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© Soobum Im-USA TODAY Sports

Baseball doesn’t need us, technically. It can exist inside a total vacuum, and the computers can simulate its future for generations. Compared to other sports, the weight of the home crowd is scarcely even noticeable on the umpires, and home-field advantage probably owes what scant succor it provides less to adoration than to the comfort rating of the players’ own beds. The crowd at a baseball game is considered docile almost to the point of bovinity.

Roger Angell painted the archetypal picture of the Fort Lauderdale Mets fan in the sixties, sweat bleeding through pink polo shirts and programs swaying limply in the heat. It’s an unfair portrayal, but tenacious. After all, why exert? The baseball fan, compared to his colleagues in the other sports, is disempowered. A rough breakdown of the major sports, performed by FiveThirtyEight in 2014, provided these results for home-field advantage:

League Homefield

NHL

63%

NBA

59%

NFL

57%

MLB

54%

This season, the total is 53.8 percent. As another playoff season approaches, I find myself wishing that these numbers, and particularly the bottom one, were higher. I see nothing wrong with making it more difficult for a visiting team to win in front of a hostile crowd, or rewarding six months of toil with a gentler climb toward the championship. More than anything, I want the regular season to have value, and currently home-field advantage (and avoiding the dreaded play-in game) is all it buys you, after a certain point. Teams have learned this, and have placed greater emphasis on resting starters than eking out wins; one can hardly blame them, unless one has a ticket to a late-September game.

There are dozens of hypotheses about what goes into home-field advantage: crowd size and enthusiasm, player comfort and familiarity, referee behavior, and even territorial defensiveness contribute to the gap. Officiating is among the most popular causes, and an example of how baseball trails the other sports: the ball/strike calls that make up the bulk of the effect of umpiring on the game are incremental, and perhaps less prone to the psychological effect of an angry mob over one’s shoulder, while the truly game-changing calls so common to other sports are, for baseball, comparatively rare. In fact, the pitcher-batter matchup, so pivotal to the game, feels so insular an event that crowd noise can barely seem to touch it.

In fact, there are surprisingly few legal ways that the crowd can impact a ballgame. Obviously the fans can’t physically harm or threaten the players on the field, even on plays on the periphery between their domains. The best a determined group of people can do is to fight for or clear away from a foul pop-up one arm’s length into the stands. The culture of communal cheering has never quite taken in America, perhaps from a lack of evidence as to its effectiveness; the art of the sign, which felt omnipresent in the baseball of my youth, itself appears to be in twilight. There are still gray areas to inhabit in the realm of sportsmanship: would a sign saying “Sorry Your Dog Died” to evoke an enemy pitcher’s memories of dogs past be morally wrong? It’s hard to say. But with 40,000 people on 162 occasions, people are going to test the occasional boundary.

One Yankees fan took matters into his own hands Tuesday night, in what would have to be considered a strange sense of timing: the bottom of the eighth inning, with the home team already up three runs. With runners on the corners, a small voice provided some specific cheering to Gary Sanchez as he batted in the bottom of the eighth. Sanchez turned on an outside pitch and yanked it foul, and after another pitch in the dirt, home plate umpire Dan Bellino stopped play and strolled over.

It turns out that our helpful friend was passing along a little dramatic irony to Sanchez, calling out in Spanish which side of the plate the opposing catcher Wilson Ramos was lining up before the pitch. He was soon removed by security.

It’s clear that this man, without the approval of his allies, is cheating. If there is a gray area of fan expression, a spectrum between the monosyllabic disapproval and the racist epithet, yelling out hidden information is definitely on the side of the latter. But what if, say, a perceptive fan noticed that an opposing player were surreptitiously subverting the rules themselves: spying an emery board or stealing a sign: should these outside forces be allowed to impact the game by notifying the players? The real-life equivalent is the man watching TV in his easy chair, phoning the PGA and getting a player disqualified. That aspect of non-participant participation feels distasteful. Would it if the call came from the gallery?

Physicists have an annoying problem called the Observer Effect: basically, it’s impossible to observe a phenomenon without in some way changing that phenomenon. The photon that makes an electron detectable interacts with it; opening the oven to see if the pizza is done cools the temperature of the oven. Baseball is no different, though usually the effect of observation is cultural: fantasy sports, jersey sales, and presidential Twitter feeds have a demonstrative effect on how players act on the field. The same is true, to a lesser extent, based on the crowd.

The interests of fans are at a bit of an impasse here: home-field advantage is popular enough, but one of the primary elements that lends to it, the unconscious subjectivity of umpires, is not. Most people would prefer an equal strike zone for every hitter, if only because the hitter’s individual performance is more valuable to the fan than a hypothetical X% bonus to his entire team. But at the same time, we can’t just hand the home team an extra run or a single do-over; these clumsy mechanics seem at odds with a fair game. The strike zone used to serve this purpose; it was an invisible hand, now exposed by the glare of the pitch-tracking cameras.

There’s a conflict here between the “pure,” idealized baseball of equal combatants on equal terms, and the emotional experience of being invested in a team and being part of their strength on the field. For the duration of the regular season, as we measure much of the game through the exploits of our favorite players, we lean toward the fair end of the spectrum, but as we reach the playoffs, where individual statistics are less vital and wins consume all, we transition to the latter. If we want to maintain that advantage, we need a new way to convey, subtly, the trials of the hostile environment. And it’d be just as ideal for this force to emerge from the home crowd.

© John E. Sokolowski-USA TODAY Sports

Sometimes when I hazard a guess about the future, I think of baseball played solely for television, its angles and its replay and its analysis so superior to the bleacher-seat experience, and so much cheaper, that only luxury boxes will remain. It’s not a pleasant notion, politically or aesthetically. Baseball has long been developing its answer for this problem by diverting its resources in the stadium experience beyond the actual game: the fireworks, the food, the amenities. These are in no way evils, just symptoms of a systemic problem: that the game itself, in the middle of the crowd, may as well be played elsewhere. The nets that old fans complain so bitterly about are purely, unconsciously metaphorical. We need a way for the fans to actually mean something.

I wish I had a perfect answer for the questions I’m creating. Certainly we can’t arm a crowd with slingshots and laser pointers, to go with their four 16-ounce beers. But I wish there were something that the fans could do, almost imperceptibly, to impose their will on the field of play.

There are a lot of romantic lies that have been undone by Bill James and his descendants: the idea of clutch hitting, the value of sacrifice, the thrill of the batting title. The death of the value of the individual home-field fan, as an element of his or her team’s success, is perhaps the most damaging one. We need something to fill that void, to connect the fan with the game just out of reach, preferably something that isn’t even a lie: an actual, systemic advantage that crowd size and enthusiasm bring. As soon as we can think of one.

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newsense
9/29
I have some trouble characterizing what that can did as "cheating". Why is the catcher entitled to hide his positioning? Couldn't the 1B or 3B coach signal where the catcher sets up?
roarke
9/29
As far as that goes, there's no rule that the hitter can't look back at the catcher to see where he's setting up other than the "unwritten rules." Baserunners and coaches probably do signal location all the time and, if caught, it wouldn't be cheating under the rules, but the hitter is likely to take the next one in the ribs. I can understand why MLB doesn't want fans getting in on this little cat-and-mouse game, but really it couldn't help the hitter anyway because they could never know for sure if the voice they hear is trying to help them or hurt them.
euqubudhp
9/29
Dan Bellino felt it was worth consuming a couple minutes out of our lives to rectify, and didn't seem terribly pleased by the obligation. I'm actually a little surprised that looking backward isn't codified into the rules by now, personally. The fastball-ribs medicine of the unwritten rules is fine, as far as it goes, in a random June ballgame. But in the playoffs, that free base, along with the free information, seems valuable enough that someone's going to willingly pay the price sooner or later.
collins
9/29
Of course, in football the players openly encourage the fans to offer this kind of help, by making so much noise that the visiting players on offense cannot hear each other at the line. I am not sure why this is not regarded as an attempt at cheating, and thus unsporting conduct (much like supplying the crowd with laser pointers to shine in the eyes of visiting players).
euqubudhp
9/29
Part of it is probably that it's difficult to demarcate or even manage the volume of a crowd, but there are lots of slippery slopes like this when the mob is involved. Beach balls get thrown on the field all the time - how many would it take to incite a forfeit? Ten? Probably a bigger factor is the more boring one: the effect of crowd noise is organic, having grown with the game over time. People are just used to it. If fans were suddenly persuaded to scream their heads off overnight in a previously quiet sport, like at a tennis match, it'd result in furor.
ceadie
9/29
More BP excellence.
selkior01
9/29
Plain and simple - the minimal nature of the home field advantage is one of the very BEST things about baseball. It makes it almost infinitely superior to those other sports.
brucegilsen
10/01
One of the ironies is that baseball has more opportunity for home field advantage than other sports because the stadium dimensions differ and you can build a team that takes advantage of park effects.