Play Ball

Score a run with your man by learning the game of baseball.

Love it or loathe it, baseball season is in full swing. For years, I admittedly leaned toward the “loathe it” side of the spectrum. My husband, a diehard Mets fan who hails from Arkansas (go figure), spends six months a year obsessing over his beloved ball club. Throughout the season, he’d beg me to keep him company as he scrutinized strategies, second-guessed plays and reeled off lingo that mystified me. Each and every inning, I’d secretly fantasize about escaping to the mall.

Something had to give. Recognizing the principle that “the best defense is a good offense,” I decided to learn about the sport that so obsessed my mate. And while I’m still by no means an expert on The Great Game, I can say with confidence that a little knowledge is a powerful ally. No longer do I dread spring training and all it foreshadows, or the fact that from now until October, my husband will be glued to the tube.

The following are a few essential insights that can help make watching baseball— from Little League to the Major Leagues— a bit more fun for even the most ardent non-fan.

Any baseball tutorial best begins at the ballpark. The entire playing field is known as the diamond. At the heart of the diamond is the dirt and grass infield. It’s laid out with first, second and third base, each 90 feet apart and marked by poofy white canvas squares called bags. Dirt lanes called base paths connect the three bases and lead to home plate.

Nine batters on a team try to hit the ball, run the bases and touch home plate to score. The other team’s nine fielders, meanwhile, work to foil the batter and runners at every turn. At the end of nine innings or more, in case of a tie (“the dreaded extra innings” is what one of my girlfriends so aptly calls it), the team with the most runs wins. (Note: in baseball speak, it’s “runs” not “points;” I’ve been mercilessly mocked for making faux pas!).

The chalked out rectangle on either side of home plate is the batter’s box, the spot where hitters stand while swinging. Behind the batter, with a view of all the onfield action, is the catcher— he of the killer thigh muscles. The catcher squats and spends most of the game crouching in the catcher’s box, another piece of property designated by white chalk.

The strike zone, meanwhile, is defined as the area between the hitter’s knees and the letters on the front of his uniform— the width of home plate. To count as a strike, the ball must be thrown through this invisible space. Umpires rule anything that misses the strike zone a “ball.”

For a batter, it’s three strikes and he’s out. The only exception is a foul ball— a batted ball that lands beyond the white foul lines. Unless they’re a bunt (when a batter lets the ball strike the bat rather than the other way around), foul balls cannot count as the third strike. The hitter, therefore, can foul off an unlimited number of balls.

The nine players on each team are the pitcher, catcher, first baseman, second baseman, third baseman, shortstop, left fielder, center fielder and right fielder. Other personnel on the field and off include the manager (don’t ever call him the coach), coaches (the manager’s minions) and the umpires.

The action gets started when the first batter, known as the leadoff hitter, steps up to the plate. Since his main job is getting on base, he needs to be a reliable contact hitter, consistently “slapping the ball around” in fair territory. It helps if he runs like the wind as well. In fact, the minute he or any other batter hits the ball, they become known as the runner; it’s a big-time blunder to say, “a batter’s on base.”

No one expects, or even especially wants, the leadoff hitter to hit home runs. Instead, the manager needs him on base, where he can pester the pitcher. Like a fly buzzing around a party of picnickers, the leadoff man tries to distract the pitcher by threatening to steal a base, that is sprint to the next base and touch the bag before the catcher can throw him out.

Like the leadoff batter, the second man in the lineup is a “table setter,” a dependable hitter who gets on base so the musclemen who follow can drive him home. Often, the second place batter is also a speed demon with a penchant for stealing. Ball clubs count on the third, fourth, fifth, even sixth batters to drive in runs. That’s the main reason the power hitters (or the “big bats” and “sluggers”) are put there in the lineup. The fourth-place guy is especially important. He’s called the “cleanup hitter” because it’s his job to “clean the bases” of runners. Managers look to these guys to score and to make it possible for their teammates to do the same. As a group, the four batters are knows as the “heart of the lineup.”

Though this assessment may rankle a seventh, eighth and ninth man in the lineup, players are parked in those slots because they’re the least successful or most inconsistent batters on the team. In the National League, the pitcher almost always hits ninth. In the American League, pitchers never bat.

Why, you may wonder? Because there’s a position unique to the American League called the designated hitter (DH). This guy’s only job is to hit in place of the pitcher. The DH may bat anywhere in his team’s lineup. When National League and American League clubs go head-to-head, the DH plays only in American League ballparks. If that sounds weird— well, it is.

Say any batter makes it to second base. He is now in what’s known as scoring position. On a base hit, many of these pro athletes can run from second base to home plate (a distance of roughly 180 feet) faster than an outfielder can get the ball to the catcher.

Say the third batter in the lineup makes it to first base, advancing the “table setters” to second and third. Now the bases are loaded (the “bases are juiced,” “bases are drunk,” even “the sacks are jammed”). If the fourth batter (a.k.a. the cleanup hitter) hits a home run, it’s the ultimate offensive play: a grand slam driving in four runs. But even if the batter simply hits a ground ball, odds are the runner at third will score.

Every batter’s nemesis is the strike. The umpire calls a strike when the batter swings at, but misses, a ball or when he fouls off a ball (i.e. the ball lands in foul territory before anyone catches it; if a fielder did, it would be an out). The ump also calls a strike when a pitch sails through the strike zone but the batter doesn’t swing.

If a pitch isn’t a strike, it’s a ball. A ball is any pitch that misses the strike zone: it’s too high, low or otherwise outside that imaginary area. If four balls are thrown to a batter, he walks to first base.

The combination of balls and strikes that a player accumulates while at the plate is known as the count. The umpire indicates the count after each pitch with his fingers; it’s always the right hand for balls and his left for strikes.

In giving the count, balls are listed first, strikes second. A count of “1-0” (never say “zero” in baseball; it’s “oh” or “nothing.”) means one ball and no strikes; an “0-2” (“oh-two” or “nothing-two”) count is no balls and two strikes, etc. A “full count,” the biggest there can be, is “3-2” as in three balls and two strikes.

Now you know the fundamentals about the game of baseball. Sure, you may not be ready to debate the convoluted Infield Fly Rule or interpret all of the catcher’s hand signs, but at least you’ve got the basics under your belt.