I remember childhood afternoons at Tiger Stadium. The smells, the sounds. The Game. And the old men who followed it through cryptic pencil notation in their programs. Baseball was perhaps a pastime for a slower age. Transistor radios captured the game in its glory years, but even those are unnecessary for the orthodox baseball fan. A small box of numbers convey the entirety of the story; a page of boxes contains a whole day and the season to date. Numbers. It’s a game of mathematics, where situational percentages and probabilities determine strategy and describe results. But on the field the game is far deeper. On the field, baseball is the game of zen.
The age of television has been detrimental to baseball; it doesn’t translate to the media well at all. Many complain that baseball is too slow, but this is illusion fostered by the pace of the game between play. The great challenge for players is to stay wholly in the game when not directly involved. When play commences, it happens so fast as to be instantaneous. There is no time to think. As Yoda would say, “Do or do not, there is no try.”
A batter steps to the plate, armed with a stick of wood and his wits. He’s matched by the pitcher standing 60 feet away, slightly elevated, with a ball. Both have plans based on mathematical calculations run by the manager that vary according to the situation. The constant scratching, staring down, knocking dirt out of cleats, digging footholds, etc. appear as wasted time between the action. In fact, these are all a part of a sort of Jedi mindtrick duel. Both men are attempting to force the other out of “the zone”, where mental activity is replaced by the action of no-thought.
Once the ball leaves the pitcher’s hand, there is no time for thought. A 90 mph fastball is traveling at (roughly) 133 feet/second. Only 60 feet separates the two players. So the batter has something less than half of one second to determine if A. the pitch is a ball or a strike, B. where the pitch will be in space when it crosses the plate, and C. bring the bat around to meet the pitch squarely. Anything less than squarely generally results in an out. You can tell when a batter tries to think. The look of confusion generally follows the sound of the pitch hitting the catcher’s mitt, because it takes more than a half of one second to decide to think.
Similar situations play themselves out all over the field. With every windup of the pitcher, every player stands up on his toes in ready concentration. Even when “nothing” happens, every player on the field jumps, because when something does happen they had better be reacting to it almost before it actually happens.
Everything happens in seconds, or fractions of seconds. Even the majestic home run, said to require a bat exit speed of at least 110 mph, only needs a few seconds to travel 300 feet. A shot down the third base line requires near super-human reaction times on the part of the third baseman to reach it, stop it, and then throw the batter out before he can run 90 feet to first base.
Only a clear mind is capable of allowing the body to do what baseball requires of it. Players of any sport will say that thinking too much hurts their performance. But unlike other sports, where a rhythm can be found in play, baseball leaves players with far too much time to think…and then requires them not to.
The only path to baseball success is the meditative state, whether it is called that or not. Clear mind and no thought lead to right action. To wobble on the baseball diamond invariably leads to failure, and this is true from little league all the way up to The Show.
Yet failure is wholly accepted in baseball. The greatest of all time reached the pinnacle by failing almost 7 out of 10 times. Baseball is the game that most resembles life. And whether played or watched, it holds a great many spiritual life lessons.
Thankfully spring training is here. Soon it will be time to tune in the transistor radio and spend summer evenings puttering around the yard with a cold beer waiting for the crack of bat on ball. Simplicity within complexity and complexity within simplicity. Nearly every evening will remind me that we fail more than we succeed, but that failure only makes success sweeter. And the transistor radio will have the psycho-spiritual power to return me to youth, when i didn’t try to understand but simply lived…either manning second base or sitting next to my grandparents, ensconced in the smell of turf and hot dogs.
The game will remain the most beautiful whether the Tigers win the World Series or have another under-performing season, because it really isn’t whether you win or lose…but how you play the game.