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Image credit: USA Today Sports

My wife was born in Moscow, which means I’ve been cuddling with Russians for nearly two decades at this point. But while my wife came over to the United States with her parents, she has an older brother 11 years her senior who stayed behind to make a life for himself there. I don’t get to see Petr very often, but he does come visit the US every year or so, and I enjoy talking to him. He’s a very intelligent and thoughtful person. One day, a few years ago, he asked me about this game that I spent so much time thinking and writing about. He didn’t grow up with baseball and the game is largely unknown in Russia, so he was curious. And he asked me that question: How exactly is the game played?

Dutifully, I grabbed a piece of paper and drew a rough schematic of a baseball field, and then with my pen I made a dot near home plate (in the right-handed batter’s box), and started my explanation with: “Here’s where the batter stands.” My explanation then introduced how the batter must face off against the pitcher, who is throwing the ball toward him, and the batter’s objective is to hit the ball between these two lines and not have the ball caught. Then, he tries to run from base to base, and eventually to re-touch home. If he does, his team gets a run.

Anyone who’s ever tried to explain baseball to someone genuinely encountering it for the first time knows how hard it is to put the game into words. But I noticed something else about how I told the story. It was entirely about the batter and his brave adventure. It’s a strange decision, given that the batter is only half of the equation. In some sense, it’s understandable. When trying to explain any game, it’s a good idea to start with one of the universal features of competitive games, which is that someone usually wins and someone usually loses, and to talk about the ways in which that winner and loser are determined. Baseball is a “points game” (as opposed to the other common type of competition, the “clock game”), so I naturally described the ways in which baseball’s points are scored. You can’t score in baseball if you are pitching.

I think there’s more to it than that, though. The batter maps a bit better onto our cultural norms of the hero on a quest. There he stands, alone, in the right-handed batter’s box, and with a simple weapon he must somehow elude nine different monsters as he attempts to both hit the ball and make it to the next station. It’s the storyline to every non-sports video game and “guy on a quest” movie that I saw growing up. For some reason, the batter always feels like the hero of the story.

Thinking about it more deeply, I realized that I do this a lot. My default assumption is to view the game of baseball from the batter’s box. Maybe I’m alone in that, but I was reminded of it when I was in a discussion about the dangers of the sacrifice bunt. While dropping a bunt down isn’t a horrible thing to do, it reaches “not horrible” status mostly because sometimes you get a random bunt hit. In just about all cases, advancing a runner to second base but surrendering an out is a losing proposition. However, when you begin by identifying with the batter as the hero, not only has he done something heroic, but he has accomplished part of the task of moving the runner up.

I wonder how much of how I view baseball is filtered through the prism of seeing it as the journey of a batter.

***

So, Petr, there are these nine players out here. Their job is to prevent this guy (in the right-handed batter’s box) from scoring. They can do that in a couple of different ways. The guy in the middle here is the most important one of the nine. He’s “the pitcher.” His job is to try to throw the ball past the batter, although he can’t throw it too far away from the batter. If he does that too many times, the batter gets to go to the first base for free. The pitcher tries to either fool the batter into swinging and missing or he throws it past him in an area where the batter could have swung and probably made contact. If the pitcher does that, then the batter is “struck out” … and outs are important.

The entire point of the game is for the defense to collect three outs before one of the other team’s players scores. The reason is that once a team has collected three of these “outs,” the game resets itself. Any runners that the other team has on base are erased and they can’t score any more runs.

A strikeout isn’t the only way to get an out. The batter is trying to swing the bat and hit the ball away from your defenders so that he can run to the next base. However, if one of your defenders out here catches the ball before it hits the ground, it’s an out. Even if it hits the ground, if your defenders either touch the batter with the ball or get the ball to a defender standing on this first base, then the batter is out.

The problem is that the field is a big place and these nine guys aren’t going to be able to cover all of it, so you have to think about where you put them. The pitcher has to stand here in this circle, and the catcher has to be behind the batter in the right-handed batter’s box, although the other seven fielders can stand where they want. Most teams set up in a 4-3 formation, with four fielders in the inner part of the field, and three in the outer part. They usually spread themselves equal distances apart, but if they want to move around, they can. They’re best off trying to locate themselves where they think the ball is going to go.

Once a batter reaches first base, he can stay there (but no one else from his team can), and he can move to the next base, and so on until he reaches the original “home” base. When he does that, it’s a run, and more than anything, it’s what you want to stop from happening. Each team has to do this nine times in a game. The team that is best at preventing runs wins.

The batters that you have to worry about are the ones that can hit the ball over the fence. If they do that, the batters gets an automatic run, so the pitcher has to be careful not to allow that. But other than that, there’s always a chance to make an out. And that’s what moves the game forward. Once you get the three outs, the other team plays defense.

***

As I wrote that, I noticed something: Baseball as a game of defensive run suppression just doesn’t feel right. It seems like I’m describing a completely different game, even though the rules are all there (if in a slightly more elementary form; you don’t start by explaining the sacrifice fly).

But when I explained it that way, a few sabermetric truths that aren’t going to be all that controversial around here (the importance of making outs, and if you’re the batter, avoiding them; the idea of shifting defensively) make complete sense. The defense is hungry for outs. The quicker that it can find those three outs, the quicker it can completely clamp down on the offensive team’s scoring. Within this context, a sacrifice bunt would be described as “the offense sometimes offers one of those outs to the defensive team in exchange for moving the runner at first one base.” Suddenly, it doesn’t feel like such a great idea.

I have to wonder how much of baseball strategy would have been different if Player One in the story of baseball would have been the defense. How much of baseball strategy owes to our weird cultural quirk to prefer the lone man, battling against an army that he must conquer.

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Bud16
4/18
Enjoyed this as much as I did your book The Shift. I think one of the reasons we view things through the prism of the batter is because it’s kind of a David and Goliath story. 9 men work to frustrate one man’s efforts, so we side with who seems to be the clear underdog in the situation for good or ill. It’s similar to how we elevate guys with high batting averages over getting walked. We think it harder to get a hit—therefore more heroic and admirable—than work a BB, so we elevate the player who hits.
Kyle Jones
4/18
This is great, thanks Russell. When I lived in Ukraine for a couple of years, not only did I have to try explaining the game to Ukrainians, but had to try to use Russian words to do so. Unfortunately I just got blank stares. I hope Petr’s English is good enough to catch some of these new terms!
Russell A. Carleton
4/18
His English is near flawless. Let's just say that my Russian is... awful.
Stephen Rayburn
4/18
Interesting read. I've had the task of explaining the game to the uninitiated many times, but at least when speaking to an American there is a basic level of awareness that even those who never followed it acquire through almost a cultural osmosis. Once, however, I had to explain to someone from another country that did not grow up exposed to the game in any way and it was as the words were coming out of my mouth that I realized how odd a game it must appear. You can infer the object of most sports simply by looking at the field of play. Basketball, soccer and hockey imply games of goal scoring visually before you ever learn a rule. Football is a little different, but still fairly intuitive, especially if a person knows some rugby. But, baseball. Field of grass, with dirt paths, white line/box markings, a dirt hill and two big poles on each side of the fence virtually requires a certain degree of rule awareness to even begin to provide context to the layout of the field of play.
Jeffrey Paternostro
4/18
I've sat in front of someone trying to do this while working, and when you actually lay it out, it really doesn't make any sense.
Llarry
4/18
Ever listened to Bob Newhart's routine "Nobody Will Ever Play Baseball"? He's an exec from a game company taking a phone call from Abner Doubleday, who's trying to convince them to market his new game.
Dire Straits
4/18
I have had this experience recently with three people (different occasions) who each grew up in the Middle East. Sitting at a game (Rangers/Angels and a minor league game). The basics aren't really that hard to grasp. When you get in trouble is when there is an infield fly or a balk. How do you explain a balk? "Well he made a false move." "What did he do?" "I have no idea but the umpire saw something." "Well what are some of the things he could have done?" "Well it's kind of hard to describe." At least, fortunately, we ended up catching a foul ball at one of the games so my friend had a real-live souvenir. "Why do we get to keep the ball?"
Greg Simons
4/18
It all would have made much more sense if you had put the batter in the left-handed batter's box.

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