Overhead view of a baseball stadium

What’s So Good About Baseball?

Having just gone through an excruciating collapse by my beloved Chicago Cubs, I have to try to find it within myself to remember that I do love baseball. It’s times like these when I wish I could go back to when I was a child and didn’t really have a favorite baseball team but instead just loved the game itself. There was a time when a game was on, I would pick who I wanted to win and I would root for said team as though it did matter but when it was over I’d just move on and wait to watch the next ball game.

There is an element of recognizing that the baseball playoff race is a tad watered down. Some of the sting is eased when I think about the fact that it is kind of silly for a team barely above .500 to have a chance at the playoffs, which is a bit much when the teams already compete in a 162 season, but it does still get frustrating when I think about how they had a 90% chance of making it to the postseason according to different websites who determine such things.

With all things painful, however, I have to reevaluate why I love the thing in the first place even with other sports ramping up while my team has just been eliminated from winning a championship. Football season is well underway. Hockey is in the preseason, and basketball will be soon, but even with all that being so, my interest still ultimately is in baseball. Why? That’s a question that I’m working on answering here.

Exterior of Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs
Wrigley Field, Credit: Canva

Baseball can be a passive spectator sport

I understand that this can be taken in a very negative way. One can argue that this means the game is boring or that it may even lack depth. If I put a football game on, it’s hard not to feel the intensity with every play. Basketball is a constant back and forth where something is always happening points-wise, while baseball just has a methodical rhythm to it. Because of that slower pace, one can much more easily have it on in the background while doing something else. One can follow a game without having to watch it with apps like Gamecast or score updates on ESPN.

There’s so much quantifiable statistical information that one can have a very strong idea of who is good without ever seeing them play, and actually watching an individual play in small sample sizes (like a single game) or out of context could even give you the wrong impression on said player should you catch them on a bad day. One can go to a ball game and have a conversation with friends over a couple of beers and still have an idea of what’s going on if they just turn their head when there’s a crack of the bat. Even if you miss it, it’s an easy sport to capture highlights of as it is a very moment-to-moment game, and you can just watch the highlights on social media.

As a teenager when I finished competing in my own baseball games or if I went off and did something else, I could just get updated on everything I needed from that night’s episode of Baseball Tonight. The older generation could do that for the week on This Week in Baseball.

 

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Baseball can also be filled with depth

On the flip side, if you want to dive in deep, that opportunity is there as well. It’s an easy sport to keep score of (and fun too if you’re into that kind of thing. I can’t imagine keeping score for another sport would be as fun as it is in baseball as it’s so easy to document each play).

When I watch an at-bat, I can watch where a catcher sets up on each pitch. I can try to guess the pitch the pitcher’s going to throw or see how badly he’s missing his sports and with what kind of pitch. I can try to read a hitter’s swing and see what direction he’s trying to hit the ball.

If I’m at the game live, I can watch the fielders and see how they position themselves. I can watch their footwork closely on a defensive play and see how they position themselves when they make a throw. I can watch the bullpen and see how a pitcher gets ready. On TV, I can use a closeup shot to try to guess what a pitcher or hitter is thinking or what they are doing to try to calm themselves down as this is a sport where adrenaline can be harmful.

There are all kinds of advanced stats to get into and in recent years there are measurements on how much the ball spins and how hard the ball is hit. It’s fun to try to guess how past players compare and how they would measure up to players before these could be measured.

Every sport has generation vs. generation debates, but seeing how professional baseball goes back over a century and with very famous names, it really is interesting to wonder how a legend from 100 years ago would fair today and with the question being impossible to answer the depth of potential conversation in a player vs. player debate is strong, especially when one considers that baseball is an individual sport disguised as a team sport.

 

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Every stadium is unique

Yes, there are historic venues in other sports, but even with that, in all American major sports, the playing surfaces are pretty much set in how they are to be laid out, and while, yes, the infield has a set standard in baseball the fact that the fences can be designed in any way leads to something unique. You can have the straightforward, symmetrical look of the old school cookie cutter stadiums or you can have Fenway. The fences can vary in height and already you have situations where balls that are homers in one stadium are outs in the other.

Yes, environmental factors could create something similar in, say, football, where the wind could affect passes or kicks, but the stadium doesn’t have the extreme effect on the game that it does in baseball. I could see this being a turnoff to some but to me I love it and it gives reasons to want to watch a game in different settings.

This really rears its head in video games. If I play a baseball video game, I always want to play a game at Coors Field to see if the game implements the altitude effect on the baseball or if I can play a game at the Polo Grounds where it’s so shallow down the lines but so deep to center. There are even stats that account for the different effects that a park has on a player and I honestly don’t know if any other sport can say that.

A view of a baseball game between the Chicago Cubs and Miami Marlins at Loan Depot Park
The Miami Marlins take on the Chicago Cubs at Loan Depot Park.

But it’s not just its effect on the game, a ballpark can have an effect on the viewer experience. I’ve been to Oakland and Miami for a game, one place known for not having a great ballpark and the other known for its sparse attendance, and I’ve been to games at Wrigley Field or Fenway Park, where it feels like you’re getting a taste of the past, and while the game on the field is the same it doesn’t always feel the same.

Some ballparks blast music as much as they can, some have advanced video packages for their team, some focus on their team’s history, and some emphasize the teams present. This also transitions to the minor leagues as well as every ballpark I’ve been to is its own experience and each location seems to have a little story to tell about the tenants and the fan experience for each team.

Baseball captures my senses

This one is probably more abstract and probably individual. Some of this may be even a little bit weird. I associate two very distinct smells with the sport and neither of them are peanuts and hot dogs. They aren’t even stale beer or popcorn.

The first is when I used to go to minor league games at local John O’ Donnell Stadium in Davenport, Iowa; they were one of the last stadiums to prohibit smoking in parts of the park, so I remember walking up the narrow concrete ramp, and smelling the smell of fresh cigarettes. I’m not a smoker, I’ve never tried smoking, and I have no desire to. In most settings, I think the smell is gross, but I have an association of pleasure with seeing the green grass of the field (granted, it was a tad wore out as were talking single-A baseball in the early 90s here) but it was a pleasing thing to me. Adding to it was the very sparse crowd, the way the sounds kind of echoed through the park, and the cheap speakers that were used by the PA announcer plus a combination of things that would seem unpleasant but are still engrained as a very positive memory to me.

In fact, some of these elements make me think that I was getting a taste of what attending a ball game in the 40s was like. (John O’Donnell Stadium, now Modern Woodman Park, had a much more classic look before it was remodeled in 2004. Take a look at any pictures if you get a chance as I think it was an underrated ballpark.)

The other smell I associate with pleasant baseball memories is the smell of old cardboard. I think it’s somewhat easy to see what I’m getting at here, and if it’s not, I’m talking about baseball cards. My dad and I have had a collection built from when he was a kid through when I was younger (and I’ve added some today).

It’s possible that some of his old cards are worth something, but for the most part, most of the cards are from the baseball card boom from the 80s and 90s. I’ve added some myself with recent purchases but my intent is for fun as it’s still fun to see what still photos and players you can get in a pack. I know card collecting has kind of gotten a tad more popular since quarantine in 2020, but I don’t have much interest in trying to pull the rarest, most worth card.

For me, it’s a collective experience of opening a fresh pack, feeling the fresh card, and flipping through to see what players you have. For years and years, I had the cards collected in a box, and every so often, I would open the box, and the smell of the old paper hit me like nostalgia, and it’s a smell that makes me feel comfortable. I’ve gone through and organized the box into sleeves and it’s been shuffled and reshuffled and reorganized when I get new cards or when I want a cathartic hobby, and just putting the players in order and looking at the old picture and card designs fills me with pleasure.

 

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Build up of tension

As much as I like the laid-back feel of regular-season baseball, there is something about the way tension is built in meaningful baseball that leads to an explosion of emotion in ways that I don’t think can be replicated in other sports.

Football is, overall, a very tense sport as there are so few games and the game is so violent and vicious. I do think that with the way the game flows, typically, it’s easy to gauge who’s in control and momentum, and it’s easy to kind of be prepared for those more intense moments. Basketball is a sport of runs. When you’re watching a meaningful game, your team is either in a zone, you’re waiting to end, or you’re waiting for another team to cool down before your team has their moment. Hockey has….OK, you got me here, there probably isn’t anything more intense than the feeling of overtime hockey. But it’s still a different kind of tension that focuses more on the fact that this can end in anyway as opposed to a more gradual build.

But with baseball, I think a lot of it centers upon the build-up. In a meaningful baseball game, tension builds pitch to pitch, then at bat to at bat, then run to run, and it always feels like the next time the pitcher throws the ball, the avalanche of bad things for him could happen or vice versa, he’ll keep dealing, and it’ll feel like the offense will never get going.

The tighter a game is, and the later it gets in a ball game, the fear that the next pitch will end your season and the entire 162-game slate (plus playoffs) will feel useless overtakes you. It’s a sport where, yes, there are lots of moments when nothing happens, but in those gaps is anticipation. When there’s no constant action, you’re ready for it to happen but also not prepared for what could happen, and the end result is either devastation or pure jubilation when the rare thing goes your way. As much as I want my Cubs to be in the playoffs, it’s never, exactly, a pleasant experience until it ends, and most of the time, it’s going to end badly.

Overhead view of a baseball stadium
Wrigley Field, Credit: Canva

A season is like a novel

I think one of the best parts about being a sports fan is following a team closely for a season, getting to know their personalities (as best as you can), and going through the ups and downs. While all sports have a novel type feel, I thnk the regular season of baseball still gives the most enriching experience.

Football is so short; there are a lot of players, and they all wear helmets, so when it seems like I’m just getting to know these dudes, the season ends. Plus, all broadcasts are national broadcasts with national broadcasters, so there’s an element of separation I feel from the team even if I watch every minute of every single game.

In hockey or basketball, I just feel like too many teams make the playoffs (granted, this is becoming an issue in baseball as well), and it just feels like regular-season moments aren’t as important. Yes, I have my favorite regular season Iowa Hawkeyes, Green Bay Packers, Chicago Bulls, or Blackhawks games, but the reality is the regular season games I remember by the Cubs are probably more than all of those teams combined.

Is some of that because the Cubs play a lot more games than those teams? That’s a good part of it, but I do feel that there’s a certain part of it that comes from meticulously following the team for so many games. There’s just a deeper attachment I feel towards the team season by season. In baseball, the players’ faces are also front and center every time they pitch, every time they bat, and even when they make a defensive play. When you see them so frequently, the players just feel so familiar.

Also, with a sport so old as baseball, there’s a generational factor here. There are fans who go to the ballpark and root for the team because their dad did. Their dad did it because their dad did. The fandom for the team and game at that point is almost genetic. It creates a deep emotional bond. (My circumstance is different; I just got attached to the Cubs, and I really don’t know exactly why.)

The Cedar Rapids Kernels play baseball at Veterans Memorial Stadium
Cedar Rapids Kernels vs. the River Bandits at Veterans Memorial Stadium

Accomplishments that aren’t wins and losses 

Baseball has the no-hitter, a perfect game, or hitting for the cycle as a quick example. Obviously, these accomplishments lead to wins and losses. The accomplishments themselves don’t actually matter that much, though, in terms of team success. Heck, there have been pitchers who weren’t that good throwing no-hitters, so it’s not like even completing these accomplishments necessarily means you’re a good player.

The best way to put what I mean here is to use Jake Arrieta’s second no-hitter vs. the Cincinnati Reds as an example. I remember watching this game in 2016. It was in April, and the Cubs were off to a great start and would prove to be the best team in baseball (they even won the World Series. It was a thing, but I’m sure it’s not much remembered).

The Cubs won this game 16-0, and obviously, by the time the 9th inning hit, this game was well decided. (I believe the biggest comeback in MLB history is 12 runs but not 100 percent on this.) Everything about this game says there was no reason to even be watching at this point. Because the Reds had zero hits going into this inning, I was tense and sweating and experiencing the same level of anxiety I would experience later in the playoffs. And this was all because of a stat. I can’t think of anything in any other sport that would equate to this.

The only thing I can think of is when a basketball player has a very high individual point total in a game, and you start to root for them to get every bucket to pad that total, but there’s a difference with that where a player chasing this accomplishment could actually hurt the team.

In baseball, I can’t really see how a player chasing an accomplishment like this would hurt. (I suppose pitch count in a no-hitter leading to injury could do this, but that’s more on the manager. A hitter stopping on first when he could get an extra bag so he could complete a cycle would do so too, but this is why cycles are kind of overrated, but that’s a conversation for another day.)

Even taking away the fact that chasing a high-point total could hurt the team, I’m not sure this would lead to the same level of tension that a perfect game or shutout would lead to. I’ve heard stories of an infielder being afraid of a ball being hit toward them in a perfect game so they don’t mess it up with an error. I can’t imagine a Lakers teammate was afraid to get Kobe the ball when he scored 81.

What makes baseball so important to me

I see baseball as unique, especially when comparing it to the other sports that are popular in this country. It’s not violent. It’s not fast-paced. It doesn’t create an illusion of predictability that makes it easy to bet on. It’s a sport where the best fail often. You can’t really count on rings for individual success, but individual success means so much. It’s a sport that’s presented as cerebral, but really the strategy isn’t that complex, as the most successful teams really just put their best players out there and hope for the best.

To me, it’s more of a psychological sport as trying to keep your calm while hitting a ball moving anywhere from 85-105 MPH as it spins and dives anywhere is designed only for certain personalities. The same goes for the guy who is able to put such throws right where they want them to go.

Even as a fan, to watch your team lose an extra innings game when your team absolutely needs to win, just to be able to turn on the game the next night and hope for a different result takes a certain level of attrition (or insanity) that’s just hard to explain to non-sports fans.

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