Rushin: Pondering Baseball’s Mysteries
You know that split second of panic when a baseball is popped up in the infield, and everybody in the park—in the seconds it takes for the ball to descend—tries to process how many outs there are, and how many baserunners, and whether the infield-fly rule is in effect? No? Just me then?
Has a double switch ever left you briefly bamboozled? It’s OK to answer yes—some lineup changes can befuddle major league umpires, even. “I’m puttin’ only one guy in there,” Tigers skipper Sparky Anderson once explained, as he informed an ump of some Byzantine defensive switch. “But there’ll be five movements out there. Don’t pay no attention to ’em.”
What I don’t know about baseball could fill a book. Indeed, what I don’t know about baseball has filled many books, some of which I’ve actually read. After many decades watching baseball, I can seldom tell at a glance if that pitch was a slider, splitter or cutter, and I’m not entirely confident that the TV color analyst isn’t just making it up as he goes along.
As baseball’s Rule 4 amateur draft arrives in June, seven months after the Rule 5 draft last winter, I’m left to wonder: what happened to Rules 1 through 3? (The same question applies to Preparation H and Kenny G. What happened to Preparations A through G? Whither Kennys A through F?)
I don’t always know who the cutoff man is supposed to be, or who ought to be backing up whom, a confusion I share with some big leaguers. I know that launch angles and exit velocities are important, I just haven’t yet figured out what to do with this information.
What’s in a hot dog? Is a hot dog a sandwich? If Dippin’ Dots were really going to be the ice cream of the future, wouldn’t that future have arrived by now?
Baseball can reward repeated viewing over many decades with a deeper understanding of the game. But baseball can also be the pattern in casino carpeting that becomes more confusing the longer you stare at it. Speaking of which, I still don’t understand how grounds crews achieve those outfield mowing patterns. Any efforts to replicate them in my own yard have yielded the sympathetic replies usually reserved for a boy with a bad haircut: “It will grow back.”
Likewise, invoking any of the following phrases induces in me a powerful math-class vertigo: salary cap, luxury tax, Collective Bargaining Agreement, salary arbitration, service time, waiver wire, qualifying offer or Japanese posting system. As with the Mariana Trench, no light has ever reached Major League Baseball’s free agency rules, and I’ve always been afraid to plumb their depths, where the answers presumably lie, like sunken treasure.
Some of baseball’s eternal mysteries can never adequately be explained. Why don’t the Padres go back to brown and gold? Why doesn’t every member of the Cardinals wear those gorgeous red-and-black-and-white striped stirrups? Where Have You Gone Joe DiMaggio?
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These vexing questions about baseball begin in early youth, when the Dad coaching third base brushes his chest and touches his nose and tugs the bill of his cap and grabs his belt buckle and taps his chin and pulls a hanky from his back pocket to blow his nose, while the fourth-grader on first base tries to figure out if he’s signaling a bunt, telling him to steal or having a seizure.
The game only becomes more mystifying with age. Advanced metrics have given all of us a deeper insight into baseball, while offering an almost infinite series of codes to crack for the casual fan, lost in the fog of WAR.
Almost all of this is a good thing. Baseball is a puzzle you’ll never complete, a book you can’t put down but can never finish. It’s a Dance of the Seven Veils, performed by the Phillie Phanatic. The mystery and the allure are inseparable: two pieces, sewn together with 108 stitches. You can spend a lifetime pulling the endless string inside a baseball without ever reaching its cushioned cork center.
The most famous questions in baseball history play on our confusion. Who’s on first? What’s the name of the guy on second? Me, I’ve always identified with the guy on third, fella by the name of I Don’t Know.