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Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 16

Having looked at football yesterday in Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 15, I want to get the taste of the idea of a French Football League out of my mouth by moving on to baseball which is often referred to as the American Pasttime. Americans invented the game in the early part of the 20th century and people are crazy for it in this country even if it is pretty much dull as dirt to watch.

We have more movies about baseball in this country than I can name and baseball scandals hurt Americans in a way that is hard to describe; as i mentioned we still haven’t gotten over the 80 year old Black Sox Scandal, Pete Rose (aka Charlie Hustle) is a still a pariah for gambling while he was playing and I’m not sure what will happen when the steroid issue is finally resolved.

As I mentioned in a previous part, up until maybe the last 10 or 20 years, pretty much all Americans or at least middle class white ones were exposed to the game.  That is changing and it won’t honestly shock me if baseball doesn’t start to die (the drug scandals not helping) in this country.  So let’s look at baseball but before you do, please read this.

And today is long due to the explanation of baseball’s rules.  It’s a weird game.

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How the Game is Played

Baseball is a game played on a diamond shaped field which is referred to, logically, as the baseball diamond.  The infield consists of 4 bases in a diamond pattern that are each 90 feet (27 meters) apart from one another.  The main plate is home plate at the ‘bottom’ of the diamond and players run counterclockwise to 1st, 2nd and 3rd base.   In the middle of the diamond, 60 feet (18 meters) away from home plate is the pitcher’s mound where the pitcher, who throws the ball stands.  There is also the outfield and the whole thing looks like this.

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Beisbol
Baseball Diamond

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The game is made up of two 9-man teams although it’s a bit odd in that, while all 9 defensive players are on the field at once, the most offensive players that can be present are four (for reasons you’ll see in a second).  And each offensive player comes up one at a time.  In this way it differs from almost all other ball sports in that both teams are not on the field all at once (as in football yesterday, rugby, soccer, hockey and most other ball-based games I can think of).

The catcher sits behind home plate, the pitcher is on the mound an there are infielders positioned at first, second and third base along with a short-stop between second and third.  The remaining three outfielders are in left, center and right field.  I think that’s 9.  Those 9 are on defense.

The offensive players start at home plate (where he is the batter) and the only time you get more than one of them on the field is when one gets a hit (or a walk) and advance to one of the bases (at which point he is no longer a batter but a baserunner), both of which I’ll explain in a second and moves to one of the bases ‘safely’.  At most you can have 3 base runners (one at each base) and one at the plate so no more than 4 can be on the field at any one time ever and they always come on one at a time.

The underlying goal of the game is to score a run (point) and the only way to score a run is by advancing from home plate to first, second and third base sequentially before returning to home.  As George Carlin talks about in his comparison of football and baseball, the goal of baseball is to go home and be safe (the goal of football is murder).   Every time a player goes all the way around the bases and makes it back home, his team gets one run and this is the only scoring opportunity.

If there are more than one offensive player on the field (as above) and they each get around the bases, in order no less (you can’t ever pass another of your own teammates while running the bases, even if he’s slow), and touch home you can get more than one run at a time.  No other scoring options exist.  The team with the most runs after all 9 innings are played (see below) wins.  And ties go into overtime and games can last forever until someone wins.

An Individual Team Sport

Baseball is an odd duck among sports for a lot of reasons.  Perhaps the strangest thing about baseball is that, unlike any other sport I can think of, the offensive team can not touch the ball with their hands.  If they do, they are ‘out’ (see below).  Only the defense can touch the ball legally.   So how do they get anything done, you ask?  Well, that gets into the second oddity of the sport.

Which is that, even as a team sport, baseball really a contest of individuals for the most part between the pitcher and the batter.  Here’s what the pitcher does:  he stands on the mound, a raised bit of dirt 60 feet (like 18 meters) from home plate and all plays start and stop with him.   Now, the pitcher will hurl a baseball, weighing 5 oz (141 grams) or so which is tiny, 9 inches (22.9 cm) in diameter at mind numbing speeds of 90-100+ mph (140-160 km/h) towards the batter.  He has multiple goals that I’ll come back to but they all involve trying to get the batter ‘out’.

Now let’s look at the batter.  He stands to the side of home plate and he is holding a stick called a bat that looks like this.  Traditionally these are handmade out of wood and the batter holds the skinny end.    He will use this to try to get a ‘hit’ which is the only allowable contact he has with the ball (unless he gets hit with it, or tagged out with it).

Baseball bat
A baseball bat

For some period of time, some folks used aluminum bats but purists don’t like them because ‘ping’ isn’t as satisfying as ‘thwack’ when a hit occurs.  And sometimes wooden bats break sending pieces flying out into the field so someone might get a splinter or something. It’s not football level violence but you have to take what you can in this boring ass game.

Note: the batter cannot use the bat ON anyone because that would make the game awesome.  The only thing he can do with it is try to hit the ball that the pitcher throws at him.  In fact, after a hit, he will drop the bat as he runs towards first base.

The pitcher is not supposed to throw the ball directly at the batter (called a bean ball), just real close to him, but batters do get hit sometimes.  And even with a 5oz ball, this still hurts like hell.  Baseball batters wear helmets for this reason; to avoid brain injury by being hit in the head with a ball (getting hit in the head with a pitch still rings your bell even with a helmet).

Nobody else on the field wears a helmet (they wear jaunty caps) but they can be hit with the ball after it’s hit.  This includes the pitcher after a hit is made and this can really ruin folks.  So there is a limited chance for violence.  Usually it happens when someone gets pissed off and the players start fighting.  Which is awesome.

The Pitcher’s Goal

The pitcher has a primary goal of striking the player out.  He does this by hitting a small ‘strike zone’; a theoretically defined space on the batter’s body that is directly over home plate.  It is very close to the batter which means that a man wearing only a helmet has to stand while another man throws a small missle at him at mind numbing speeds in an attempt to get it across the strike zone.

If the pitcher gets the ball through this area without it being hit, that’s a strike (and an umpire who sits behind the catcher decides if this happened or not).  It’s also a strike if the batter swings and misses the ball.  Three strikes and the player is out and he leaves and the next player comes on the field.  If the pitcher is good (or the batter is bad), the batter can be struck out without anything happening.  I mean even less than in Commie Kickball.   If the pitcher is really good, the game can be won without anything happening and I’ll mention three odd things that happen sometimes below that represent the pinnacle of the game.

In any case, three outs ends the inning and the game has 9 inning.  The offense tries to score runs and the defense tries to get three outs and each team gets their three outs in each inning.   So it’s 18 distinct play periods (9 innings times two teams) and both teams must complete their innings before the game can ends.  Plus overtime if the score is tied after the 9 normal innings (note: at lower levels of the game less innings are usually played to save kids the misery and tedium of standing in a field for 3 hours).

Now, if the ball is outside of this zone, that’s a ball.  Four balls and the batter gets to walk to first base; it’s an automatic advancement from home to first base and the next player comes up to bat.   In theory this means that no batter should stand at the plate for more than a maximum of 6 pitches (2 strikes and 4 balls or 3 balls and 3 strikes).  In reality it doesn’t work out that simply but I have to explain batting first.

You Hit the Ball Base with the Ball Bat

As I said, the single offensive player stands at home plate holding a bat and trying not to crap his pants as a man 60 feet away throws a small missle at him.  His goal is to hit the ball into the main part of the field (i.e. between the foul lines shown above).    Primarily because it is the main way he can score a run.  Secondarily, after he gets a hit, everybody else finally gets to do something other than stand around looking bored.

Now, if he hits the ball and it goes foul, that counts as a strike and he keeps batting.  But he can’t be struck out on a foul ball, it can’t count as the third strike (only the first or second).  So even if he has two strikes, if he keeps hitting the ball foul, he keeps batting.  So he may see more than 6 pitches.  This continues until he gets a hit, gets struck out or gets walked.

Now, if the batter hits the ball so hard that it goes over the far wall, this is called a home-run (and that’s what I talked about when I talked about the resurgence of baseball in the 90’s; the home run wars).  When this happens the batter gets to jog all the way around the bases and it’s an automatic run for his team. Which is marginally more exciting than watching 9 guys stand in a field picking their asses for 3 hours but not by much.  Hitting a home-run is the only easy way to score in the game.  If the batter does this, nobody else gets to do anything.

That’s what I mean about it being an individual team sport since it’s mainly about the pitcher and the batter.  If the pitcher can strike out the batter without him hitting it, he’s out and nobody else gets to do anything.  If the batter can hit a homerun, he jogs around the bases and nobody gets to do anything.   But let’s assume neither of the above happens, the batter doesn’t get struck out, he hits the ball but it doesn’t go out of the park for a home run and an automatic point.

He Got a HIT!

Until someone gets a hit, baseball is literally 8 guys standing in a field picking their ass and one guy throwing a ball past another guy really fast.  And Americans LOVE it for some reason; it’s probably why so much beer is sold at games.   But sometimes something happens and someone gets a hit where the ball doesn’t go foul and isn’t a home run.  Now everyone else finally gets to do something beyond calculate the interest on the millions of dollars they are getting paid to stand in a field doing nothing.  Which is damn good work if you can get it.

So the pitcher throws the ball and let’s say the batter hits it.  He may hit it on the ground(a ground ball) or into the air.  If it’s hit in the air but flat and fast, it’s a line drive.  This can really screw someone up if it hits them, especially the pitcher.  If it’s hit high into the air it’s called a popfly or fly ball.  Each type of hit has its own pros and cons because of the next thing I need to explain which is how the defense gets the player out.

Because if the ball is caught out of the air before it hits the ground, that’s an automatic out, the batter goes back to the dugout and the next batter comes to the plate (unless it was the third out in which case the inning is over).  A ground ball can’t ever be an automatic out for this reason but since it’s on the ground it can be ‘fielded’ by an infielder who can then throw the batter (now running towards first base out).

And while a line drive can be caught by any of the infielders, they have to move pretty fast and have good hands.  It happens more often than you’d think and takes doing calculus instantaneously in your head.  But a dog does it when he catches a frisbee so a guy getting paid $22 million per year should be capable.   But a line drive that gets past the infielders will usually end up rolling into the outfield while an outfielder tries to get to it to throw the batter out.  A popfly has the potential of getting way out into the field but since it’s up in the air someone has longer to get under it.  Some popflies don’t go that far and can be caught by an infielder.  And just to piss off baseball nitpickers, I’m not going to explain the infield fly rule.

Probably the ideal situation is one where the batter either hits a ground ball that gets past the infielders and stops somewhere in the middle of outfield (this puts the ball furthest away from everyone) or hits a line drive or popfly that does the same.  Because after he gets a hit, the batter’s new goal is to get to a base without getting out.  If it’s caught, he’s out and he goes back to the dugout and the next batter comes up.  If not, he has to try to reach first base before the ball is thrown to the first baseman.  If he does that, he’s safe.  If the ball gets there first and the guy is standing on the base, he’s out.

Sometimes it’s close and another umpire has to call it; this leads to a lot of arguments about eyesight and the lack thereof when it’s close.  The runner can also be tagged out, where a player physically touches him with the ball (if he’s not standing on a base); the defenders cannot otherwise impede the runner except for the catcher who can block home plate while the runner barrels into him at full speed (and if the catcher drops the ball, the runner is safe).  And they can’t just throw the ball at him even if that would make the game AWESOME.

A single, where the batter gets from home to first is the most common hit.  It entails running 90 feet (about 27 meters) and then stopping for a bit to catch your breath.  Sometimes he tries to make it to second (180 feet with a left turn) or even third, all of 270 feet with two left turns.  About the only time he’ll run 360 feet (just over 100 whole meters) all at once is if he hits it out of the park.  Then he can jog the bases anyhow.   If something goes very wrong on defense (called an error), he might go for an inside the park home run.  But they are rare.  Usually he gets to first and stops. Then the next player comes to bat and it starts all over again.

But the guy at first can’t move until the ball is in play again which is after the ball is returned to the pitcher and the game resumes.  He can try to steal second (or steal third from second, or rarely steal home from third) and the same rules apply: if he’s tagged out or whatever, he’s out and leaves the field.  Usually he waits for the batter to do something. Like get a hit or get walked so that he can advance.

And the same rules apply: if the second batter hits it in the air and it’s caught, he’s out, play stops and the baserunner goes back to the previous base and the next batter steps up.  Unless it was the third out in which case the inning is over and they switch sides.  Mind you, if there are runners on base when the inning ends, that’s tough.  They accomplished nothing more than running 90 feet but they don’t get points or anything.  Three outs and the inning ends and they switch sides.

If the ball is not caught or is a groundball, both players try to advance, the batter to first and the baserunner to the next base.  The defense is trying to get them out.  And just as multiple runners on base means that offense can score more than one run, defense can get more than one out with double or triple plays (very rare).

Sometimes you get a situation where the offense loads the bases, with a player on every base.  This is bad because it’s really easy for the defense to make an out. But it also allows for one of the rarer baseball occurrences: A Grand Slam.  This is when the bases are loaded and the batter hits a home run so that everybody gets to automatically go home and score; and it scores 4 runs.  It’s something that you might see a handful of times in a lifetime of watching the game because it requires an odd combination of events to occur.  It’s also a breakfast at Denny’s.

This video will show you how the game is played more or less.  Be warned, it’s Goofy.

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The Best Offense is a Good Defense

The nature of baseball is that it is primarily a defensive game because defense is doing most of what’s going on in the inning; they are also the only ones who can touch the ball which defies a lot of sports logic.  And I noted above, the game is mostly about the pitcher and batter and, there, mostly the pitcher.

And in this vein it’s worth looking at a boring oddity about the game.  Because there are three occurrences that exist as sub-goals (and happen with varying frequency) within the game that demonstrate just how boring it can be.  They all make the game more boring to watch but are considered good things.

The first is something called a shutout, this occurs when a single pitcher pitches all 9 innings (baseball allows for substitutions when folks get tired) and not a single run is scored. This happens more often than you’d think.  The second is something called a no-hitter defined as when a single pitcher pitches the entire game (baseball allows for substitutions when folks get tired and there are relief pitchers who may pitch the final one or two innings) and no hits are allowed at all.  This is rare and had only happened 272 times since the beginning of the game in 1875.  This is considered great, a game in which literally almost nothing happens (at least for one team).

And the final extension of this is something called the perfect game.  A perfect game occurs when a pitcher does not allow a single hit, walk or run (by definition).  Either he strikes everybody out by himself (which can theoretically be done in 81 pitches, 3 strikes * 3 outs * 9 innings) or everyone is caught or tagged out without reaching a base.   This has happened 18 times since 1900 and apparently one pitcher once did it while on LSD.  But this is considered the pinnacle of baseball, when a defensive team is so good that the offensive team accomplishes literally nothing for the length of the game.

Which is why baseball is really an oddity among American sports in terms of popularity: it’s slow moving, tedious, often nothing happens for extremely long stretches and the best game, as defined, is one in which one team literally accomplishes nothing at all.  And we watch it with a passion bordering on psychosis.

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Athletes or Game Players

Of all of the sports big in America, baseball is arguably the one requiring the least amount of athleticism.  Fine, yes, you have to be able to run 90 feet (and sometimes more) at a time and to be able to throw a ball overhanded; most Crossfitters could do that.  Well, some of them anyhow.  But by and large baseball players are not in the same athletic league as in other sports.

Quite famously, Babe Ruth (one of the greatest to touch a bat), who was known for his carousing was once asked by a female fan why an athlete like himself was out drinking, smoking and trying to get laid the night before a game.  The Babe replied “Ma’am, I am not an athlete, I am a baseball player.”  That’s baseball.

Because when you get down to it, the key aspect of baseball comes down to the pitcher and the batter.  The other guys have less to do although they are certainly important.   They have to be able to get to the ball quickly, throw it with accuracy, stuff like that.  But that only occurs if the pitcher allows a hit in the first place.  Technically speaking, with a good enough pitcher you could remove everyone else on the field and he might still win the game.   He’d just have to strike everyone out and not allow anybody to hit the ball.  With pitching speeds up over 100mph, this is not impossible.

The pitcher is critical to the game; he has to be able to throw a small ball at mind-shattering speeds and hit a strike zone that is tiny and do this for extended periods (so he has to do this for a long time over and over again).   And he has to have the speed at this point; a guy who lacks the ability to hurl a ball at 90+ MPH can’t make the highest level of the sport anymore.  You gotta have the heater.   But he can’t just throw the ball like a banshee, he has to have what’s called control to put the ball where he wants it (and not hit the batter).   Which is not as easy as it sounds when you’re throwing a tiny ball that hard and that fast.

And this is a monstrously skilled activity (it also tears up shoulders).  Pitchers have a number of different pitches that they throw by holding the ball in certain ways as well.  A pure fastball is called ‘the heat’ and it is thrown as hard as possible straight down the middle.  It’s harder to hit but if the batter connects it’s going flying because of that whole physics thing., There are sliders, curve balls, stuff where the ball does strange things (or at least appear to) all in an attempt to get the ball past the batter and through the strike zone (or make him swing and miss).   Most pitchers spend an insane amount of time on pitching practice, trying to perfect this absurdly skilled movement.

And the batter is the other key to the game because what he does determines if anything else happens.  Remember he’s trying to get a hit with his stick.  Because if you think pitching is hard, batting is damn near impossible.  Or it should be. Because a ball thrown at 90-100 mph will cover the 60 feet from the mound to home plate in 0.40-0.45 seconds.  Let me put this in perspective: blink your eyes.  That takes 0.3-0.4 seconds.  The ball goes from the pitcher’s hand to the catcher’s glove in a literal blink of an eye.

And in that time frame, the batter has to decide if the pitch is hittable in the first place, where he thinks it’s going to go, what it may do midflight and, after all of that is done, initiate swinging a bat that has to rotate around to meet the ball at the right spot.  Some guys can even adjust their swing to send the ball where they want it to go, overswinging to send it one direction and underswinging another.  You can see if you have the potential to do this here.   But that’s just reaction time.  It says nothing about your ability to actually get the bat to meet the ball midflight.

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Sadistics 101

Let me put this in further perspective, baseball is all about statistics (fans cream for this stuff) and one statistic that is tracked is batting average which is the number of base hits (of any sort) divided by number of times at bat.   So if someone got a hit every time they were at bat, their batting average would be one.  Three hits out of every four times at bat would be 0.750.  One hit every other time at bat would be 0.500.  You get the idea.  Get this:

The best lifetime batting average is held by Ty Cobb who achieved 0.366; in tenth spot was Babe Ruth with a mere 0.342.  That represents the range on the 10 best baseball players in the history of the game and they got a hit a little over once every three times at bat (and baseball players have slumps and streaks where their short-term averages are higher or lower than this, this is just a long-term value).  It’d be like a powerlifter going 3 for 9 at every meet his entire career (on average).   In any other sport, success a little better than 33% would be awful; in baseball it’s exceptional.   Most aren’t even that good.

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Impossible or Merely Improbable?

Hitting a baseball is a damn near impossible activity in this sense (pitching is no cakewalk either) and everything else that happens on the field is easy by comparison.  Running 90 feet, running to catch a ball, catching a ball thrown to you from an outfielder.  Relatively speaking, this is child’s play to either pitching a small sphere at speed into a small zone or hitting it after it’s thrown at you.  And there’s another oddity about this game that I left out above that impacts greatly on the selection of baseball players.

In most ball sports, both offense and defense have their own specilalized roles.  In soccer you have forwards, midfielders, backs and a goalie.  Same in hockey, basketball, football, rugby, etc.  And usually players don’t switch positions much. Everybody has their singular role and that’s it.

In baseball it’s different.  Because while the defensive positions are all specialized and you don’t see tons of switching off, the fact is that everybody has to come up to bat (no, I’m not explaining pinch hitters).  That is, regardless of what position they play on defense, everybody has to be a batter at some point in the game.  And since baseball rosters are 9 players (which have to be decided upon at the start of the game) that means every player is coming up to bat at minimum every 3 innings (3 outs per inning = 9 folks at bat).  And more than that if people are getting on base.

Which means that, no matter how good someone is at first base, or center field or whatever defensive position the simple fact is this: if they can’t hit they can’t play the game at the highest levels.  Because all of the fielding and sprinting and throwing ability don’t mean jack shit to the guy hiring him if he’s a guaranteed out at the plate because he can’t hit the ball.

Like I said above, baseball is an odd game, really a battle of two individuals and it’s predominantly a defensive game.  It’s won and lost by the defense who does most of what little happens in a game. And they do that by getting players out.  A team can’t afford to give up an automatic out by signing a player who can’t hit.  It doesn’t even really matter if the player is a precision hitter (trying to hit a ground ball to a specific spot) or a power hitter (swinging for the stands), he has to be able to hit the ball no matter what he does.

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Doping in Baseball Redux

This was one reason a lot of people were a bit blasé about the whole steroid scandal in baseball or didn’t see the big issue.  Because baseball is predominantly a skill sport and all of the anabolics in the world will not give anybody lacking in the skill to hit a ball that ability.  If Bonds, Sosa and McGuire hadn’t been amazing players the drugs would have done nothing. Steroids won’t swing the bat for you or really improve your skill at hitting the ball in any useful way.

So how did the drugs help?  First, baseball is a brutal game with a long season and multiple games are played per week.  Players get wrecked by the unrelenting competition schedule and drugs allowed them to avoid or come back from injury or maintain health and fitness during the season.  It also gave them that extra power to really knock the shit out of the ball.  Because remember that a home run is an automatic run.  If you can hit the ball but hit it harder, you’re more likely to knock it out of the park so all of the other stuff I bored you with stops mattering.    But that was predicated on having the ability to hit in the first place.

Perhaps most importantly, drugs allowed these great players to extend their careers far past their physical prime (allowing them to apply their skill for longer periods than players of days past).  Once baseball players get older and start to lose reaction time and movement speed or injuries catch up with them they stop being able to hit. And they get put out to pasture.  The drugs let great players play longer and wrack up more at bats which gave them more chances to hit a big one.

But let me get back to the topic and look at the next issue on the list.

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Genetics and Physiology

Because the nature of baseball, the damn near impossibility of getting a hit coupled with how the game is played and the fact that everybody has to bat has a HUGE impact on the selection of players of the game at the highest levels.  Because hitting requires this insanely specific set of skills.

And things like reaction time and such are not intensely trainable although I’m sure playing the game a lot (you learn to make more accurate predictions with practice, tennis players do the same thing) as a kid helps.  At the least it lets you determine early on if you have the innate ability to develop with skill practice, along with getting progressive practice as pitching speeds increase as you move up the ranks.

Which means that, in baseball, you wouldn’t you expect any given group to be particularly amazing at it (unless they have a propensity for amazing reaction time perhaps) or to see major ethnic based issues surrounding it.  Mostly it’s an issue of exposure and starting young along with having enough folks to find the ones who can actually hit the damn ball consistently.

And putting in the endless practice to learn how to read pitches and pitchers and predict where a ball moving at insane speeds might be going (other sports like tennis have elements of this and much of the practice revolves around exposing players to different shots under different circumstances so their predictive abilities improve).

Which means it’s mostly about tradition and having lots of players enter the game young so that you find guys with the skills to play at the highest levels.  Because physiological conditioning is relatively easy compared to the insane skill needed to play the game in the first place.

And a staggering amount of training for baseball is skills practice. Batting practice, pitching practice, fielding practice.  All just stuff to improve the skills of the players.  The physiological stuff is important but far less so. Conditioning won’t make you a good player. At most it’ll give you the power to knock the ball far.  Mainly it lets you survive the length of the game and of the season without breaking.

Which brings me to an oddity about baseball, an aspect of  the inherent US racism that I’m still not touching in detail.  Because for the first 50 some odd years of the game, it was a game played by pasty white men and nobody else.

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Diversity Say What Now?

Baseball was invented in the late 19th century and in the earliest days of the game was whites only, just like everything else in this country at the time.  But at some point, this was changed in that blacks were at least allowed to play the game.  But this actually led to the formation of two separate leagues, the white leagues and the Negro leagues (women would also get their own leagues about this time as detailed in the documentary A League of Their Own; there is NO crying in baseball).

Which existed solely for black players as they were not allowed to play with whites at that time in either the majors or the minors.  This went on until 1946 when the first black players were allowed into the Majors and nobody has looked back since.  MLB has been happy to accept folks of just about any ethnicity since then so long as they can throw, hit or field the ball.  Mainly pitch or hit.

Case in point, in recent years there have been a large number of American baseball players from the Dominican Republic.  I’m not entirely sure when or why this started but the upshot is that most Major League Teams have installed camps in that area (which is mostly poor folks with no opportunities) and kids apply by the thousands for a shot at getting into the game and escaping to the US.

There is monstrous selection for the specific skillset inherent to baseball and these camps have been successful at finding some of the great players (and then grinding them into dirt for the game).   They can come to the US and make a lot of money to throw or hit a ball.  Sometimes.  This is described in another highly recommended book Welcome to the Terrordome: The Pain, Politics and Promise of Sports by Dave Zirin.  Same as always, number, motivation, training, access.  That’s the key.

And they aren’t alone.  There is a tradition of Japanese baseball players in Major League Baseball stretching back to the 60’s and Japan is baseball crazy in the way that they are generally crazy (as only the Japanese can be) for anything American and specifically crazy for stuff from the 60’s and 70’s in our country.  Many top US baseball players are from Japan (Hideo Nomo may be the most well known) and there’s an actual list of Major Leage Baseball players from Japan.  Given the Japanese predeliction for obsession, this is no big surprise; they will put in the grinding hours of practice to get the skills needed.

Another country I’ll mention again shortly is Cuba which has become a real power (and a number of Cuban athlete have come to to the US to play in the major league).  They have their own professional league and, as you’ll see, have done well Olympically.  Maybe they applied some of those Russian sports secrets to the American past-time.

But for the most part baseball has been a traditionally American sport and at least some of it is probably for the same reason football was so developed here.

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Location, Location, Location

Like football, baseball requires, at minimum, a large enough area to lay out the field.  You have to have sufficient distance between bases, the outfield, etc.  And it needs to be flat and grassy (only the running lanes are dirt).  And the US, again, with it’s expanse of recently Native American-ectomized land was perfect before we put up Walmarts everywhere.

And, just like football, while there are basic setups everywhere, as you move up through the levels of the game things get bigger and crazier.  Most public parks have playing fields and will have a fence to delineate the home-run line.  Or at least some marker.  High-schools typically maintain that kind of field but at the college and pro level you start to get into monster stadiums just like football.

Multi-million dollar stadiums are built and there is actually huge controversy over building stadiums; somehow baseball got it to where baseball stadiums were paid for by public moneys.  So taxpayers funded the building of these things for millionaire game players to play their game.  Even if they didn’t like it themselves.  The Zirin book talks about this too.

As with football, early stadiums were all open to the elements with no top.  And baseball, unlike football, will stop if it rains or the weather is bad; since it’s a spring sport cold weather isn’t the problem but rain is.  But rain is and if it rains too hard the game will be delayed or cancelled.  This is called a rain delay and they pull tarps to keep the field from getting muddy.  God forbid you run around in the mud playing a kid’s game.  Modern stadiums often have roofs that can be closed in case of this.  And they can be opened if the weather is good; presumably so players can work on their tan while they stand aimlessly in a field waiting for something to happen.

But beyond that, anywhere you could put a diamond to play the game on, a diamond can be found.  A lot of times this is in the suburbs which typically have more open space and more grass.  But that’s not to say that baseball diamonds aren’t found in urban areas.

There are pee-wee and little leagues for baseball (there is also an ‘easier’ version called t-ball where the ball is not pitched but sits on a stand and kids swing at it; it’s the ‘for the spazzes’ equivalent of the game), any decent sized junior or high school will have one or more teams, there is a huge collegiate baseball tradition and of course there is Major League Baseball where players get paid millions to swing a stick at a ball.

And for most of the 20th century, the fact is that every kid growing up was going to be introduced to the sport, especially among the white middle class.  And this was true only up until recently when parents stopped losing their shit that their kids wanted to ride a skateboard instead of putting on some really ugly socks.

And like football, even the wannabes and never was’s play the game.  You can find pick up baseball and adult baseball leagues everywhere and fans follow the game with a rabidity bordering on psychosis.  Finally, there is another oddity about baseball in this regard that I said I’d mention.  Because t-ball is not the only version of baseball that has been modified for some reason or another.  There is another.

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Softball

And there is also a derivative game that exists called softball which is its own oddity.  Softball is effectively identical to baseball in every way in terms of rules and how it is played.  The difference is the ball.  Whereas the ball is tiny and hard in baseball, in softball it’s much larger and squishier.  Meaning it’s easier to hit and doesn’t kill you when/if you get hit by it.   It just stings a little bit.

And it’s only worth mentioning for this reason: it is one of, if not the only, sport I can think of where not only do men and women both play but the women’s version of the sport is harder and more dangerous.  Because for men, softball is played slow pitch.  The ball is lobbed in underhanded to the batter who, if he has any ability at all, can just knock the ever loving shit out of it.   It’s usually played by men who drink beer during the game and isn’t taken very seriously by them.  It’s just something to do for an afternoon while they pretend to be athletes.

In contrast, women play fast pitch softball and they are competitive in and at it in a way that only women can be competitive in stuff.  The ball is still thrown underhanded but, unlike the Crossfit softball throw competitors, these chicks can throw.  Speeds of 75mph (120km/h) are common and except for the ball being softer and bigger, it’s a terrifying sport played by terrifying women.  Let’s go to the tape.

In any case, in the way that football is life in most of the country, baseball is the American past-time.  We have over a century of heroes, tradition, tons of access, coaching, etc.  Of course, there are also…

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Incentives

Similarly to football baseball is enormous in this country from a financial standpoint.   Traditionally the game had two separate leagues but they were finally combined in 2000.  It’s a massive money maker in terms of ticket sales, merchandise, TV, etc. on top of being a huge part of American tradition as I discussed previously.   Frankly, it’s just like football in this regard and I don’t have much more to say about it here.

Teams have enough slots on the roster and there are tons of teams at the pro and collegiate level to make it worth people’s while to play and see if they’ve got the skillset needed to make it to the big leagues.  Even if they don’t there is a monstrous minor league where each major league team has its own minor league (or bush team).  Often guys continue development in the minors before being called up to “The show” which means being given a shot to prove themselves in the majors.

It’s a huge sport with huge incentives and a huge number of people go into it.

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So Who’s the Best?

Well, America, of course.  I mean, an American team has won every World Series (the championship of the sport) ever competed.  And now I must explain that joke.  The annual championship ins baseball is called the World Series, a best of 7 match contested between the top teams in each of the two divisions and where they switch off which stadium they play in to avoid giving either team an overall home-field advantage.

And here’s why my comment above is a joke: the World Series only allows American teams to play.  No other countries, even if they have or had teams are allowed and only our teams are allowed to play in the World Series.   Which is funny because of the name.  But it goes to a point I made previously (that some thought I was joking about) about how the US sees the rest of the world.  Which is that we don’t.

In our minds the US IS the world.  Or the only world we really care about.  We don’t care nor know nor want to know about anywhere else in the world but the US (unless they have stuff we need or start shit).  Hence a game that only we play can have a World Series and nobody will see a problem with that.  USA #1.  I would note that the Little League World series does allow Japanese team(s); they usually kick ass.

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Baseball in the Olympics

But as I noted above, other countries have jumped on the baseball bandwagon, Japan and Cuba notably but there are others.  And baseball was added briefly to the summer Olympics from 1992 to 2008 and was played by all of 16 countries.  It was voted out in 2012 because apparently there are sports even too boring for the Summer Olympics.

More accurately, the Olympics is big money and the summer games are overfull with sports compared to winter (there’s a limit to how much you can do to dick around on snow or ice before it gets stupid).  The Olympics often votes out sports that people don’t watch (i.e. that don’t make money) so they can add sports that they do.   So baseball was out.

And of some relevance to this, during those 5 Olympics Cuba (who I mentioned above) won gold 3 of the 5 times, America won once in 2000 (and medalled several other times) and South Korea (a country that approaches things like some of the other Asian countries in terms of psychotic obsessional drive) won the last time.  And this seems to throw a bit of a wrench in the argument that America dominates baseball.  And I think there are multiple factors here.

Part of it is that team sports have a random factor, and this is magnified in a skill sport like baseball, that often comes into play.  Nutty stuff happens, a pitcher is off his pitching, a batter is in a slump and can’t hit the broad side of a barn.  Which ties into how the game is played in the Olympics, the tournament structure is odd with an initial round-robin round (all teams play all other teams) before going to single elimination: one game, one loss, you’re out.

And when you couple that with the randomness factor, it doesn’t take much to throw someone off.  Major League Baseball gets around this with it’s monstrous competition schedule, teams play over a hundred games and they look at overall results.  A few bad games can be offset by a good games.  In Olympic competition, that’s not how it is.  That also goes to the comments I made about the all-star nature of US Olympic teams: we sent a bunch of guys to play against teams that practiced exclusively as teams.

Finally was the amateur issue.  Our best players turn pro as soon as they can to start making the big bucks, that eliminated them from Olympic selection.  Consider that the amateur thing got dropped in the late 1990’s.  And when did we take gold?  In 2000 when we could send our best.  Which doesn’t explain why we only medalled once more in 2004 and 2008.  But it does show some of the complexities that show up when a country that is based around professionals is sent to play internationally in a game with a huge random factor involved.

Which is all just a long way of saying that we’re still the best at the game.  Because we still have that 100% World Series win record and nobody can take that away from us.  And even if that’s just a joke (maybe we just aren’t as good at the game as we think we are), the fact is this: in America baseball is a monstrous sport, one of the big three. It’s structured like every other sport I’ve looked at and not only does it select for and produce amazing, well, game players, it impacts on how other sports in this country work because of how many people it draws into the game.

And now that I’m done with baseball, I’ll turn my eye to basketball tomorrow.  Another sport of American creation with even more weirdness but also one that’s been in the Olympics since the early 20th century.  And you’ll see who’s Shaq-Fu is truly the best: America’s.  Also, it’s much shorter than this nonsense was.

Read Why the US Sucks at Olympic Lifting: Part 17.

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