Friends, I’m sorry I haven’t written in a while. SHAKY MAN and POPPY’S TUNES have kept me busy. Now it’s football season, but my mind’s on baseball. The Rangers and Astros are in the playoffs and everyone is rooting for the Cubs in the National League. Therefore, I’m going to get this ruminatory rant off my chest. It’s been swirling in my mind for many years.
Most people, baseball players in particular, never stop to think about how unique and perfect the game of baseball is when played as originally inspired. I know all about the Abner Doubleday myth and the cricket family tree, but there’s something about the game that makes you shiver when you hear James Earl Jones say the word in FIELD OF DREAMS – “BAASSSE-BALLLL.”
I started thinking about this many years ago when Ann and I were watching a reenactment ragball, baseball game at the Fort Davis National Park grounds. The players were in uniform, just like they would have been after the Civil War. The umpire was in uniform as well, with a pistol in his belt, which he had to pull out and fire into to air occasionally to break up a ruckus. It reminded me of when I was a kid playing sandlot ball in Waco.
You see, that’s part of the beauty of Pure Baseball, all you need is one geographic point on this planet and a little land surface from which to spread out. Preferably flat. You don’t need a fence. You don’t need a backstop. You don’t need a dugout. You don’t need bleachers. All of those things were created later for the convenience of players and fans. The outfield fence is just there so the fielders don’t have to run so far and people can sit and watch from out there. It’s at a preset distance for a home run. All you need to start is a point on the earth and a sense of geometry. Just take your point, draw a right angle into infinity and make a square where the points are an agreed upon distance apart. More on that later.
Before going on about the divine points of Pure Baseball, let’s look at the games humans invent. They are all played in boxes. Football, basketball, tennis, ping-pong. Just name one and there are imaginary walls where the ball goes out of bounds or the ball has to cross a line to score.
Not in Pure Baseball. I know there are foul lines (actually, they are fair lines), but fly balls caught in the so-called foul territory still produce an out. If it drops, the batter gets a strike or has to go back and take another pitch. The whole world is fly ball territory for the defense. It doesn’t seem fair does it? More on fairness later.
Then there are the clocks. Look at football, basketball, soccer, hockey and other games that go “down to the buzzer” and need “time management.” Not Pure Baseball. Pure Baseball takes as long as it takes. The point is to take some time away and enjoy the perfect game. It was designed to be a leisurely, pastoral experience.
Is Pure Baseball fair? Certainly not. Look at it. Everything favors the defense. It’s nine (three times three) against one. Three is a divine number, but more on that later. Each of the defensive players is strategically positioned to either catch the ball or stop it to throw the batter or an advancing runner out. As I mentioned, the defense gets to make outs outside the foul (fair) lines. The batter gets three divined strikes. The pitcher gets four balls. In short, the pitcher gets one more chance to screw up than the batter. Not fair!
Then there are the distances. Since both sides get to play defense, there was an apparent agreement to place the bases just far enough away from home plate so a good runner couldn’t beat out a good ground ball. And a good base stealer can’t advance on an average pitch. That distance just turned out to be 90 feet (a multiple of three) for the big boys.
How far to place the pitcher’s rubber? 60 feet, six inches (both multiples of three), just close enough to make it hard to hit a good fast ball and just far enough to give a breaking ball or change up time to do it’s stuff. Not fair!
Nine (three times three) innings? Why not eight or ten? Maybe it’s because those numbers weren’t inspired? Here’s where you may feel free to nominate me for the nut house. 27 outs to a side. Three times three times three. Pure completeness. I’m not going to go into a lot of detail here other than to point out that the number three is represented in many ways in many religions around the world. It is prime. It is complete. Tell me of a human game that is divided in such a way. Okay, I’ll give you hockey with its three periods, but it’s still played in a box.
I don’t know if we’ll ever see it again. I still remember boys playing Pure Baseball in somebody’s field behind their house on a Saturday morning. They might have used old pillows or sacks or rocks for bases. Home plate was probably a piece of cardboard. The pitcher’s rubber was stepped off and kicked out of the flat ground. They had all day and nothing else to do. It was wonderful. It was marvelous. It was memorable. The air smelled like Spring. I was one of those boys.