seeing all of the games. Three hours is a big commitment and the games come thick and fast so it’s highlights at best for most of them.

One thing that you don’t hear often in other sports is the impact of the stadium on the performance of the players. The size of the field is one obvious factor that could affect performance but how about pitchers not liking Coors Stadium in Colorado because of its altitude at a mile above sea level? Or outfielders having to learn how to play the wall at each stadium, judging how the ball will bounce off it, or even different parts of it, and adapting their positioning accordingly? And in Houston’s Minute Maid Park there is a slope at the back of centre field that houses a flagpole!

This complexity that envelopes the otherwise simple battle of a pitcher facing a hitter adds layers to the game for the fan to peel away at leisure. A baseball game can be watched as an event that you dip into between topping up your drink and snacks, or even while doing some jobs around the house.

At three hours in length and with lots of breaks as hitters or pitchers are changed, or innings turnover, you don’t need to be focused fully on it throughout the period of play, but it is also an immersive world packed with statistics, oddities and stories which, like sirens, call to you to stop dipping your toe in its shallows and dive into the deep water.

I regularly reference the Spanish football coach Juanma Lillo when he talks about the purpose of a game of football being to win but the enrichment coming from the game itself. In sport it is often the result that is focused on, winning is considered good and losing bad and the discussion of the game is carried out in reference to that point of conclusion, but as he says we don’t turn up to a match in the 92nd minute. Or more colourfully put “…what enriches you is the game, not the result. The result is a piece of data. The birth rate goes up. Is that enriching? No. But the process that led to that? Now that’s enriching.”*

In baseball the result is distilled into Box Scores which summarise all of the key statistics but for me, just like Lillo, the enrichment comes from the context of the score first within a game and then within a wider history and legend. To the unbeliever the sports fan can seem a strange thing, but if they could just pull back the veil that separates the result from its context they might begin to understand. As I said back in the first part of this series, it isn’t a matter of life and death, it is simply life itself, in all of its mysterious glory.

*Juanma Lillo talking to Sid Lowe in The Blizzard Issue One

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