A BEGINNER’S GUIDE TO BASEBALL

Most American kids grow up with a ball and glove, playing catch in the driveway or running around makeshift bases in the backyard. But you Europeans are all about soccer balls and cricket bats. How can you ever understand a peculiarly American sport like baseball? You concentrate on the essentials, and consider the history. BY AL SHACKLEFORD

 

PITCHER AGAINST HITTER – IT’S ALL THAT COUNTS.

This is the essential confrontation. The pitcher stands on a raised clay mound, 60 feet 6 inches from the hitter. He throws a fastball that may travel in excess of 90 MPH, along with a curve, slider, sinker, change-up, screwball and more. The batter has just an instant to make his read and take his swing. No wonder hitting a major league pitch may be the most difficult feat in sports.

If you go to a major league game, try watching the pitcher warm up before the game, from behind home plate, or out by the bullpen. You’ll swear a baseball can defy gravity, seeing the crazy way it spins, hops and drops. Watch a game on TV, and you’ll see the pitches even better.

Yet the hitters are often up to the task. Joe DiMaggio once hit in 56 straight games, a major league record that may never be broken. He got to marry Marilyn Monroe. The overall major league batting average for 2018 was .248 – a hit in every 4 trips to the plate

 

WATCH FOR THE STRATEGY OF THE GAME.

It’s likely that the two managers have participated in thousands of games and made thousands of strategic moves, based on the situation and the abilities of the players available.

In a low-scoring game, a speedy baserunner might try to steal second base, so he can score on a hit to the outfield. (Yes, you can steal bases in baseball – even home plate!) If that situation occurs, watch the cat and mouse game between pitcher and runner, as the runner tries to stretch his lead.

A team might try moving a runner with a sacrifice bunt. Or try a hit and run. Fielders are always moving in and out, back and forth, depending on what batter is up. And if one team is threatening to score, the manager is thinking about which of his relief pitchers might be able to settle things down. Anytime there are runners on base, you could see a double play (two outs made at once) or even a triple play (three outs made).

One of the most thrilling plays in baseball is a runner rounding third, waved on by the coach, as the long throw comes in from the outfield. Will he beat the throw to home plate? He slides, the catcher tags, a cloud of dust goes up. Safe or out? You never know what will happen.

 

CHERISH THE SPECIAL MOMENTS.

Get to the game early, and watch the ground crew prepare the field – raking the dirt, striping the field and much more. This is happening at ballparks large and small, all across America.

Watch the playful warm ups. Sing The National Anthem, or at least listen to the bouncy organ accompaniment. Patronize the roving vendors, over and over again. Keep a ball glove handy, in case a foul ball or home run flies into the stands near you. Do the Seventh Inning Stretch, and sing that famous “take me out” song. A major league baseball game has the atmosphere of a carnival.

 

NOW ABOUT THAT HISTORY…

Alexander Cartwright codified the first set of baseball rules in 1845. You could no longer tag a runner out by throwing the ball at him – wouldn’t that have been fun to watch, with today’s 90 MPH pitchers?

So baseball has been woven into the fabric of American history for much longer than sports like basketball and football. Ty Cobb typified its hardscrabble beginnings – he sharpened his spikes so fielders might fear tagging him out when he slid.

The prodigious Babe Ruth could only have appeared in the Jazz Age. He hit 60 homes runs in 1927, a record that stood for decades. Was it just circumstance that the Great Depression struck in 1929, just two years after Babe’s feat?

After World War II great hitters like Ted Williams, DiMaggio and Stan Musial picked up right where they left off. In 1947, Jackie Robinson broke the colour barrier, playing stoically through the vicious taunts of opposing players and fans, inspiring everybody with his courage. He opened the door for Willie Mays, Hank Aaron, Roberto Clemente and many more black players who revolutionized the game.

But really, the most colourful baseball players always seem to be the ones from way back when, before everyone was so highly paid – for many years, most major league players needed jobs in the off season to survive. They had names like Hack, Ducky, Dizzy, Kid. We miss them.

 

OUR WISH FOR YOU.

Baseball may be very different to the sports you play, watch, or love to follow in your own country, but it carries a special place in the heart of America, and we hope that reading this short Beginner’s Guide will whet your appetite for going along to a game, should you ever get the chance, or at least catch some of the action on TV. It’s a great place to start learning more about the game, and the many eccentric characters who have played it. Who knows, you might even want to buy a glove and ball for your own family and have a catch in the park sometime soon!