October 12, 2016

Why Baseball is Unique

baseball is uniqueWhy Baseball is Unique

It is fall and that means great news in the world of sports. This may be the best time of year for the sports junkie. Football is in full stride. Basketball players and hockey players are about to bang the boards for real games. And, the great American pastime, Major League Baseball, has started its playoffs.

Baseball is no longer the most popular spectator sport being surpassed by the NFL yet MLB outdrew the NFL at the attendance gate 73,000,000 to 17,500,000 this past year though it plays about 10 times as many games. But, when it comes to team sports, baseball is unique.

Baseball possesses several unique features not seen in most other sports especially the team sports like football, basketball, hockey, soccer, lacrosse, water polo, and so on. George Carlin made very humorous observations on the difference between football and baseball that you can see here. But, we will go beyond his observations.

Below are the many unique features of baseball that you will not see in other team sports.

Unique Features of Baseball

  • Baseball is unique because it has no time clock.
  • The strategy in baseball does not change throughout the entirety of a game.
  • Baseball is played on a diamond and each park has varying dimensions.
  • Baseball is unique as it requires mastery of several distinct skills.
  • Baseball plays defense against a ball rather than a player.
  • In baseball the defense has possession of the ball.
  • In baseball out of play is still in play.
  • In baseball the object is to advance oneself or teammate full circle to the place he started (home).
  • In baseball physical size matters less.
  • Baseball has no shortage of statistics.
  • The baseball season is a metaphor for life.

Let’s take a closer look at some of these unique features.

Baseball has no time clock

Having no time clock is probably the biggest differentiator between baseball and other sports.  Having no time clock means one thing. A baseball game is never over – – until it is over. In other sports many times the outcome of a game has been decided long before the clock runs out. There are times in other sports where it becomes physically and mathematically impossible for the team behind on the scoreboard to win the ballgame.

Not so in baseball. In baseball, like life, hope springs eternal. It is always possible for a team to come back and win the game no matter how dire the situation. For instance, a team can be down 12 runs and have two outs in the bottom of the ninth and it still has a real, albeit, small chance of winning the ball game.

It is impossible to know when a baseball game may end. It may end on this pitch, the next pitch, or the pitch after that. That makes baseball potentially more suspenseful especially during the playoffs when each game matters. And, that is possible because of no game clock.

The fact that baseball has no game clock leaves the strategy of the game unchanged unlike other sports.

Unchanging strategy

In baseball no team ever sits on a lead like teams do in others sports governed by a time clock. In baseball teams always try to score more runs and always try to prevent their opponents from scoring. The strategy is pure.

In sports like basketball and football teams will build sizable leads and then protect the lead by milking the game or play clock, or protect their leads by playing prevent defense. In other words, they change their strategy. In baseball you can never assume to have enough runs as the opposing team is never out of the game.

Some times football teams will actually give their opponents points (intentionally take a safety or allow them to even score a touchdown in order to get the ball back (New England in the Super Bowl). In baseball, pitchers may intentionally walk a batter, but never with the goal of aiding the opponents on the scoreboard.

In basketball and football teams will intentionally not try to score once the outcome is evident as not to  “embarrass” the other team. Again, baseball teams always try to score if they can. They have to because they cannot assume they have enough runs.

Have you ever seen a baseball manager instruct his players to intentionally strike out in the ninth inning so as not to score anymore runs? No, and you won’t.

Intentionally not scoring in basketball or football never made sense to me. What is the value in not trying to score or at least trying to gain yardage in football? You are not embarrassing another team if you score more points than you need. They are embarrassing themselves if they cannot stop you. It is their problem if you score, not yours.

Now maybe you don’t go out of your way to score but you should run your base offense and if you score, you score. Use the remainder of the game as practice and evaluate your talent – but play the game the way your team plays the game.

If you don’t want to run up the score put the second and third teams (mainly college and high school levels) in and give them a chance to run the base offense and get real experience in-game situations. They’ve earned that chance through their practice time. What experience are they getting by taking a knee?

Is a team not embarrassing the other team more when they do that?  Aren’t they saying “you’re so pitiful we aren’t even going to try play this game the way it is supposed to be played anymore?” If not embarrassing the other team is important than there should be a provision for the refs to simply call the game. Why got through the motions?

Many basketball games deteriorate into free throw shooting contests at the end of the game if one team has a sizable lead.  Perhaps basketball should allow a team that has a lead above a certain amount to have the option of shooting free throws or put in the ball back into play and maintain possession of the ball in the last two minutes.

Or, perhaps basketball should play the games until the a team reaches a certain point total (like 100 in the NBA and 80 in college). That is what volleyball does. The game is over the when the first team reaches that point total. That would prevent all the fouling that occurs at the end of the game most of which occurs intentionally and takes away from the spirit and intent of the game.

The way the game is currently structured basketball teams that play good defense without fouling find themselves at a disadvantage at the end of the game if they need to commit fouls to get back in the game. They are actually penalized in a sense for playing the game appropriately.

There is something inherently wrong with the rules of the game if a team can benefit by putting the opposing team in position to score more points.

So in football and basketball the game is played one way for the majority of the contest but then the strategy changes during the last two to five minutes in ways that are against the spirit of the game. In baseball the strategy is consistent throughout.

There is something to be said about being true to the sport and playing the game the way it is to meant to be played from start to finish. And, that is done in baseball.

baseball is uniqueDefense in baseball

In baseball the defense has possession of the ball and it is the ball that is being defended more than an opposing player. In the other team sports players defend players. To some degree baseball does to (picking a player off first base), but for the most part defense in baseball is geared to stopping the ball whether it be a fly ball or ground ball. Baseball players are matching their defensive skill primarily against the ball – not trying to shadow or block out another player as in other sports with some exceptions (blocking player trying to score at home plate).

Baseball is played on a diamond

Almost all team sports are played on rectangular playing surface (which may be a pool as in water polo). The dimensions of playing surfaces are the same for each venue for a given sport. In a large sense each venue looks the same.  Not so in baseball.

Baseball is played on a diamond or square with those dimensions being the same for each field. But the outfield areas can vary from baseball park to park. Some parks have symmetrical dimensions in the outfield but many do not. Some have fences with unusual angles that can affect play and the outcomes of games. Some have high fences in some areas and low in others. Some have ivy on the fence where it is possible to lose a ball.

You go full circle in baseball.

The object of the game for the other team sports is the same – advance a ball or some other object like a puck from one end to the other end and place it into a goal or over a goal. Basically, these team sports are merely versions of the same sport and even share many of the same rules.

In baseball the object is to advance a teammate or one’s self back to the starting point – home plate. In baseball the object is to go full circle and not end to end.

Out of play is in play 

In baseball out of play, or foul territory, is still in play both defensively and offensively. The defensive team can catch a pop fly in foul territory, and conversely, a batter can hit a ball that is ruled fair but then travels into foul territory where it hits a wall and careen back into play or it may stay in foul territory but still be a live ball. Play is basically all the space between the stands in baseball. Not so in other sports.

Baseball requires mastery of several skills

This article is not meant to debate which athletes are the best athletes, but to be really good in baseball a player must master more distinct and varied skills than in other sports. Football players can make the Hall of Fame because they can block. There are different types of blocks, but the only essential skill of an offensive lineman is to block. He doesn’t have to run the ball, catch the ball, or pass the ball.

In football all players are basically specialists. Not one football player is required to execute all the essential skills required in football (running, tackling, blocking, passing, receiving, kicking, etc). Basketball is the most unique in that regard as it is the only team sport I can think of where every player regardless of position has to execute the essential fundamentals of the game. Baseball, hockey, and lacrosse come close but hockey and lacrosse have  goalies and baseball has pitchers that essentially focus on a limited set of fundamentals.

But the skills in baseball are arguably more varied than in other sports.

Basketball players need to be to dribble, shoot, play defense, and pass the ball. Hockey players must skate on a thin blade and rapidly change direction, play defense, shoot the puck, and pass the puck. Soccer players must kick, run, play defense.

Baseball talks about the five tools –  running with speed, arm/throwing strength, hitting for average, hitting for power, and fielding. The sport also requires use and mastery of two implements – a bat and a glove.

Plus, it is generally universally accepted that hitting a baseball is the single most difficult sport skill to master and if you are successful at it only 30% of the time you have a good chance of making the Hall of Fame. The physics of hitting a baseball are intriguing, but physics is found everywhere in baseball. In fact, there are several books that discuss the physics of baseball in great detail.

Physical size matters less

In baseball, soccer, and hockey physical size matters less than it does in basketball or football. There is a position in baseball for players of all sizes. So baseball tends to be a more inclusive sport. You do not see many NBA players under 6’4″. You will not see a 5’10” 200 pound offensive lineman in the NFL, either. Basically, genetics matters less in baseball. This means it is easier to for one to will himself into a solid baseball player. Effort matters more – not genetics.

Baseball has stats and stats and stats

If you are into math and statistics then baseball is your game. Just about any stat you want to know about a player or team you can probably find as baseball keeps track of just about everything imaginable. No stat is so trivial as not to be tracked.

I learned much basic math skills when I was a kid playing Strat-0-Matic baseball calculating batting averages and earned run averages playing the game. Here is a description of how the Strat-O-Matic Baseball game is played.

The wonderful thing about Strat-O-Matic is you can play games with teams from different eras matching the 1927 New York Yankees against the 1975 Big Red Machine of Cincinnati, or the 1934 St. Louis Cardinals Gas House Gang against the 1995 Cleveland Indians. The entire game is based on each individual’s stats from a given year and the game is designed so that if you were to play an entire season each player’s stats in Strat-O-Matic would be quite close to their actual stats for that year in real life.

The baseball season is a metaphor for life

Of the four major sports – baseball, basketball, football, and hockey (sorry soccer) only baseball begins its season in the spring – the season of new life or birth. And, it ends in the fall – the season of harvest or the season of completion when a farmer’s effort exerted in spring and summer is rewarded. And, thus it is with baseball. The teams that have made the playoffs are rewarded with the two survivors being given an opportunity to showcase their talents in the Fall Classic, The World Series.

Here is to hoping it will be the Cleveland Indians and the Chicago Cubs. And, if that were to happen it might just be the most discussed World Series of all time.

Baseball, there is no other sport like it. Yes, baseball is unique. 







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Dr. Joe Jacko

Dr. Joe is board certified in internal medicine and sports medicine with additional training in hormone replacement therapy and regenerative medicine. He has trained or practiced at leading institutions including the Hughston Clinic, Cooper Clinic, Steadman-Hawkins Clinic of the Carolinas, and Cenegenics. He currently practices in Columbus, Ohio at Grandview Primary Care. Read more about Dr. Joe Jacko

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