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May 8, 2003

Breaking Balls

The Beauty of Baseball

by Derek Zumsteg

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I've been talking lately to fans of different sports, and thinking about what makes baseball fans--seriously fanatical baseball fans, the people who would identify baseball as their favorite sport and might have to think about it if you asked them who the runner-up was--different.

Baseball is so special, in its season, that it seeps into the follower from day to day and week to week. Football fans, for instance, get one three-hour game a week and then speculation on who'll be the starting quarterback and other scraps of news. Baseball offers us nearly a game a day, each day a fact: my team won or my team lost. There's news, streaks broken and started, debuts to watch, slumps, hot streaks, every morning you get up and read something new in the sports section.

In a baseball game, there are at least 200 events, started when the pitcher throws the ball with a batter looking to get on base. This matchup is where the game is fought (and why strike zone calling is so important). Only the last out is final; for every other event, there is another pitch to take, or another batter to take your place. Those are low estimates too--you're more likely to see something like last night's Blue Jays-Rangers 304-pitch 5-4 scrap than last night's 2-1 Mets-Dodgers match that took 235 pitches.

In football, you get a hundred plays in three hours, and everyone's moving around. That it frequently takes a pitcher and batter 30 seconds or more to reset after a pitch seems even more ridiculous when you consider that a football team, which has, uh, 100 guys subbing in and out between plays, can go from play to play that fast.

Over the course of a season watching every game just for one team, you might see 50,000 pitches (more if you're a Rangers fan), 15,000 batters step in against a pitcher, 10,000 plays in the field. A football fan following only his own team will see 2,000 plays run.

All of this provides a sense of surety to baseball. At the end of the season, we can talk about expected win-loss and run differentials all we want, but the teams at the tops of their divisions are there because they're better than the teams at the bottom. There wasn't one game where the officials made a bad pass interference call that kept them out of the playoffs; even in a year where the margin for a division title is one game, those teams likely played each other more than any NFL team plays games in a season. Hitters may have an unexpected good season, but they have to win it by stepping into the box 600 times. A starting NFL quarterback who goes the season without injury or being benched might attempt 600 passes, and would be the player most involved with the team's success or failure. A running back might carry the ball 300 times, a receiver make 100 catches.

By contrast, baseball is load-balanced: The leadoff hitter's going to come up more frequently over the course of a season, but he's not going to bat six times more than the guy in the number eight spot. This makes baseball fans more familiar with more players. There isn't a hometown fan who doesn't know their team's starting nine and at least whether they suck or are really good and, more generally, if they're competent with the glove or awful (with some notable exceptions). Many fans could probably name at least two starters and any star relievers as well. In this way I think the wider connection with the whole team makes for longer, deeper connections. A football team changing quarterbacks swaps out the most-involved player on the team by contrast, and no single free-agent loss or traded player can so dramatically reduce what a fan knows about the team as a whole.

Baseball also brings character to fandom. I've been going to Mariners games since I was knee-high to a grasshopper, and we've gone through stages:

  • long period of utter hopelessness...owner cheap, mostly bad players, team badly run, no end in sight

  • hope as team begins to contend, ownership changes, more good players

  • roller-coaster as team does well, does really badly, contends, sucks

  • resignation as team settles into comfortable contention, frustration with team's comfort with being good-but-not-really good

Mariner fans, for example, spent almost 15 years in the long period of desperation, five years building hope, then five years on the coaster, and now have settled into a Matrix-like sleep, where they're slotted into pods at Safeco and generate money for the owners.

In the same period of time, the Royals were a juggernaut contender, then pretty good, and then only in the last 10 years moved into the sustained hopelessness that comes with top-to-bottom ineptness. The Yankees were great, and awful, then great again. Even the Brewers had a short run as a good team. The rise and fall of franchises means that my enjoyment of seeing my team win today comes with all the enjoyment of the many years of seeing the Mariners get their collective ass handed to them, making it all the sweeter. And similarly, I'm sure that in some way a long-time Royals fan can look at the losses of today and remember them against the years of success and become all the more bitter.

This is the great advantage baseball has over other sports. It's so deep--we watch so many plays and so many games--that its history is built on so many events, forgettable and extraordinary. Being a fan is something that naturally runs through life, and generations of families. It makes fans of different franchises take on unique characters that spring naturally from the fortunes of their teams. It provides loyalty and a deep connection that cannot be bought, only squandered or slowly and carefully nurtured over time. It is my hope that if in 10 years I'm taking my kids to the game, rather than having to explain how the team might get the 16th playoff seed, I'll be explaining the long and storied history of our team, past glories and failures they weren't around for, and talk about what they might see as they grow up watching the game, free of needless changes.

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