Baseball season is almost here. Then again, if you’re like me, you would argue that it never left; there is no off-season for a real MLB fan.
Baseball is a sport unlike any other. It takes a unique type of athlete to excel at our national pastime, which requires such an array of special skills. As a result, it takes a unique kind of person to truly appreciate it.
If you don’t share the same enthusiasm -- or in my case, giddiness -- for the looming MLB season as the rest of us diehards, that's fine. There are those people and then, more or less, there are these people:
What is so great about baseball? It’s just a bunch of overpaid grown men standing around ‘adjusting themselves’ for hours on end, only occasionally taking a break to chase down a fly ball while two of them play a glorified game of "keep away" from some guy with a bat in the middle of the field. Baseball fans are just a bunch of stat geeks. I’d rather watch paint dry…
As baseball fans, we hear it all too often. And for years now, we’ve reverted to the same generic, basic rebuttal:
You just don’t get it.
Not because we can’t explain what makes baseball so great, but because it would simply take too much time. Besides, the reality is that the majority of people, through no fault of their own, really don’t get it. By no means is that intended to sound condescending, it's just the way it is.
After my most recent proclamation of "you just don't understand," I, and those [baseball fans] like me, were called elitists. Initially, I took it as an insult. After further deliberation, however, I consider it something like an indirect, backhanded compliment.
Allow me to take you inside the mind of a so-called baseball elitist and finally elaborate a bit on exactly what you non-fans may not be understanding.
Let me start by saying, chances are that if you're reading this article, obviously posted on a baseball-related website, you're already a fan of the sport. Not a whole lot of the general views reflected on and expressed in these words are going to be regarded as innovative or original by you; that was never my intent. Instead, I wanted to create something tangible that can be used as a reference point the next time I'm inevitably deemed an elitist -- so, feel free to use it in the same light.
For us Red Sox fans, 2011 brings with it unprecedented expectations after what could be considered one of the greatest and most productive offseasons in our organization's history. Carl Crawford and Adrian Gonzalez, Boston’s most notable acquisitions this winter, have the team as near-unanimous favorites to win the American League.
Of course, some people will argue that it’s easier to get excited for baseball season when you’re favorite team has a substantial financial advantage over nearly every other organization, and as a result, annually contends for a playoff spot -- as is the case with myself and fans of other large market teams -- a fact that is hard to refute.
To those people, I revert back to the introduction of this article. No mention of the Red Sox, or any team for that matter, specifically. It is baseball that I am excited for.
After all is said and done, I am, in fact, an undeniably passionate Red Sox fan. Most of all, though, I am a fan of baseball in general and all that it embodies.
Some fans claim that it’s difficult for them to sit through even their favorite team play nine innings. I, admittedly, am not normal in this regard.
During a typical day in the MLB season, I make every effort to watch other teams’ day games around the league [courtesy of an MLB.TV subscription] that serve as veritable appetizers to my main course, the Red Sox game, before catching a west coast night game for dessert. Then it’s off to bed where I dream about waking up and doing it all over again. I don’t care who’s playing, I just love watching baseball. I would pay admission to see a sloppy 15-inning game between two high school teams that lasts five hours in freezing temperatures wearing shorts and a t-shirt while suffering flu-like symptoms and still be content.
Again, probably not normal. I’m aware of this.
As poetic as baseball is, it’s no wonder that one of its most notable advocates was Walt Whitman, who once said, “I see great things in baseball. It’s our game - the American game.” Baseball is indeed America’s pastime, and its American symbolism has been well documented throughout history by some of the country’s most influential figures.
No need for me to elaborate; even those who find baseball boring are well-versed in all of that. After all, it's the game’s reputation for beauty that tends to draw people to it initially.
Unfortunately, what isn’t as well-documented is the same reason that causes those who “don’t understand” to shy away.
The fact of the matter is baseball, more than any other sport, requires a thorough understanding and appreciation for all its oft-overlooked nuances in order to make prolonged viewing tolerable for the average observer. Granted, the same sentiments can be applied to other sports, in my opinion, they’re most applicable to the game of baseball.
After all, you can watch football and basketball for example without any real semblance of what is happening and still be entertained by the conspicuous display of sheer athleticism and continuous fast-paced action. That's not to say that either of those particular sports are without their own intricacies, it's just that baseball, by design, is not afforded the same luxury of aesthetic appeasement to its relative outsiders.
I have always maintained that, in most cases, it takes someone who has, at one time or another, played baseball at a relatively high level to truly appreciate all that happens in your average three-hour game -- the majority of which is spent watching players stand idly by as pitchers, catchers and members of the coaching staff relay signs in-between pitches.
It takes a certain kind of person to seek a comprehensive understanding of such a complex game, which again, is almost impossible without having played it in the first place.
It’s that unsung cerebral aspect of baseball that I believe makes it so interesting for some, and in turn, so uninteresting for others. That’s not to say people who don’t enjoy baseball are necessarily unintelligent or that every baseball fan is some superior genius. However, like I said -- and again, this does pertain to all sports in some degree -- there are massive amounts of small details that go unnoticed by the casual observer. In baseball, those details simply have a tendency to be more influential, frequent and unmasked by raw athleticism when compared to, again, sports like football and basketball.
Understandably, not everybody appreciates the intricacy of a pitcher and catcher’s individual game plan for each opposing hitter, incorporating all potential circumstances and game situations or how it’s constantly improvised and reevaluated following almost every pitch. It’s hard for casual fans to appreciate how each pitch is influenced by that which preceded it -- much less how each of those pitches themselves are indirectly influenced by everything from the number of outs, who is on base and where, what the score is, who is hitting, which guy is on deck and even who is up after him -- just to list a fraction of them. Which is why most of those who fail to appreciate what’s going on between pitches, for instance, consider nearly every ball that isn’t put in play by the hitter a waste of their attention span.
However, the truth is there is a very pertinent correlation between, say, the first five pitches of an at-bat and the sixth that ends up getting hit 400 feet. Unfortunately, only the sixth is perceived as entertaining by those who aren’t conscious of that correlation; only the sixth makes Sportscenter. It's the same principal behind another more-often-than-not misunderstood sport, hockey, and its ability to only receive ESPN's attention when players score goals; even more so when they fight.
That’s without any mention of other small in-game intricacies like a timely hit-and-run calls, defensive positioning and pre, post and mid-game lineup maneuvers.
A study of each MLB team’s average game duration in 2009 revealed that the Red Sox and New York Yankees were again well-above the league average [2 hours, 52 minutes] at 3 hours, 4 minutes and 3 hours, 8 minutes, respectively. Is it any wonder that the same two teams nearly always at the top of such a list simultaneously find themselves atop the list of the league’s best teams? Of course not, it simply speaks on behalf of each club’s preparation, both pre-game and in-game -- not to mention that the more a team is featured on national broadcasts, which are marred by prolonged commercial breaks, the longer their average game duration tends to be. It’s more than a matter of payroll.
All that being said, it goes without saying that baseball is more than merely a glorified mind game and is certainly not lacking in athleticism. The difference between what is considered athletic in regards to baseball versus that which is similarly labeled in other notable sports, however, is what makes it so unique.
Consider that in most other sports, it’s not exactly rare for a team’s draft selections to contribute, and even excel, in their first professional seasons merely as a result of physical abilities. In baseball, even the top collegiate level draft selections require a significant amount of seasoning in the minor leagues in order to prepare them for all that is incorporated in the utmost professional level, regardless of how physically gifted they may be. A fact that only exemplifies exactly how demanding the sport of baseball is on almost an unimaginable number of levels that are not limited to the physical realm.
Unparalleled in any other sport is baseball’s requirement for those who find success at higher levels of competition to boast a near-perfect blend of mental, physical and instinctual abilities.
As Yogi Berra once put it, “Baseball is ninety percent mental; the other half is physical.”
With such an inordinate percentage of the game happening inside the players’ and coaches’ heads, unseen and unnoticed by those not privy of the fact, it’s no wonder people who don’t enjoy baseball the way some of us do feel as though they must be missing something. The fact is, they are missing everything. Even the parts they do find entertaining are shrouded in aspects of the game that remain unbeknownst to them.
When your average casual fan's favorite player flails half-heartedly at a curveball that bounces before it even reaches home plate for strike three, they're disgusted. They shout, "What is he thinking?!?!"
It's at that point when those people should take a second to consider exactly what they just asked.
For instance, when my second favorite player does the same -- I say second because my favorite player is Dustin Pedroia, who would never do such a thing -- I reconsider the sequence of pitches that came before it and [most of the time] understand why; I know exactly what he was thinking.
Understanding the mentality of a baseball player is half the battle -- or ninety percent of it according to Yogi Berra's logic.
University of Missouri psychologist Mike Stadler, who did a study on the mental abilities and traits of Major League Baseball players, summed it up better than I ever could in his book, “The Psychology of Baseball.” In it, Stadler wrote, “Baseball is impossible without psychology; impossible to play, and impossible to appreciate fully as a fan. Watch any game, and most of what you see is thinking.”
Despite how much I love it, it’s completely understandable to me that baseball is not for everyone. I'm not saying that everyone in the world should love baseball, even if they do "get it." I'm not even claiming that it's the greatest sport in the world because, really, who I am to judge such a thing?
What I do know is that it’s a game that requires not just constant attention to all the small nuances but an understanding of them as well. If someone doesn’t already own a comprehensive understanding of the game, what are the odds that they’ll take the time to seek it? Not surprisingly, not good.
And I'm not here to chastise you or the sports you love because baseball may not be your thing. I just ask that the next time someone around you denounces the sport that I love, tell them that they 'just don't understand' on my behalf. Better yet, point them in the direction of this article for me.
As far as the term elitist -- well, consider the amount of people willing to take the time to understand baseball for all it’s worth and those who are good enough to gain that understanding through playing it at a high level and you’ve got yourself a very small, you may even say elite, group of people.
Elitism, by general definition, is the belief that certain people or groups deserve preferential treatment as a result of thier perceived superiority -- whether that pertains to class, intellect or monetary and financial matters. I'm not asking for preferential treatment, I'm just asking for understanding. In reality, baseball elitists are a group of people that do have intellectual superiority, even if it does only pertain to our sport's small, subtle nuances.
So go ahead and label baseball fans elitists, we understand.
After all, that's my whole point.