When you attend a graduate school program that’s 45 percent international, there are some things you expect to come with the territory. You may be asked to edit some classmates’ papers for things that seem pretty simple to us, like subject-verb agreement. You may have to relent and call that all-kicking sport “football” for a couple of years just to avoid an argument. But there will be payoffs. You expect to be introduced to all different cultures, and more importantly all different kinds of food, and that’s more than met my expectations so far.

But one thing I didn’t expect, even in a program that’s so diverse, was to show up at class one day and have this projected onto the pull-down screen.

Except for the part where the word out is up there where no ball could ever be turned into an out, this is actually sensible even for a class on data analytics for business. The lecture du jour was about Moneyball, and the gist was that wins and losses can be predicted by runs scored and allowed, so stop trying to chase wins and start trying to chase the components of them. It was basically a pretty introductory lecture in multivariate regression and what you can do with that. But you can’t walk into that room and just start having a conversation about baseball with so many students from countries that don’t have major league teams—there were students from India, China, Canada, Nigeria, etc. all in the room.

What accompanied the visual was probably four minutes of explaining baseball to the uninformed. It never veered anywhere close to this, but did explain in some painstaking fashion how the season works and how teams make the playoffs and a little bit about the game. But for everything the professor explained about the actual gameplay, he found himself having to back up a step. The concept of a walk, so key to the Moneyball narrative, was meaningless without the concept of a ball, which was meaningless without starting at step one, a pitcher throwing to a catcher with a batter trying to hit the ball between two lines at 90 degrees, and so on.

What it made me appreciate even more than how lucky I am to be from a baseballing part of the world was the fact that I never had to explain the game at that level to anyone. (That I’ve never had kids would explain like 99 percent of that.)

Anyway, it made me think about how fast I’d be able to explain the game of baseball to somebody who had legitimately never seen it before. Not explain it to somebody who still thought batting average was the measure of one’s contribution—that I’ve done a million times with zero enjoyment. But somebody to whom the game was totally new.

Some of the other-sport people have it easy. If the goal is to have somebody be able to start a game from the beginning and watch it without ever getting too confused, you can explain basketball in four sentences. They might not grasp every tiny detail—this ignores things like goaltending and what happens when the ball goes out of bounds—but without leaving them to figure out anything difficult, they’d absolutely get the picture and know why every person on the court is doing what he’s doing and when the game will end. You get 99 percent of the way there in 92 words.

The teams have four quarters to see who can score more points by putting the ball through its designated hoop. Each time it goes in, it's worth two points, unless the shot comes from behind the arc, in which case it's three. Excessive contact is prohibited, and if that disrupts a shot or if a team commits it too many times, you get to shoot uncontested for one point. The ball must be bounced continuously for a player to run with it, and once he stops bouncing it, he can't start again.

Soccer is even easier: Just 74 words explain the world’s game to whatever tiny part of the world wouldn’t have any idea what’s happening on a soccer field, and a good portion of those are just because it uses a stupid clock system.

The team that shoots the ball into its designated goal the most times in two halves wins. A goalie is the only player who can use his hands and can only do so in the larger box. No player can be past the last non-goalie defender when the ball is played to him. Halves will extend past the 45-minute mark to account for unusual stoppages, but that time won't be counted on the board.

Ice hockey is a little harder, and this is my best attempt at that. We’re over the century figure to 103 words, and even that leaves the penalty situation a little murky.

The team that puts the puck into its designated goal the most times in three periods wins. Each team has a goaltender that can stand in the goal and block shots. A team can neither have a player ahead of the blue line before the puck nor shoot the puck from its own side of center ice past the goal. Physical contact is generally permitted on a player who has the puck, but infractions with the stick and excessive contact near the boards results in a penalty. The player sits out two or five minutes, creating a manpower advantage for the other team.

The true degree of difficulty is reserved for the uniquely American sports. We sure like to complicate things, don’t we? Football isn’t all that terrible, I guess, as long as you leave it to the viewer that your guess as to what’s being penalized is as good as the drunk guy’s next to you. Then 184 words should get you the job done without too much unnecessary verbiage.

The offense moves down the field in plays, either runs or forward passes, and the play ends when the runner is tackled or the forward pass hits the ground. They have four plays to either get 10 yards or punt the ball to the other team. A variety of penalties can be called for lining up improperly or illegal tackles or too much contact disrupting a pass or after a play and can either be enforced for a number of yards associated with the severity, or declined if the other team benefited more from the play itself. Scoring is six for getting the ball into the opponent’s end zone (plus a chance for one by kicking through the goal posts or getting it in again on a try after). It’s three for a kick between the uprights and two for tackling an opponent in his own end zone, and the game is played in four quarters with the clock stopping when a runner goes out of bounds or a pass hits the ground with slightly modified clock rules at the end of the halves.

And then there’s baseball. Where do you even start? I asked around a little bit on the BP staff for the input of some people who hadn’t been giving it this much thought.

Here’s R.J. Anderson’s explanation, which runs 147 words (shorter than football) and is pretty thorough.

An inning sees each team bat until they make three outs, which is a fancy way of saying failing to reach base. There are nine of these in a regulation game. Teams score by rounding the four bases in a counterclockwise fashion and are awarded a run for each player who touches the plate. Batters can reach base a few ways: 1) being hit by the pitch, 2) taking four pitches outside of the strike zone before they take three pitches within it, or, the most common route 3) hitting a ball that isn't caught or fielded and thrown to first in time. There are also varieties of hits, depending on how far the batter can run before the ball is returned to the base. If a ball clears the wall on the fly and stays within the two big yellow poles, then it's an automatic run.

The seven ways to reach base are nicely condensed into three, which pretty much grab everything that you’ll see. I’d be a little confused when the runner takes off for second on the next pitch, but we’re not writing a novel here, so I like this one.

Here’s Sam Miller’s submission, which goes 14 words shorter.

A hitter has three tries to hit a thrown ball. After striking it, he must attempt to touch four safe “bases,” in order. If he succeeds, his team gets a point. Nine opposing defenders prevent his progress by three primary methods: Preventing the hitter from striking the ball in three tries; tagging him while he is not touching a safe base; or catching a struck ball on the fly. Each produces an “out,” and the hitter’s turn is over. The game is divided into nine symmetrical sections. In each section, the teams take turns playing defense. In each turn, the hitting team hits until the defense produces three outs. Runners may safely stay on a base for the next hitter’s turn, until all outs have been used in each section. Most points wins.

The critique of this entry is that it assumes a lot for your ability to figure out the ball/strike thing and why a batter might just start walking down to first.

But what I find fascinating about these two is that once contact is made, they take the exact opposite approaches. One tells you how to be safe, and the other tells you how to be out. I won’t ascribe either of those to my colleagues’ outlooks on life, but it’s very interesting how a rule book that spans 132 pages of a .pdf can be condensed in such different ways.

I hope you’ll take a crack at it in the comments section, and I’ll come back with an Unfiltered post on Friday with some of your best submissions—bonus points if you can get them under 100 words (with no syntax tricks) and still leave the untrained viewer in good hands.

Now, I’ve taken foreigners to American sporting events before, and culturally it was a blast. One who was raised with European soccer came to an NHL game with me and was noticeably nervous for the fans who were wearing the visitor’s jersey and even a little surprised the ticket-takers let them in with such ease.

My father tells a story about befriending a British couple completely new to baseball at a Yankees-Astros spring training game a couple years ago, and they couldn’t believe how competitive the game was between the only team they’d ever heard of and the one my father explained had the worst record the year before. Forget the fact that it was spring training; we take for granted the fact that even in the regular season, the lesser team wins 40 percent of the time, not the two percent of the time that a relegation zone denizen might beat a Chelsea.

But I’ve been fortunate (or maybe unfortunate) never to have to explain baseball on its most fundamental level. If I ever do, I’ll probably just use Sam’s second reply to the prompt:

It's basically like kickball except instead of kicking the ball you hit it with a bat.

Thank you for reading

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European: Why do they call it football, you throw the ball.
You: You can head a ball in soccer, why don't they call it headball?
Add five words to Sam's: "...and points are called runs."

Great stuff, and it IS mind-bendingly hard to describe baseball simply. Amen to "how lucky I am to be from a baseballing part of the world."
"The true degree of difficulty is reserved for the uniquely American sports."

Cricket? The classic explanation:

"You have two sides, one out in the field and one in. Each man that's in the side that's in goes out, and when he's out he comes in and the next man goes in until he's out. When they are all out, the side that's out comes in and the side thats been in goes out and tries to get those coming in, out. Sometimes you get men still in and not out.

When a man goes out to go in, the men who are out try to get him out, and when he is out he goes in and the next man in goes out and goes in. There are two men called umpires who stay all out all the time and they decide when the men who are in are out. When both sides have been in and all the men have out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game! "
I was just going to point out that cricket may be the hardest to explain.
Unless the men in cant be got out within four days (first class) or five days (test match), then its a draw. (:
My first attempt at cricket runs to 301 words. I'm sure this can be reduced though:

The batsman tries to score runs and not be dismissed. He is dismissed if: (1) The ball bowled by the bowler hits the sticks behind the batsman ("stumps") hard enough to knock off the horizontal sticks ("bail"). (2) The batsman blocks the ball using his body and the umpire believes it would have hit the stumps. (3) The batsman hits the ball and a fielder catches it before it hits the ground. (4) The batsman goes out of his safe zone (the "crease") when trying to hit the ball and a fielder knocks off the bails before the batsman recovers. (5) The batsman and his partner try to run and a fielder knocks off the bails at one end of the pitch with the ball before the runner reaches the crease at that end. The batsman scores runs in one of two ways: (1) He tries to hit the ball and it goes over the field's boundary. This is worth four runs if the ball bounces inside the boundary first, otherwise it's worth six. (2) He tries to hit the ball and then he and his partner both run to the other end of the pitch before a fielder can dismiss them as in (5) above; this scores one run. At that point they can attempt to run back and score a second run, and so on. When a batsman is dismissed ("out") he is replaced by another member of his team; the team's "innings" is over when ten of its eleven players are out or the captain voluntarily declares the innings over. In a complete match each team has two innings; a team wins if it scores more runs that its opponent and both of its opponent's innings have been completed. If neither team wins the match is a draw.
Reduced to 204 by judicious (?) editing:

The batsman tries to score runs and not be "out". He is out if the bowler hits his stumps (the sticks behind the batsman), if the batter blocks the ball heading for the stumps with his body, if he hits the ball and a fielder catches it before hit hits the ground, or if a fielder hits the stumps with the ball while the batter is out of his safe zone ("crease"). The batsman scores runs by attempting to hit the ball and either having it go over the field's boundary (scoring four or six runs depending if it bounces first) or by him and his partner running to the other's end of the pitch before a fielder can hit the stumps at that end (scoring one run each time they both make it to the other end). When a batsman is out he is replaced by another member of his team; the team's "innings" is over when ten of its eleven players are out or they declare the innings over. Each team has two innings; a team wins if it scores more runs that its opponent and both of its opponent's innings are complete. If neither team wins, the match is a draw.
Yeah, that was poor wording on my part, both in ignoring the sports that aren't American at all and also considering baseball uniquely American when the DR and Japan, to name a couple, might disagree. E1 on that one. -Z
As somebody who knows zilch or less about cricket, I love this explanation for its zany incomprehensibility. I do have a couple questions, though:

"When both sides have been in and all the men have out, and both sides have been out twice after all the men have been in, including those who are not out, that is the end of the game!"

First, how do you score?

Also, I thought some cricket games simply never end at all - does that mean that it's possible that either side is never in twice and / or out twice? If true, then is the score rendered moot?
See my posts above for how to score (summary of the summary: either hit the ball out of the park or put it in play and run to the other end of the pitch).

All cricket games end - there's either a time limit or a limit on the number of balls each side bowls. Decades ago there were some games without a time limit: the so-called "timeless tests" that were played until somebody won. The last one was abandoned as a draw after nine days because England were playing in South Africa and would have missed their boat home if they'd kept going any longer.

In a game with a time limit it is possible that time can run out before a team has finished both of its innings. If that happens, and the team has scored fewer runs than its opponent, the game is a draw. In the other type of game, with a limit on the number of balls bowled by each side, the rules are simpler: each team gets one innings and the team with the most runs wins.

I have had the same experience of explaining baseball to international colleagues. After one of my long explanations, the first batter hit a lazy fly ball to right-center, which the CF drifted over and caught. It was a play than any high school outfielder could have made. My colleague was shocked, "How did he know exactly where that ball was going to land?" I decided to shut up and let the game be beautiful.
What's interesting to me is that the foreign-born students might actually be *more* confused by Moneyball after learning the basics of baseball.

I could definitely envision lots of puzzled questions like "Wait a minute... it seems clear that this 'walk' is essentially equivalent to a 'single', so why would people for whom this game is their livelihood treat one as if it's markedly inferior to the other?"
I've attempted this with a German friend of mine. The game was the Rays vs. the White Sox. I don't recall the player details, but a Sox player threw at a Rays batter and the umpire tossed the pitcher without warning the dugouts first. So I was tasked with explaining unwritten rules as well as written ones. No explanation necessary regarding the hilarity of a Hawk Harrelson meltdown.

As a White Sox fan, I have a harder time explaining Hawk than I do baseball. My roommate isn't a sports fan in the least (though grew up in the states). He will sometimes sit and watch gamed with me. Hawk will say something dumb, my roommate will ask me about what he just said, and I spend most of my time explaining why he's wrong, rather than what's going on in the game.
Adapting from Wikipedia: "Buzkashi: Horse-mounted players compete to drag a goat carcass toward a goal. Traditionally, games last for days. Riders wear heavy clothing and head protection to protect against other players' whips and boots. If available, a calf is less likely to disintegrate during play."

That seems to be a very thorough description of play.

Financial tip: is likely available at a reasonable rate. Some acronyms are easier to remember for buzkashi. For example, 'WHIP' stands for 'whip'.
Comment written before reading the article, but I once did this as part of a job interview in Israel. In Hebrew. I got the job. Then played LF for the top team in the Israeli Men's League. Good times.
I think we should hold a contest to make an up-goer-five style description of baseball:
When you explain the rules of baseball it feels like you are 10 and making up a game on the playground; there are so many rules that contradict or are situation specific.
My French friend had an interesting way if interpreting ball and strikes that has proven useful since. He began calling balls pitches "for the batter" and strikes "for the hitter." It was a simple distinction that I had never thought of because I have always imagined the "count" belonging to the hitter.
Did you mean pitches "for the pitcher" rather than "for the hitter"?
Yes. Thanks.
I got this one:

"A good friend of mine used to say, This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball. Sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, sometimes it rains."
Had a GF that didn't understand baseball, we went to a Dodgers-Orioles SS Spring Training game which I Hoped I could use to explain the sport to her. The game ended in a 0-0 tie. We broke up a week later.
A great old example of a failed attempt to explain the game:
My favorite line in fiction would work here. The great humorist Ring Lardner wrote it in a short story: A teen is asking interminable questions, non-stop. Finally: "'Shut up!" he explained.
My wife was born and raised outside the US. When I took her to her first baseball game in 1997, she was pretty underwhelmed by what I had assumed would be exiting elements of the game -- home runs, loud hits, etc. She was amazed, however, by all the routine plays. It was immediately striking to her that the infielders picked up the grounders, threw to the right bases, turned a couple of double plays, and got every runner out by a step.

Sometimes, you really need to take a step back and appreciate what's really great about our game.
Speaking of this type thing:

I took a friend that had never been to a ballgame, had watched them in bars, but never paid any serious attention. I had him trained by the third inning to pay special attention to 2-0, 2-1 counts. It so happened that game that nearly every count that went 2-0 ended with loud contact within the next two pitches. I didn't need to say anymore about that. When he eventually asked why it is, I told him, "he's gotta throw him a good pitch here, something he can hit." The explanation was actually longer than that, but you know what it is. He got it. I think if you can point out some of the subtleties, baseball can fairly explain itself.
So true. It's hard to appreciate the skill that goes into making a "routine" play when you've been conditioned to be bored by it.
I resemble this, also coming from a non-baseball background. I'm still impressed by infielders calmly taking their time on a play, confident that they've judged things correctly to get the batter out by a step without rushing. And double plays are one of my favourite things, partly because of the speed, precision and elegance displayed on a tight play, and partly because they have no equivalent in cricket.
" many students from countries that don’t have major league teams—there were students from India, China, Canada, Nigeria, etc. all in the room."

Ouch, man. Ouch.
I should note that Canada actually has a major league team, contrary to the implication in the third paragraph.
They used to have two.
Slate ran a contest to define baseball in under 150 words in 2009. Here is the link:

And here are the winners. One for a young audience and one for adults:

For a 6-year-old audience:
Baseball is like tag, except the only way you can tag someone is with the ball. There are two teams: the fielders, who try to tag the other, the batters. The batter's goal is to lap the field, without being tagged. That scores a run. The game starts when a fielder pitches the ball toward a batter. The batter attempts to hit the pitch with his bat. Once the ball is hit, the batter starts his lap while the fielders try to catch the ball and tag the batsman with it, which would score an out. But, along the field, there are three bases, where the batter can stand and can't be tagged out. He can stop there and try to run home after the next batter hits the ball. If the fielders get three outs, they get to bat.
—John Hague, New York

For an adult audience:
Two teams take turns trying to score the most runs. Runs are scored by hitting the baseball, which is thrown by the opposing team. After the ball is hit, the batter must run to all four bases (in order) to score a run. It must be hit within the white lines to be considered fair. While on these bases, the runner is safe. If the ball is caught in the air or reaches a base before the runner does, he is "out" and must leave. Runners may not pass one another. In the case the ball leaves the field, it is considered a home run, and the batter gets to run all the bases and score a run. Each team has three outs before the other team can bat themselves. This change is done nine times. At the end of the nine innings, the team with the most runs wins.
—Jose Alvarez, San Juan, Puerto Rico
I like the second definition, but the sentence "Runners may not pass one another" made me laugh. It's one of those things that seems self-evident to us, to the point that we wouldn't think to mention it, but there's no inherent obvious reason why it MUST be so.
Great article.
I am Ukrainian and really knew how hard it is to explain to someone even most simple rules of baseball. I tried many times and even thought about some standart sentence or two, which I'll throw next time when someone ask me about my "strange" hobby. I failed.

Once I tried to explain basics to my friend while we travelled to other city. He asked me this and that, 40 minutes passed, and he didn't understand baseball anyway.
A feeble, lengthy attempt, but I spent so much time on it I thought I'd throw it up there:

The object of baseball is to score more “runs” (points) than the other team. Two teams take turns attempting to score runs. One team tries to score runs, while the other team tries to prevent runs from being scored. Members of the team trying to score take turns with the “bat” (a big stick), with which they try to hit the ball. The ball is thrown to these “batters” by a member of the other team, the “pitcher.” He tries to throw the ball into a defined area (the “strike zone”) in such a way as to prevent the batter from hitting the ball well, or at all. Behind the pitcher are the “fielders,” who try to catch or stop the ball if the batter hits it. The next two paragraphs will discuss the batters' attempt to score runs; the subsequent paragraph will clarify the role of the fielders and pitchers.

A team’s batters score runs by running to four numbered “bases” (targets). These bases are called first, second, and third base and home plate; players always run to the bases in that order. To score a run, one team’s batters must reach each base in order without the arbiters of the game, umpires, declaring them “out.” Put another way, the umpires must call the batters “safe” at each base, sequentially. Once a batter reaches first base safely, he becomes a “runner” and remains a runner until he is called out (see below) or reaches home plate safely. If a runner reaches home plate safely, his team is awarded a run. Runners may not pass each other (if they do, they are called out) and must each have a base to occupy (so to speak), meaning that only three runners may be “on base” at a given time. (The hitter is “on” home plate, sort of.)

A batter generally advances to first base (thus becoming a runner) in one of three ways: (1) if he hits the pitched ball into a defined area of the field of play (this is called a “fair ball” or a ball hit into “fair territory”); (2) if the pitcher throws four balls outside the strike zone; or (3) if the pitcher hits the batter with the thrown ball. A batter who hits a fair ball over the fence may advance all four bases and score a run. This act is called a “home run.” (Women are said to be stimulated by the home run.) When a batter advances to a base, any runners already occupying bases also often advance. Runners may advance without a batter advancing, but do so at their own risk; if they succeed without being called out, they have executed what is known as the “stolen base.”

Meanwhile, the other team’s members try to prevent runs by getting players out. They usually do this in four basic ways. (1) The pitcher can get the batter out without assistance from the fielders by throwing three “strikes” to the batter. Balls thrown into the strike zone and not swung at can be called strikes by the umpires. So can any ball swung at and missed. Balls hit into the part of the field not defined as fair territory are called “foul balls” and also count as strikes. The third strike—at which point the batter is called out—may not be on a foul ball, but it may be on a “foul tip,” a lightly-batted ball, if the fielder behind home plate (the “catcher”) catches the ball before it hits the ground. (2) A batter is out if he hits the ball and one of the fielders catches it before it hits the ground. (3) A batter is out if he hits the ball to a fielder, who throws it to another fielder who is at the base and touching it (a “force out”). Force outs may only be recorded in situations where the runner is compelled to run to a base, such as when the batter hits the ball and is attempting to reach first base or when a runner at first base is forced to run to second base because the batter is on his way to first base. (4) A batter is out if a fielder holding the ball touches (or “tags”) the runner with the ball (or the ball inside his fielding implement, the “glove”) while the runner has no part of his body on a base.

Once the fielding/pitching team records three outs, it becomes the batting team and the batting team becomes the fielding/pitching team. When each team has batted and three outs have been recorded on either side, an “inning” is complete. Games usually last nine innings. Extra innings are added if the ninth inning is completed and the score is tied. The team hosting the game—the “home team”—has the advantage of batting last in each inning. Thus, the home team has the final chance to outscore the “visiting team” if, in the second half (or “bottom”) of the ultimate inning, the home team has fewer runs.
Your football description doesn't say what a forward pass is, nor the restrictions on who can throw one. I suppose the word "tackling" MIGHT be self explanatory, but perhaps not. I think it may assume too much knowledge.
Pitcher serves the ball to batter. Batting team gets three failures (or outs) and then team roles reverse (the half-inning ends). Pitching team tries to generate outs by having the batter: make three failed swings (strikes), hit the ball and catch it on the fly, or hit the ball between the lines (fair) and tag out the batter before he safely runs to base. Batting team tries to score a run by advancing around the safe bases before the third out. Hit or walked (four bad pitches before three strikes)batters get first base. Nine innings per game. Highest score wins, extra innings if tied. Over the fence fair hits score all.
Great article Zach
I had it right at 100 words before realizing I needed to address home runs and extra innings.

A pitcher throws balls to a batter, trying to place them in a zone over home plate. The batter has three chances to hit a ball in said zone, and he gets a free base if the pitcher misses the zone four times. A batter scores by advancing through the four bases safely. A batter is safe if he both hits a ball that touches the ground between the white lines and he is not tagged out before reaching a base. A batted ball over the fence in the air and between the white lines allows all members of the batting team already on a base to score. A game consists of 9 innings, with each team getting 3 outs per inning. The team with most batters scoring wins the game. Ties are broken with extra innings.
Pretty sure players are allowed to shoot the puck past center ice towards the goal in hockey.
Correct-ish. Here's the the words from the article:
"A team can neither have a player ahead of the blue line before the puck nor shoot the puck from its own side of center ice past the goal."

It's the "past the goal" part that you're missing, which is what "icing" becomes. You can shoot it from anywhere towards/on the goal, but if you're too far away and you miss the net, then it's icing.

So without getting into the "penalties" on offside and icing being described in the article, it's pretty closely correct (and we won't get in to other offsides penalties, when icing really isn't icing, other stuff that'll cause whistles, etc.)
Something about this thread reminds me of the Star Trek: Deep Space Nine episode, "Take me out to the Holodeck". Take a group of people from the 24th century to whom baseball is nothing more than a relic 200 years in the past and teach them to play. They are not only learning how to play physically but the rules of the game. There was a part where they are deciphering the infield fly rule from the rulebook; it was quite telling....

...although, I have to admit as a long-time baseball fan, it took ME a long time before I figured out that one...