On Sunday night, in the bottom of the eighth inning of game two of the American League Champion Series, the Detroit Tigers had a 5-1 lead against the Boston Red Sox in Boston’s historic Fenway Park. Having won game one of the best-of-seven playoff series, the Tigers were well positioned to take a 2-0 series lead back to Detroit.
At the time, the Red Sox offense was so lifeless that even the leadoff double might have seemed inconsequential. Even an ensuing walk and an eventual single to load the bases—with slugger David Ortiz now up to bat, no less—did little to take the Vegas odds from Detroit’s grasp.
My great uncle, an avid San Francisco Giants fan, says one hundred other civilizations could have walked the earth and none of them would have dreamed up the game of baseball.
My great aunt, perhaps a more avid Giants fan, disagrees.
In his Hall of Fame inductance speech, Ernie Harwell, the Tigers’ late radio voice said, “Baseball is just a game, as simple as ball and bat, yet as complex as the American spirit it symbolizes. A sport, a business and sometimes almost a religion.”
The sport’s quirkiness compels many, like Harwell, to turn baseball into sort a sort of national or spiritual simile. Maybe it is. I don’t feel qualified to know. I’m more interested in my great uncle’s proposition that this sport is so unique, so abnormal, that, in any other place or time, it would be inconceivable. Baseball is so laden with contradictions that a Hall of Fame announcer got away with calling it simple and complex in the same sentence. Can this sport be at all normal?
Harwell was right. Baseball is simple. It is a team sport, but more accurately it is, as author Chad Harbach writes in The Art of Fielding, “a series of isolated contests.” Pitcher vs. batter, batter vs. ball, fielder vs. ball, player vs. self. Nine fielders, each sequestered to their own islands, and one batter, representing the entirety of the team’s offensive potential for the length of an at-bat.
And as simple as it is, baseball is just as perplexing. Many Americans are born with the game and understand “three strikes and you’re out,” before even watching their first game. But any American who has tried to explain the sport to a foreigner has likely quickly understood that the game’s rules and conventions can, when taken at a distance, seem arbitrary.
Each pitch carries infinite number of hypothetical outcomes, dense like a mass of yarn strewn into a white leather shell and bound with red laces. The pitch is thrown, the ball is hit, missed, or watched, and everyone reacts accordingly. This is then abridged into a statistic, written down and recorded in a neat, orderly box. How does one explain this?
Each Major League infield shares the exact same directions. Sixty feet and six inches from the pitcher’s mound to home plate. Ninety feet between bases. But it’s 330 feet to the right field fence in Detroit’s Comerica Park compared to 302 in Fenway, where the right field wall is less than a sixth of the height of the giant Green Monster in left.
Baseball is also punishing. Also in The Art of Fielding, Harbach asks, “What other sport not only kept a stat as cruel as the error but posted it on the scoreboard for everyone to see?” The best batters fail two-thirds of the time. While other sports celebrate achievement, baseball reminds us of limits. The best players and teams are the ones who can hurdles these limits and eliminate the variable. Perhaps this begins to explain the sports history with various methods—steroids, cork, pine tar—of performance enhancement. To excel at baseball, writes Harbach, you must “become a machine.”
Family friend and Chicago Sun Times baseball reporter Daryl Van Schouwen once told me that the best baseball teams he covered shared one characteristic: the postgame locker room elicited no hint of the game’s outcome. Win or lose, the clubhouse was calm, a sober cocktail of stoicism and composure.
This is what baseball does. It takes this random, arbitrary series of events and tries to stuff it into a geometrically perfect diamond of normality. Players go on streaks and slumps and are told to remain calm and approach their next at bat as if it were their first. Umpires miss calls and a pop fly in one ballpark could be the game-winning homerun in another and these events are reduced to numbers, universal and unchanging. And the fans? We watch as nine innings of isolated contests are condensed into one tidy box score.
It’s now Wednesday morning and the Tigers trail 2-1 in the series. Last night, a near flawless performance from ace pitcher Justin Verlander wasn’t enough to keep the Tigers from suffering a gut-wrenching 1-0 defeat. It is now Detroit whose bats seem lifeless, and Vegas has sent the odds back in Boston’s direction.
So what do we call it when, in the bottom of the eighth inning of game two, David Ortiz hits a game-tying grand slam and Tigers’ outfielder Torii Hunter’s nearly successful play on the ball sends him flipping over that five-foot right wall right in front of a jubilating Boston cop? What do we call it when that one swing reverses only the entire trajectory of a series? It can only be normal.