Feel of the Ball
is the spring game, and the summer game. Football can have fall;
Driving in the car you pass playing fields,
and with lines and bases they are made into baseball diamonds.
Diamonds. Baseball is played on the perfect field; wet outfields
and rocky infields don't spoil the diamond.
Look at that beautiful playing field,
I tell my wife, who I admit is not very impressed. What I see
of course is not merely a field, but a place where a game is played.
And always I then recall the home run I gave up that lost a game
(I was not, by the way, a pitcher; so why was I pitching then?
It was a game, and so I played at pitching), or the time I was
lucky and got really good wood on the ball, which in my case meant
getting a double (nor was I a slugger or even a good hitter).
Was there ever anything more free than
grabbing a bat and ball, or the ball if Bill had the bat, the
bat if Paul had the ball, and heading for the field? In the summers
we played on the roughest field imaginable, yet it wasn't long
before the paths were worn and you knew where the pitcher's mound
was even if it was anything but a mound.
We call it the national pastime, but I
don't think anyone seriously believes that anymore, and maybe
hasn't for many years. Like everything else, the fields they are
a-changin'. Now it's not the mound and home plate so much as yardlines
One young spring Ted Williams signed this ball for a young fan.
Baseball may define a philosophy. Do you
want to win all at once, with a home run; or are you satisfied
with winning slowly, advancing the runner, scoring on a sacrifice
fly? It may be an indication of wisdom that kids like the big
bang and the big inning, whereas older shall we say fans believe
the best game is the pitching duel.
Beating out a slow roller gets you on
first base, and with a stolen base and advance on an error, that
slow roller looks as good as a triple. With the bases loaded,
though, the triple is the thing. (Easily, the triple is the most
exciting hit now that the inside-the-park homer is a thing more
or less of the past.)
The pitcher has a simple enough job. Throw
strikes or near strikes that get the batter out. You don't have
to strike out the batter; in fact, a one-pitch ground-out can't
be beat. The simple job, though, is one performed by a player
of skill. Four pitches that just miss the strike zone, all taken
by the batter, and the batter is grinning at the pitcher with
his foot on the bag at first base.
Walks are bound to happen, and there are
times when a walk may be the pitcher's wisest option. The intentional
walk can be a defensive move on the part of the pitcher's team.
You give the opponent a base in return for putting the pressure
on runners, creating a force-out situation. But an intentional
pass followed by a hit is like spitting into the wind.
Baseball is not at all like chess. You
can play baseball for the first time without knowing a thing about
the game. You just take the field with a glove on one hand or
the other, or go up to the plate with a bat, which you will swing
from one side or the other. I've never paid much attention to
which hand a child uses to hold a crayon, but it's important to
see which hand he uses to throw with. How else to know which glove
to get-lefty, which is worn on the right hand, or righty worn
on the left.
Also unlike chess, and unlike those clock
games football, basketball and hockey, baseball-as the famous
philosopher of the game Yogi Berra said in his staggeringly matchless
way-"ain't over till it's over." You have a four-run lead
in the ninth? Safe? Ha! A six-run lead? Better be ready to play
ball still, because the other team still has three outs. Two outs
in the ninth, bases empty, two-run lead, one out needed-one strike,
even-and the game is over. Relax? There are teams that don't put
that final nail in the coffin and discover the postmortem is going
to be performed on themselves.
It is that baseball is theoretically endless
that gives it the power to put a spectator totally at ease. We
live in a world-the real world of adults and responsibilities-that
we love to escape; and the world of escape is the unreal world
of, well, children. For many of us the workday is littered with
appointments and deadlines and messages to be returned. Enter
that free space called baseball and all your sins are forgiven,
or if you have no sins, not having that turn of mind, then your
humanity has a lighter feel.
Baseball is not won with poor defense
(here it does resemble the game of pawns and queens). That starts
with the catcher and the infield. What can a pitcher enjoy more
than an inning-ending double play. A one-out bases-loaded liner
to third, for example.
If you want to know why some people are
attracted to something, understand why others aren't. The complaint
you often hear about baseball is that it's slow. Precisely. There
are hour-long games-football, say-that take maybe three hours
of your time (three of the best hours, a fan of football will
say). Baseball is a three-hour game that takes three hours of
your time, but if you're lucky there will be extra innings.
Tom Putnam is a Red Sox fan who knows that
Ted Williams was a better hitter than Joe DiMaggio. He will accept
arguments at firstname.lastname@example.org.