Forget your “favorite” sport — an actual baseball game is America’s best athletic event. Action in basketball, hockey, soccer and lacrosse is unceasing. Those sports permit lazing, idle chatter with neighbors and even getting a drink during play. Excitement in baseball comes in packets of seconds. Every play earns attention with its brevity. And the breaks between at bats permit good if focused conversation. So baseball’s worst alleged weakness — that it’s too darn slow — is actually a merit. All sporting events are social occasions, but baseball best balances the fan’s desire to speak with friends and his reason for coming out in the first instance: to see some ball.
Now, it is true that in baseball, fewer things “happen” — if what you care about is hitting. But while there’s a case that hitting a baseball is the toughest job in sports, I’d like to argue that it isn’t even the most beautiful task in the game. Permit me to make the case for pitchers and catchers as the better objects of our admiration.
The pitcher’s publicity requires that I start with him. Unlike some other actions in baseball, a pitch can take one of an infinite variety of forms. Four- and two-seam fastballs, cutters, splitters, curveballs, sliders, breaking balls, change-ups (of several sorts) and screwballs are just some of the denominated methods of getting the ball to the plate. Pitches at the professional level vary between 70 and north of 100 miles per hour. Though it may not seem so to the hurlers themselves, pitchers have a large invisible screen through which their throws may pass: 17 inches by about 2 feet, depending on the distance between a batter’s knees and shoulders.
The many interpretations of a pitch constitute a relatively private art. Fans may remember a hanging breaking ball that turns into a homerun — but mostly they’re upset about the dinger, not the pitcher’s choice. And indeed, the many pitching styles aside, the pitch’s important content — and the way we judge a pitcher’s skill — is easy to measure: strikes, balls, strikeouts, walks, hits allowed and whatever Nate Silver’s contrived from his fancy statistics. They’re how we tell a good from a bad pitcher.
A good catcher is harder to discern. There are ways to tell a terrible catcher — lots of passed balls, for instance. But a catcher’s excellence is subtle. I remembered this watching Andrew Herrera ’17 catch for the Bulldogs this past Sunday. If there were runners on base, Herrera rested on the insides of his cleats instead of his toes, ready to ascend into throwing position lest an ambitious runner take chances with a steal. The position prepares him to execute the most beautiful out in baseball: a runner caught stealing second.
The catcher spends most of his time in a contortion. Seventy degrees may be fine weather for fans, but with a catcher’s gear on, even inaction is taxing. Herrera does it with no knee-savers and a full head of brown hair — a pricey luxury under a helmet and mask.
Blocking an 80-mile-hour hard ball with your body requires years of practice and instinctive courage. Herrera is a Great Wall of China behind the plate, throwing himself in front of pitches in the dirt to keep runners from taking a free base.
There’s a debate in baseball about which player is the captain of a team’s defense. Some say the short-stop or center fielder. This is nonsense. They are mere regional officials. The catcher alone sees the arrangement of his team before each pitch, directing players this way or that. This is his most underappreciated job: A misplaced fielder might have been better positioned had his teammate with the best view told him so. How many outs have been made because the fellow behind the plate told the second basemen to walk five feet to the left?
I have no answer to whether the catcher or the pitcher has the more beautiful work (I’m inclined to the former, but as a former catcher, I’m biased). I wrote this column because Sunday I saw a game for the first time in five years. It reminded me why, besides the playing, I think baseball is the greatest sport. Baseball names are the best names: Drew Scott ’18, Brent Lawson ’16, Mason Kukowski ’18 (rough day, Kukowski. Get ‘em next time). College players heckle, just like in elementary school. And The Star-Spangled Banner inaugurates every game.
Although the Bulldogs lost the game I saw, I was mostly disappointed with the lack of attendance. What are Sunday afternoons for, if not baseball? The field is nearby, and games are fast. The next time I go, I hope to see more of my classmates cheering on our boys in blue and white, playing America’s greatest sport.
Cole Aronson is a sophomore in Calhoun College. His column runs on Mondays. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org .