Taking the Boring Out of Baseball

A long time ago I decided that baseball was not for me–way too boring, and way too much waiting around for something–anything–to happen. For me, the only good thing about the one major league game I ever went to, was eating hotdogs and catching up with a girlfriend that I hadn’t seen in ten years (she had flown into town for this game with her baseball fanatic husband). I was so unimpressed about what was/was not taking place on the field that I never had any desire to go back, especially if I weren’t bringing my own entertainment.

Today, however, I’ve just heard a few things that might inspire me to take a second look. It turns out that there’s a whole lot more going on on those baseball fields than just a game involving throwing and swinging at a ball. There’s strategizing, plotting, and scheming, all transmitted by secret codes. Now that’s more like it.

My informant is a self-professed geek who has turned his passion for watching baseball into a career. I found him on NPR. His name is Zack Hample and he’s written a book (Watching Baseball Smarter) about baseball that I am actually tempted to read. I can’t believe it myself, given my lifetime record of overall disinterest in the general subject. But that was before I found out about all the intrigue built into the game.

Zack talks about the complexity of relationships among players. Complex relationships? Who knew that baseball could have anything I would consider even vaguely provocative, let alone fascinating, especially in the relationship department.

And back to those secret codes of baseball communication… All of these surreptitious communications by what I had always thought were ‘just baseball players’ would put a world class spy network to the test. Each team comes up with its own language, and then changes it, to keep the opponents from catching on.

I’ve just learned that the point of all that hanging around waiting for the pitcher to finally get around to throwing the ball so the batter can take a swing at it, is really to 1) give the catcher enough time to send the pitcher hand signals about what he should do, 2) give the manager in the dugout enough time to do the same, and then 3) give the pitcher time enough to decipher all of this and decide whose orders he’s going to follow. Well, I guess there is a protocol involved in the decision, but still that’s an awful lot of signaling and deciphering to do in a few minutes’ time. Who knew that baseball players have to be competent at clandestinely signing in a foreign language?

There’s a lot of seriously sneaky stuff going on out there. These grown men are really just little boys playing cops and robbers, and now I’m beginning to understand what precisely is drawing so many people in. It’s like The DaVinci Code.

Did you know that there’s an Emily Post of baseball? Now, I don’t know who that is exactly, but according to Zack Hample, there are all sorts of etiquette rules that are followed on the baseball field.

Apparently there are times both when it’s OK and when it’s not OK to argue with the umpire–and there are certain things that can and can’t be said, as dictated by baseball etiquette.

Arguments are sometimes staged for purposes other than proving a point. Sometimes an argument happens just to get a team revved up and re-motivated, or to get the home town crowd going–creating an atmosphere in which something is more likely to happen–and when it comes to baseball, it needs all the help it can get in that direction, even if it’s starting to sound a bit like TV wrestling with all of this staging and play acting going on.

When the catcher comes up to bat, he will never argue with the umpire because once he’s back playing catcher, with the umpire practically sitting on his crouched over back, he needs to be on the best terms possible with the guy.

It’s not considered good form for a player who has just hit a home run to go running around the bases with flailing arms and celebratory leaps. According to Zack, all of this undignified and in-bad-taste show boat behavior has been brought about by the presence of ESPN and the constantly running cameras that broadcast everything as it occurs–and these guys want to be STARS, after all. Zack says that the proper etiquette when a player hits a home run is for the player to just put his head down and unceremoniously run around to each plate with humility. Have to say I agree with the dignity of understatement–in this case, ‘under-action.’

Some of those countless delays between happenings in baseball are for good, if camouflaged, reasons. For example, when the catcher gets hit with the bat or the ball, there are accepted ways that the umpire can buy him some time to recover, including seemingly knocking invisible dirt off of home plate. And the catcher, if the umpire has been hit, can suddenly have to confer with the pitcher-again, just to buy some time for the umpire to re-group. It’s a courtesy thing. And all the time I thought these guys were just so lazy, out of shape, and basically complacent and nonchalant about whether the game proceeded or not, that they just took their time, letting things saunter on at a pace that would make a turtle impatient.

One thing I still don’t get, and never will, is the spitting. In yesterday’s NPR broadcast it was acknowledged that baseball players spit more than any other group of team athletes–more than football players, soccer players, basketball, or hockey players. (Do basketball players spit at all, given that their game is played indoors? Please tell me that they don’t.)

Supposedly it all started when players habitually chewed tobacco–yuck. But now that they don’t do that anymore–supposedly–and yet they keep spitting. It’s supposed (again) to look masculine. Who are they kidding? It looks and is disgusting, period.

OK, so the spitting thing is the one fly in this otherwise surprisingly engaging ointment, in the form of Zack’s book. I’m not going to let that one thing get to me. I am now officially convinced that baseball has more to it than just a bunch of guys all standing around for hours on end and intermittently batting at and running after a little ball.

Bring on the intrigue, the conspiracy, the spy games…it’s just what baseball has always needed–and has apparently had all along…but who knew?

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