Tan’s Take: An Ode to Baseball

Feb. 21, 2019, 1:22 a.m.

Over the summer, I had an argument with a friend concerning a subject dear to my heart. He claimed that baseball is not a sport, or at the very least, one of the worst sports. We are no longer friends. (Not really, but I couldn’t achieve the same effect just by stating that his opinion was invalid.) Unfortunately, most of the reasons he listed in his scathing diatribe against baseball are shared by many.

Baseball is boring. All you do in baseball is stand around. America’s Pastime is past its time.

Public perception of this great American tradition seems to generally fall in line with my friend’s sentiments. What once was the Iron Man of American team sports is now nothing but that girl with the antennae who does the sleepy thing. The beautiful game, whose creation was incorrectly attributed to Civil War general Abner Doubleday, has recently been relegated to economy class – not even economy-plus. While football and basketball suckle at their mother’s breast, baseball is the runt of the litter who struggles to find a place to feed and even upon doing so, fails to latch on.

These are opinions of baseball with which I vehemently contend. The fact of the matter is that baseball is criminally underrated. And the reason why many people are so ready to discard baseball like the end of a loaf of bread is because they are not looking at it in the right ways.

First, baseball is the most American sport. Now, this may be significant or carry no weight at all depending on an individual’s value of patriotism and national identity, but regardless, it stands that baseball is the most deeply ingrained in and best embodies the United States.

Out of the three major American team sports – basketball, baseball, and football – baseball has the earliest claim to its inception in the U.S. Without getting too much into the nitty-gritty of dates and founders, baseball became popular in the states a good ten years before football and about 30 before basketball. Baseball also best represents one of the primary qualities on which America prides itself: diversity. In race, body size, body shape and age, the sport covers virtually every base.

In baseball, a walking stick of a man like Chris Sale and a player on the heavier side – to put it lightly – like Pablo Sandoval can both be dominant. Height is also an irrelevant factor as players ranging from the miniature 5-foot-6 frame of Jose Altuve to the colossal 6-foot-7 that is Aaron Judge can both stake claims to being the best player in the game. In fact, the past two MVPs of the American League have been under six feet: Altuve and 5-foot-9 Mookie Betts. This size diversity is something you simply don’t see in football and basketball. Sure, there are examples of players who break the mold like Tarik Cohen and Isaiah Thomas, but heights and weights that are considered outliers in these sports are commonplace in baseball.

More importantly, the racial diversity in baseball is the widest of the three sports and also historically significant. One of the most influential moments in American history, sports or otherwise, came when Jackie Robinson helped to break the color barrier and to usher in a new era of racial equality. Robinson not only opened the door for African-Americans, who had previously been confined to the Negro Leagues, but also set a precedent for players of all descents – Caucasian, African-American, Asian, Central American, South American and more – to play the game and symbolize a country that had begun to place a premium on egalitarianism.

Another aspect in which baseball far exceeds basketball and especially football is player safety. Every week during NFL action, several players are placed onto injury lists and a select few go on injured reserve. Not only are these injuries frequent in football, but they are also the most severe. Common football injuries include concussions, torn ligaments and broken bones, which can often be career-ending or prevent players from ever returning to pre-injury performance.

Though injuries of this sort are far less common in the NBA, basketball still has its fair share of gruesome incidents. Most recently, Victor Oladipo had a scary fall causing him to tear a quad tendon and NBA fans all remember Gordon Hayward breaking his ankle on opening night of the 2017-18 season.

Because of the nature of the sport, such incidents are rare in baseball, if they happen at all. Once in a while, a comebacker hits a pitcher in the head or there is a collision at the plate but these events happen in a way that results in serious injury very infrequently, perhaps once every five years. The most serious injury that occurs on a semi-regular basis for baseball players is Tommy John, in which a player, usually a pitcher, tears a ligament in his arm. Still, surgery for Tommy John seldom derails a player’s career.

A likely counterpoint to the relative paucity of damaged bodies in baseball is that this is a result of the sport having little action. Compared to its peer leagues, the MLB does have less action, but this categorization relies on a definition of action as running up and down a court or field. Moreover, detractors of baseball who condemn baseball for its inactivity seem to take this as evidence that the game is boring. The conclusion that baseball is dull based on action alone betrays a narrow opinion of what is entertaining.

In fact, baseball is the perfect balance between a variety of factors that are wonderful in moderation but in excess can make other sports difficult to watch. The most recent Super Bowl was a low-scoring affair and viewers across the country decried the event as a snoozefest because they expected a shootout. A major appeal of baseball, then, is that a game can be just as exciting in a 1-0 competition as in a boat race. Some of the most impressive and tense situations in all of American team sports come in the final outs of a no-hitter or perfect game or in a batter’s final at-bat looking to hit for the cycle.

Baseball combines the potential for a single player to decide the outcome of a game, as in basketball, with the important team aspects of football. Certainly both individual and team feats are important in all three sports, but basketball tends much more toward the individual and football toward the team. Baseball falls somewhere in the middle. This element of baseball as well as the structure of the MLB playoffs help to create an ideal postseason, the likes of which the NBA and NFL cannot replicate.

In the past four years the biggest complaint about the NBA has been its predictability. The Golden State Warriors have won the championship in three of the past four years and all four years the Finals pitted the Warriors against the Cleveland Cavaliers. Though the Cavs have faded, the Warriors are again favored to win the title. The seven-game series in the NBA postseason coupled with basketball being a sport that favors superstars almost always leads to the best team winning in the playoffs. Maybe this is appealing to some (Warriors fans, for example). But based on the widespread complaints in recent NBA seasons, it is doubtful that anyone not hitched to the Golden State bandwagon has enjoyed this stretch.

Football faces the opposite problem. Because football is such a violent sport, the playoffs are structured in such a way where each round is a one-game playoff. This format certainly makes each game important and thus exciting, but it can leave fans of the losing team feeling robbed if they are favored and lose. Here, we have a problem for fans of specific teams, compared to a league-wide problem in the NBA.

Baseball effectively balances the nature and structure of both these sports’ postseasons to produce a product that is exciting to the average fan but is also reconcilable to specific fans. The MLB also has seven-game series (five-game series in the divisional round and a one-game playoff for the wild card) in the league championships and World Series. However, because of the random nature of baseball, any team can win, regardless of the series length. Fans will never completely accept their favorite team’s defeat. But baseball provides a happy medium between basketball and football in which a loss seems more fair, while underdogs can still feature in the postseason.

Adding to this excitement is the fact that baseball has two of the biggest rivalries in all of sports, of which the latter is likely the most heated rivalry in all of American team sports: the San Francisco Giants versus the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Boston Red Sox versus the New York Yankees.

Countless other reasons that baseball is great that did not make the cut for being expanded upon include: extra innings result in free baseball, the variety of ballpark shapes and skylines makes for an interesting setting, walk-offs are always spectacular, the fact that baseball is actually extremely difficult and dingers – lots and lots of dingers.

The last point I will make about baseball is subjective and quite biased but can play a large role in the consideration of baseball fans. Baseball is the best sport to watch live. Ballpark food is the best, the traditions are like no other–seventh inning stretch with “Take me out to the Ballgame”, field races and first pitches – and the player-fan interaction beats that of any other sport.

A personal example that drives this point home for me is the instance in which I got an autograph from Red Sox second baseman Dustin Pedroia and sat next to and talked to New England Patriots Cornerback Stephon Gilmore for an hour at the same game at Fenway Park. This example probably just seems like a flex (and it definitely is) but interactions like these are not at all uncommon in baseball.

All this is to say that baseball is great and vastly underappreciated by the majority of sports fans. For readers who find these points compelling, I would encourage you to start trying to follow baseball, and you will inevitably become immersed in the wonderful world of diamond, dirt and leather. For others who read these arguments and ignore them or maintain steadfastly that baseball is a bad sport despite the overwhelming evidence that says otherwise, you’re dead to me.


Contact Andrew Tan at tandrew ‘at’ stanford.edu.

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