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What makes baseball different?

What makes our National Pastime different from other sports, other games? Thinking about the unique qualities that make baseball unlike anything else is a fruitful activity that lends depth and insight into our love and understanding of the game.

What one notices first of all is that unlike other sports baseball is not played on a rectangular field. We have “The Diamond”, an oblique-angled parallelogram with all sides equal, known in mathematical terms as a “rhombus.” The sides radiating from the southern point subtend 90 degrees of arc. This defines what we call “The Infield” where six of the nine players on defense are positioned and where all offensive players are arrayed, i.e., at Home Plate and each of the three bases. Remember, there can never be more than four offensive players on the field at one time.

Then there are the three players who patrol “The Outfield”, which is actually bounded but infinite. In the early days of the game, the outfield literally WAS infinite, as there were no walls to interfere with the outfielders or the path of the struck ball. While there are generally accepted distances from home plate to the outfield fences, these are in no way standardized. Especially in earlier days when ballparks where defined by their urban “footprint”, there could be wide disparities from park to park, plus on occasion managements would move fences in or out, up or down, to provide some advantage to their teams. Today the oldest parks still in use, Fenway Park in Boston and Wrigley Field in Chicago, are defined in space by the city blocks and odd-shaped lots they occupy…hence The Green Monster. AT&T Park in San Francisco is a modern structure that similarly is defined by its lot and of course the impassable barrier of McCovey Cove in San Francisco Bay.

So we immediately have geometries and proportions that are unique to the game and set it apart. Next, we have another compelling feature that distinguishes baseball from all other games: the defense controls the ball and initiates play. This makes the pitcher the focal point of all eyes (see my previous article on The Battery). Goalies in hockey, lacrosse, soccer etc. have similar focal roles, but none of them ever initiate play, their role only comes clear at the end of plays (either with saves or goals).

Another difference is that unlike these other games where goalies can send their teammates into offensive action, there is no transition game in baseball. Think about it. In baseball there are no “interceptions”. In baseball, the defense can only record outs and prevent runs, it can never score runs. That is because in baseball, unlike all other games, it is the player who scores, and not the ball or puck.

Not only is baseball’s relationship to space different than any other game, so is its relationship to time. There is no clock in baseball (I do not refer to guidelines/rules about time between pitches, how long the pitcher can hold the ball, etc.; those have no effect on the resolution of the game).

You must get 27 outs before the game can be completed. How long it takes to get those outs is of no consequence. No matter how many runs you are behind, if you still have even one out remaining, you have hope. No game can have late rallies like baseball. Teams have come back from the most daunting deficits.

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