Learning Baseball

Written by  //  October 5, 2011  //  Sport  //  4 Comments

I am a baseball novice. In India, the game is almost looked down upon, as though it is an unintelligent modification of cricket. In truth, the aversion is essentially a product of a lack of knowledge of the rules and history of baseball, as opposed to anything more nuanced. Even a basic understanding of baseball’s rules, though, is sufficient to appreciate that, although it’s a simple sport, it’s capable of producing not only riveting entertainment, but also debate at various theoretical and tactical levels.

I must admit that I have not served as any exception, until recently, to this general Indian aversion to baseball. The only times I saw the game were on highlights reels on ESPN’s Sportscenter. The home runs made for good viewing, but I wondered what the big deal was. Now I know or at least I think I do.

I moved to New York City, late July, to study journalism. One of my first tasks was to choose a neighborhood to cover for my class website from a plethora of uptown areas. In spite of my nonchalance – and at some levels, maybe even a dislike – towards baseball, I veered towards Highbridge, a small portion in The Bronx – the poorest of the city’s five boroughs – located on a sloping bend around Yankee Stadium, the historic home of the New York Yankees. Highbridge is, apparently, the most deprived congressional district in the whole of the United States and yet it is home to the world’s most valuable sports franchise. There is an anomaly to this that is disturbing at so many levels, making it a very good neighborhood for a journalist to cover. I would be lying, however, if I said that this incongruity was the reasoning behind my choice, for it was a decision, almost solely, based on the location of Yankee Stadium – if nothing else, I thought, I’d get to hang around one of the world’s most iconic stadia for a few months.

But why? I am no baseball fan. The Yankees don’t mean anything to me. Until very recently, I couldn’t give a diddlysquat about them. Yet, there is this unparalleled vibe that you get as a sports fan, from just being around a great arena – this feeling is by no means to be underestimated. It makes you feel part of a community, a community where sport is the one unifying factor. I’d taken only a glimpse of Yankee Stadium from a tinted window of a bus and that was enough to make my decision.

In the weeks that have followed, I’ve made many visits to the area, several times on game-days when hordes of supporters wearing Jeter and Sabathia jerseys congregate on the 161st street subway stop. It is an occasion to behold – just sitting outside the station, watching fans fervently march toward the stadium gates. Each, expectant, excited and hopeful. There is a buzz to the place. The street vendors come alive, the local bars surrounding the stadium steam with people – it is almost like a ritual carnival experience.

When you see the sheer number of fanatics, it makes you think: “there has to surely be something about this sport?” And indeed, I can proclaim with an equal dose of embarrassment and revelation, there is. At many levels, this process – a continuing one – of watching and understanding a new sport has been weird. Over the years, I’ve grown to enjoy a variety of sports, but I can’t remember the last time I sought to pick up a new game, virtually from scratch. It is usually a process that has no clear, decisive beginning. At any rate, it has been many years since I endeavored to watch and understand an altogether new sport. As a child or as a teenager, it is easier to see a sport for what it is – in other words subtle nuances don’t often come into the process. Implicitly, maybe, an understanding of other sports impacts the process of learning a new one. But at 25, the experience is vastly different. Almost 20 years of watching a number of sports contributes directly to the process of learning about a new one.

I am not suggesting that I’ve compared each play in baseball that I’ve seen to other sports, but in grasping the several gradations of the game, my understanding of other sports has played a critical role. To better explain myself, in game 3 of the ongoing New York Yankees versus Detroit Tigers post-season American League Division Series, CC Sabathia, the lead Yankees pitcher, intentionally walked Miguel Cabrera in the bottom fifth inning. In other words, he allowed Cabrera to walk to first base by pitching the ball several feet away from home plate giving the Tigers a man on the first two bases with two out. This was a tactical ploy that I might not have immediately grasped had it not been for my general understanding of sport. Sabathia was tiring and the last thing he wanted was Cabrera swinging with a man on first base, especially considering that the Yankees were trailing by a run. It is, no doubt, a common strategy, but one that would have been harder, I presume, to understand for a sports novice, as opposed to a baseball novice. The play in itself may not be directly comparable to other sports, but it involves a thought process that is common across the sports world. It is these little characteristics that I’ve started to enjoy about baseball. On the face of it, it looks a prosaic, slow sport, but it has not merely a physical facet, but also a highly nuanced tactical one.

Numbers, play a more important role in the baseball than in perhaps any other sport. I am still not in a position to comment on the efficacy of the models deployed, but I am presently reading Alan Schwarz’s “The Numbers Game” to understand “baseball’s lifelong fascination with statistics.” I also watched Moneyball, the movie starring Brad Pitt and based on Michael Lewis’s 2003 book on the Oakland Athletics, its general manager, Billy Beane and the sabermetric approach to assembling a baseball team. The movie, by itself, was scarcely enjoyable and has done little in adding to my appreciation of the sport.

Over and above the fascination offered by the strategic and numerical aspects of the game, though, is its pure beauty. David Schoenfield, writing for ESPN.com on Justin Verlander, the Tigers’ lead pitcher, reminisces about Roger Angell’s description of a Nolan Ryan fastball as a “liquid streak of white.” He said, “That has to be how opposing hitters have felt about Justin Verlander this season. Even if they do go to bed early the night before facing him, they must be thinking about liquid streaks of white or curveballs dropping from heaven or unhittable changeups or sliders that make you flail like a snowflake in a windstorm.” In game 3 on Monday, Verlander was nearly irrepressible. He pitched with variety and precision; his fastball, in particular, was a thing of beauty. He ramped it up at 100 mph even well into the game. His action and his release had a raw, grace to it that makes you want to keep watching him pitch. This was the Eureka moment for me – it isn’t as easy to be a batter, as it can sometimes seem to be.

I am learning more and more about the sport with each passing game, but what I’ve already come to recognize is its pure beauty. It has a subliminal elegance to it that can go unnoticed in the eyes of its most ardent followers and can be unfathomable for the nonbelievers. Thankfully, for me, I’m still somewhere in the limbo.

4 Comments on "Learning Baseball"

  1. v.sundararajan October 6, 2011 at 4:40 am ·

    it is verey interesting
    likewise i hope u will enjoy the american football too

  2. Rahul Saha October 13, 2011 at 6:19 pm ·

    “The Bronx – the poorest of the city’s five boroughs – located on a sloping bend around Yankee Stadium, the historic home of the New York Yankees. Highbridge is, apparently, the most deprived congressional district in the whole of the United States and yet it is home to the world’s most valuable sports franchise.”

    -Apparently Anfield is the poorest city council in all of Western Europe.

  3. George October 28, 2011 at 2:33 pm ·

    Wow. I like this. I’d like to hear you post about your gradual discovery of baseball.

  4. Suhrith October 29, 2011 at 10:52 pm ·

    Thanks, George. Appreciate it.

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