With less than a month to go before the beginning of Spring Training, I figure it’s probably time for me to make good on a promise* I made back in November. I said I’d try to explain why we watch baseball. I gave a quick summary:
In My Not So Humble Opinion, we watch because we’re waiting for the one perfect moment when everything comes together. While we’re waiting, we fill the time with “Holy, shit, I’ve never seen that before” moments.
* Yes, I know some of you consider it more of a threat than a promise. That’s always your option. Don’t want to read a baseball post? Come back tomorrow and revel in the cute fuzzy things.
Let me take a swing at filling in the details.
First, let’s forget the rationale many people peddle: the idea that they watch because of the intellectual challenge of outguessing the managers. Horse pucky! Maybe they are playing “back seat manager” for their own entertainment, but that’s not why they watch. If that was really all there was to it, they would be just as happy watching the game on TV–even pre-recorded games. But no. Even the most stat-happy managerial wannabe will tell you that there’s no substitute for watching the game live. In the ballpark.
As I said above, what we’re waiting for is that one perfect moment when it all comes together. When the entire crowd is frozen, momentarily unable to believe that something they’ve been praying for has actually happened. We saw it on a grand scale in 2004 when the Red Sox came back after losing the first three games to the Yankees and won four straight to go to the World Series. We see it on a smaller scale every time a team completes a perfect game at home. (I realize it’s customary to assign a perfect game to the pitcher, but until a pitcher throws a perfect game with 27 strikeouts, I’m going to stand by my contention that perfect games are a team effort. That makes them somewhat unusual in baseball–more on that in a moment.)
I’m well aware that there’s nothing specific to baseball in that “perfect moment”. Certainly the fans in CenturyLink Field had one of those moments this past Sunday when the Seahawks beat the 49ers with a last-second interception. Those moments are rare in any sport, though. What makes baseball unique is what goes on between those moments.
Baseball is a peculiar blend of team and individual sport. In other sports, there are a few stars and a large group whose only function is to support the stars (take football, for example: you’ve got a quarterback, a receiver or two, and perhaps a couple of rushers. Everyone else is there to either block the opponent and let the stars do their thing, or to play defense and prevent the opponent’s stars from doing their thing. Nobody expects a lineman to do anything exciting.) In baseball, any player could do something exciting on any play: make a spectacular catch, get a clutch hit, strike out the side.
Given the number of games, that means there’s tremendous scope for any individual player to take a turn as the star, which is why I said that perfect games being a team effort made them unusual. And with all those opportunities for excitement, baseball has an unparalleled ability to provide an endless string of “I’ve never seen that before” moments. It took 137 years* for a player to hit a grand slam to tie a game in extra innings. In those same 137 years, there have been only 15 unassisted triple plays, making it highly unlikely that most fans have ever seen one. (Oddly, two of those fifteen happened on successive days: May 30 and 31, 1927. That stunned the Baseball Gods so thoroughly that there wasn’t another unassisted triple play until July 30, 1968–more than 40 years!) Two players have hit grand slams on the first pitch of their first major league at bat, both in past decade, meaning that millions of fans lived their entire lives without seeing it happen.
* Most sources date baseball’s “modern era” to 1900 (plus or minus a year) and most records date from then. However, there are legitimate arguments for 1893 (the distance from the mound to home plate was established as 60 feet, six inches), 1920 (beginning of the “live ball” era), 1947 (end of the color barrier), 1961 (introduction of the 162 game season), or even 1973 (introduction of the designated hitter). For purposes of this piece, though, I’m using 1876, because that’s how far back Baseball Almanac’s records go.
Of course, there are also opportunities for players to be spectacularly bad in an “I’ve never seen that before” way. Consider Tommy John who managed to commit three errors on a single play one night in 1988. (Legend has it that John was merely following in the footsteps of one Smead Jolley who had a similarly inept moment in the early 1930s, but Baseball Reference denounces the story as apocryphal–while noting that Jolley was so bad as a fielder that it could have been true.)
I’ve rambled long enough. Once the season starts, come on out to a game. I can’t guarantee that you’ll see history being made, but the odds are pretty good. Any play–any pitch–could be the one that lets you say “I was there” for the rest of your life.