Learn to watch baseball and love it

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Watching baseball in St. Louis on July 4th.

Watching baseball in St. Louis on July 4th.

This post is for all you not yet baseball fans.

For years, I’ve heard about how boring baseball is and how you find it unwatchable. The games are too long. They play too many games. The pace of the game is too slow. Ballplayers are just a bunch of slow fat guys who aren’t real athletes, blah, blah, blah.

What a load of crap.

To add a bit of perspective, many of you waited in a line outside a theater to see each of the Lord of the Rings movies the day they were released. Then you went back and saw each of them again multiple times. On top of that, you made the conscious decision to purchase the E-X-T-E-N-D-E-D versions of each one of those ridiculously long films and you sat through those, too. That’s almost a whole baseball season right there!

So in my humble opinion, if you can sit through a series of movies that are: a) each three hours long or longer, and b) mostly about walking, I’m quite sure a baseball game will be the new must-see epic of the summer for you.

Is your universe boring?
Baseball is kind of like astronomy. If you just casually glance up at the stars at night, you might think they’re boring little blips of light. But if you see Saturn’s rings or the Orion Nebula in a telescope and you start to think about what might be out there. . .well, suddenly it’s–ahem–a whole different ballgame indeed. You just need to know where to look.

And the more you look, the more you enjoy it. The key thing about baseball spectating is appreciation for what’s happening on the field and in the dugouts. One problem, though, is that you can’t always see the entire picture, especially on TV.

“Frothy eloquence neither convinces nor satisfies me. I’m from Missouri. You’ve got to show me.” – Willard D. Vandiver

Baseball has many games within the game. Watch the dugouts. Look at the “conversations” that are happening between the coaches on the bench and the players on the field at all times during the game. Even in a Little League game, the coaches are helping to position the kids on the field relative to the hitter (left- or right-handed). Generally speaking, a left-handed hitter tends to pull the ball to right field, so the defense shifts a bit to that side in anticipation of the hit, and so forth.

The catcher acts as quarterback on the baseball field. He’s calling the pitches (even if he’s getting his plays signaled to him by the manager) and looking to pick runners off the bases.

The shortstop and second baseman are also constantly plotting their next moves for the situation(s) they face on any given play, such as double-play positioning or acting as a cut-off man for the outfielders should a ball get hit deep.

The third base coach will always be signaling to the hitter what he’s to do on the next pitch. He’s also signaling to runners on the bases as to possible plays or when to steal, etc.

Even the outfielders have a series of signals from the bench which dictate their positions relative to the person hitting and where stats say that guy’s most likely to hit the ball.

There’s so much happening on any given play and when you notice it, you’re instantly intrigued. Now you want to figure out their signals and break the code. You want to know why the whole defense shifted to the right side of the field and left the left side completely open. You want to know why they walked the bases loaded on purpose or switched pitchers after only throwing to one hitter. It’s all fascinating within the context of the game.

No clock is a good thing.
You might feel that baseball is too slow and that it takes too long. To a baseball lover, that’s exactly the point. Where most other sports have ticking clocks and forced actions based on those clocks, we have innings dictated by outs, which are dictated by the situations that materialize within the game. The action on the field dictates how long a game will be.

The fastest games in baseball are usually a pitcher’s dual. That means there is little or no scoring, thus, the double-edged sword of baseball. Fans of this game like it like that, but casual fans demand constant action and lots of scoring. If you have tons of runs being scored in baseball, that means the game is longer. You can’t have it both ways, really.

Understand the situations.
Baseball is a game of situations. When you play it and watch the game long enough, you learn them. The beauty of baseball is the situational games that take place within the game. You learn to anticipate them and (especially as a player) you learn what to do in the various situations.

If a batter gets a hit, it puts the entire defense into a different situation for the next hitter. Instead of the potential for only getting one out, the defense has an opportunity to get two outs from a single batted ball. If the second batter hits a ball on the ground to the shortstop, chances are they’ll turn a double play. Suddenly, everything’s different in the game for a moment. It changes everything.

Mike Matheny and Jose Oquendo plot and strategize in the Cardinals' dugout.

Mike Matheny and Jose Oquendo plot and strategize in the Cardinals’ dugout.

Signs, everywhere, signs.
If you’re watching a game and you look to the dugout, you’ll see the manager and/or the other coaches doing a crazy mix of what looks like nervous twitching and odd sequences of touching various parts of their faces, hats, elbows and other parts. It’s all good. They’re not stroking out, they’re just talking to one another.

The signals are the secret codes of baseball. Every team has their own set of signals so that the other teams can’t figure out their plans. The patterns of the signs are crazy and complex to the casual observer, but normally, they’re actually quite simple. What’s cool is that 99% of the signs shown don’t mean anything. The coach will flash a bunch of signs, but unless the player sees the agreed upon “indicator,” the signs don’t mean anything. They’re a decoy to mess with the other team.

There’s even a sign that can change the indicator of the signs in times of desperation, like when you suspect the other team has figured out your signs and you have to change things up a bit. The signs can help the manager signal to the third base coach what he wants the hitter to do (or not do) on the next pitch, like take the pitch, bunt or execute a hit-and-run.

Infielders can also signal to the catcher that the runner is leading off just a tad too far and to make the throw on the next pitch, for instance. The manager might signal to the catcher to throw a certain pitch at a certain time and the catcher relays that to the pitcher. The shortstop and second baseman also see the catcher’s signs and they know what they need to do if the situation plays out a certain way. There are tons of signals and you have to pay attention because they’re always happening.

Even if you have no idea what’s happening, just watching the complexity unfolding before your eyes is sure to add a new level of appreciation for the game.

But if that’s not enough. . .

Appreciate the physical aspects of the game.
Back in 1986, I went to Grand Slam USA in suburban Chicago. It was an indoor batting cage and sports complex and they had a fast cage with a pitching machine set at 95 mph like Dwight Gooden from the Mets would throw. They even set up a cardboard cutout of Gooden in his delivery so it looked like he was pitching to you. I was 12 and I’d been playing ball for quite a while by that point, so I thought I could hit him.

Yeah. . .No.

The first pitch was pure fear. That thing was scary fast. You could hear a fizz sound as the ball shot past you. The second pitch I swung at, but like three days too late. On the next pitch, I started my swing the instant I saw the yellow glint of the ball between the machine’s wheels. I still missed it. After a few, I managed to make contact, but it was a foul tip. 12-year-old me got totally owned by simulated Dwight Gooden.

The point is that if you’ve never stood in the batter’s box facing a pitcher or pitching machine hurling a ball at you at 90 mph or faster, you probably won’t have nearly the appreciation for Major League pitching or the level of skill it takes to actually hit that ball. It’s eye opening to say the least.

Don’t forget that the ball is also tailing up or down in addition to traveling at a high rate of speed from a mere 60 feet away. That’s why even the best of the best hitters in baseball are only successful around 30% of the time. Not only that, but most pitchers have multiple pitches–from variable rate fastballs to breaking balls (curveballs), sliders, forkballs, change-ups, knuckleballs, knuckle-curves and whatever else. Each pitch behaves differently when you’re standing at home plate.

Sorry, Porkins.
You might not consider baseball players to be the most “athletic” specimens on earth. OK, but hang on a second. By comparison, there are far more “fat” dudes playing pro football than baseball. In fact, in addition to the helmets and padding in football, you need an entire line of “fat” guys to protect the “real” athletes so they don’t get hurt. It’s reminiscent of the sacrificial fat dude in Star Wars–the aptly-named “Porkins”–who’s X-Wing gets blown up while covering the handsome Biggs on their way to blow up the first Death Star. Why do the fat dudes have to perish? Why can’t they be heroes?

Well, in baseball, they can be. Just ask Pablo Sandoval, David Ortiz, Fernando Valenzuela, Cecil/Prince Fielder, or Babe Ruth. In baseball, Porkins can be the destroyer of Death Stars and recipient of victory medals from the lovely princess.

Besides, pure athleticism is only a partial requirement in baseball. In order to play at the big league level, skill, timing, and hand-eye coordination have to be Jedi-like. If you ever need verification of that, try stepping into a fast-pitch batting cage sometime and see how well you do.

The hitter also has an umpire making judgement calls as to which of these pitches are in or out of the strike zone. The zone changes with every hitter and umpires vary it from day to day, even from inning to inning. It’s all subjective, so that adds drama and yelling at the TV.

Statistically speaking. . .
Baseball is the grand-daddy of stats and the geeks who obsess over them. Over the years, a certain breed of uber-geeks have made advanced stats a more relevant and practical thing to baseball. Teams have their own armies of stat geeks with Harvard educations and the like to figure out everything about the game and assign values to them. It can get quite complex, but it’s also fascinating to watch the statistics support the game. In some cases, they make the argument to do or not do certain things, like steal bases or execute certain plays. There’s a certain RPG element to baseball if you look at it through the stats. There’s also a lot of science, patterns and decision-making elements to the game.

I won’t get into all the stats here, but as you grow to love the game, you can’t help but want to learn more about the stats. If you play fantasy baseball, you have no choice but to understand what RBIs, K’s and WAR’s all mean.

Yadier Molina receives the signs from the dugout.

Yadier Molina receives the signs from the dugout.

Try it. For real.
You may claim you hate baseball or you think it’s boring. But I challenge you to dig in and give it a real try. Go to a game in an iconic stadium if you have the means. If not, find a local minor league team or high school team to watch. It’s a fascinating game when you can really absorb all that it has to offer.

And better yet, take in a game with someone who can guide you through some of the finer points of the game. It’s worth it. If it’s more drama you seek, you’ll definitely find it.

I can’t convert all of you, but I know there are many of you so it’s worth a shot.

It’s totally foreign to me to encounter someone who claims they don’t like baseball. My brain can’t process that, probably because I was born in St. Louis, Missouri, where, as far as I know, they plant a small chip in your body that automatically makes you a fan of baseball and the St. Louis Cardinals. I have that chip. It continues to work even after you move out of state.

For any of you who were raised in a non-baseball household, the best thing to do is to get a glove, a ball and another human with a glove and go play catch. It’s fun and you’ll suddenly find yourself appreciating how humans can catch or hit a ball coming at them at 90-100 mph from 60′ 6″ away. That’s one good way to spark your interest.

Besides, it’s about time somebody stood up for baseball. Football gets all the love, which I’ve never understood. [Honestly, if it’s physical contact, pure athleticism and fast-paced action you seek, be a hockey fan. Hockey has WAY more action than football will ever have, way better athletes, plus it’s the only legal way for humans to physically assault each other with sticks and/or for a man to pound another man into a bloody pile and only have to sit in time-out for a few minutes as punishment. It’s three periods of pure awesome and forever will be my second favorite sport next to baseball.]

But if you want pure joy and drama that’s truly unique in every way, baseball’s the way to go. No more silly excuses about it being boring or slow…give it a bit of your attention and it will reward you for life.

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