A few weeks ago, for the very first time, I watched a full baseball game and not only enjoyed it but actually understood it.
My view of baseball started as a bunch of people throwing and catching a ball surrounded by people on a field and a select few who ran through things called ‘bases’, but this slowly, with the help of friends and 2 helpful teenagers, turned into an exciting game of good pitches, good catches, great fielding and lots of runs. My appreciation of baseball was born.
I grew up in South Africa and the only runs I was familiar with were the ones that were associated with overs. Cricket is very much part of a South African’s life so the first time I watched baseball, the only thing I could relate it to was cricket.
I couldn’t have been more wrong…
No overs; no bowling (it’s called pitching); only one batter (not two batsmen); no running between wickets but rather from 1st to 2nd to 3rd base and back home again (and that only counts as one run not 4); different balls, different bats, different rules and, well, a completely different game!
So with the never-ending patience of my friends answering questions such as ‘Why did the umpire call it a strike if the ball wasn’t struck?’ or ‘Why is that guy just walking to the first base?’ or ‘What does it mean when the umpire waves his arms around like that?’, I was slowly able to start piecing the game together. When my friends’ teenage sons started to fill in the gaps, I was able to confidently call the count before the umpire. I started to clap when a ball was caught and cheered enthusiastically when a member of ‘our’ team made a run.
I started watching the styles of different pitchers (the guy that throws the ball), appreciating how fast the ball flew at the batter, I started watching and learning the hand signals of the umpire calling the count after it was played and I started checking where the ball should be thrown when it was hit out into the field.
It was actually starting to make sense. This sport, like South Africans and their cricket, is so much a part of the American person’s life and here I was, an outsider, starting to feel proud to appreciate it and its seemingly odd rules.
I watched the teams swap over and the other team, The Pirates, spread out across the field. The team I’m supporting on this occasion, The Cubs, stayed back in the dugout except for the batter and the guy after him, who is called ‘On Deck’. The third guy waiting to bat is called ‘In the Hole’. The batter walked out onto the field and took his place in front of the catcher and the umpire. On Deck stood just in front of the dugout and practised his swing. Everything went quiet and the pitcher prepared himself. The batter stood ready, knees bent, body poised, bat gripped, waiting for his moment.
Standing up on the mound, the pitcher paused, then, suddenly, in one fluid motion, leant back and then hurled his whole body weight forward, arm extended out in front of him. The ball went hurtling towards the batter who, at the moment he thought was right, twisted his whole body around and swung the bat. He missed it.
‘Strike!’ the umpire called. He missed hitting the ball, so this is called ‘Strike 1′ against the batter. Three strikes and he’s out.
Everything repeated itself. Silence, pitcher pauses, batter prepares. The ball was released. It flew forward but this time, it was out of the strike zone (the ball needs to be between the batter’s chin and knees) and the batter stepped aside without swinging. This is what I termed a ‘crappy throw’ which meant the pitcher messed up that throw and it counted against him rather than the batter. In real terms, this is called ‘a ball’. Four of these and the batter is allowed to walk to the first base with no defence from the other team.
The umpire calls, ‘One – one!’ One strike and one ball against the pitcher.
Silence. Pitcher paused, batter waited, ball went flying. An almighty WHACK is heard as the bat hits the ball and it hurtled across the field at an unbelievable speed. The batter dropped his bat and ran like a madman to 1st base, a concrete block about 27 m/90ft from the start or home base. Then a combination of how far he hit the ball, how good the fielders are and how well they can throw, determines if he decides to stay at 1st base or tries to run for 2nd. He has to touch the base before the fielder catches the ball and touches him or the base. This all takes roughly 10 seconds but we were all leaning forward in our seats, holding our collective breath, waiting to see what the batter did. When he is safe, we all clap and cheer and breathe a sigh of relief.
‘On Deck’ makes his way to bat and ‘In the Hole’ becomes ‘On Deck’ and so on.
The games gets unbelievably exciting when there are more people on bases trying to get ‘home’ (back to the start) and it becomes a challenge to see who is where and who will safely make it to the next base.
Interestingly, the focus on baseball is to prevent the other team from making runs where as in cricket, the focus is on making as many runs as possible. That’s why the score in baseball is never very high, usually something like 7-4 (7 runs made by one team, 4 by another, team with highest number of runs after 10 innings wins the game.
When The Cubs were fielding, we all cheered when the pitcher pitched good balls, screamed like crazy when they tried to catch a ball that The Pirates had hit and clapped furiously when they got someone out.
The atmosphere was amazing, cheering from all over, words of encouragement are shouted to various players, supporters up against the fence giving helpful advice, fielders shouting support to the pitcher. It was a great feeling to be a part of it, more so because I understood what was going on.
I’d never understood the appeal of baseball until now but for the first time ever, I felt part of the game, part of the excitement and it was incredibly thrilling. I now feel as if I have truly experienced the essence of America, the essence that is… baseball.
Thanks to Bruce, Brenda, Matthew and Tom for creating and fuelling my love of baseball.