Watching Baseball Smarter

A Professional Fan's Guide for Beginners, Semi-Experts, and Deeply Serious Geeks

by Zack Hample

Paperback, 254 pages, Random House Inc, List Price: $14 | purchase

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Title
Watching Baseball Smarter
Subtitle
A Professional Fan's Guide for Beginners, Semi-Experts, and Deeply Serious Geeks
Author
Zack Hample

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Book Summary

An obsessed baseball fan celebrates his love of the American pastime while sharing information on the ins and outs of the game, from the difference between a split finger fastball and a forkball, why the first-base coach uses a stopwatch, obscure rules, pitching and hitting, fielding, and umpires.

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Note: Book excerpts are provided by the publisher and may contain language some find offensive.

Excerpt: Watching Baseball Smarter

CHAPTER 1

THE BASICS

There's one word that describes baseball: "You never know."

—Joaquin Andujar, former major league pitcher

THE DREAM

Life is pretty good if you're in the Major Leagues. First of all, you get to hang out with other major leaguers. You also get to be on TV every day and play in front of thousands of people. You get to see your name in newspapers and magazines and on the back of people's T-shirts. You get to see your face on scoreboards and baseball cards and posters. You get free equipment from sporting goods companies. You get unlimited bubble gum and sunflower seeds in the dugout. You get to relax in the clubhouse and watch big-screen TVs from fancy leather couches while other people get paid to wash your uniform. You get to fly on private jets and stay in nice hotels. You get recognized by kids and pretty women who scream for autographs. Sometimes old men scream too. You earn an average annual salary of $2.9 million (or roughly $17,900 per game), and when the team travels, you get over $75 extra every day to spend on food.

No wonder the dream starts early.

But is it simply about fame and money? Maybe it's about having the chance to do something spectacular in one instant that people will always remember. Maybe it's about a subconscious desire to play a game full-time and act like a little boy well into adulthood. Maybe it's about having the manager and trainer race onto the field to make sure you're okay after you hit a foul ball off your ankle.

The motivation is almost irrelevant because every kid with the dream wants it bad. Every kid has a reason. Every kid has a story. Every kid has a good baseball name. Every kid practices his swing in the mirror. Every kid can steal a base and catch a fly ball and throw strikes. Every kid converts his statistics into a 600-at-bat season and concludes that he'll be a superstar in the majors. Every kid is sure he's gonna make it—and 99,999 out of 100,000 kids are wrong. They don't know how much better the competition gets every step of the way. They don't know how long the journey takes. They don't know that there's always some other kid with an edge. Someone is always taller, stronger, faster, smarter. Someone has quicker feet and softer hands and sharper eyes and better instincts. Someone runs more. Someone lifts weights more. Someone is using steroids. Someone's father is a baseball coach. Someone's older brother is already playing pro ball. Someone has a batting tee in the basement or a batting cage in the backyard. Someone lives in warmer weather and gets to practice year-round. Someone wants it more than anyone on earth has ever wanted it.

There's T-ball, Wiffle ball, softball, and Little League. There are baseball camps, baseball schools, private lessons, and winter clinics in stuffy gymnasiums. There's high school ball, college ball, summer ball, and fall ball. There's Babe Ruth League, the Cape Cod League, semipro leagues, and independent leagues. There are scouts, agents, tryouts, strikeouts, errors, cuts, injuries, surgeries, and lifelong dreams that can die in an instant.

But every year, the dream stays alive for 1,500 young men, at least for a little while, when they're selected by major league organizations in the First-Year Player Draft.

THE DRAFT

Basketball players regularly jump directly from high school to the NBA. Football players push right through college to the NFL. But baseball players have it much harder—as do the scouts who discover them. Almost all players start their careers in the Minor Leagues because their talent is less predictable and takes longer to develop.

Each June the ongoing search for talent begins a new cycle with the 50-round draft. Every major league team employs dozens of scouts who focus on North American players—mostly high school and college graduates—who are eligible for the draft. Now that baseball is spreading internationally, scouts also comb the rest of the globe for prospects who can sign outside of the draft as free agents if they're at least 16 years old. But the draft supplies more future major leaguers than any other talent pool.

Teams are assigned an order for selecting players, based on the previous season's won-lost records. The lousier teams get the higher picks. (Some people wonder if teams prefer to finish last once the season starts going downhill.)

The draft serves two purposes: to distribute the talent evenly and to keep signing bonuses from surging. Players are not free agents in the draft. They are forced to negotiate only with the team that selects them. If a player refuses an offer, he must wait a year and reenter the draft.

Even though every kid dreams of playing in the big leagues, it's not always easy for a team to complete the deal with a player it has drafted. For example, a high school star who's offered a $10,000 signing bonus for his 16th-round selection might also have heard from dozens of colleges that offered him full scholarships and a chance to play on their Division I teams. He may choose to stay in school, knowing that his skills could improve so much in four years that he might eventually be a first-round draft pick and earn a multimillion-dollar signing bonus. And if his future professional team pays him that much, the organization will stick with him if he struggles and give him all the instruction, attention, and support he needs to reach the majors.

Scouts look for intangibles like maturity, aggressiveness, and baseball instincts. When it comes to finding position players, a scout's Holy Grail is the five-tool player, the five tools being the ability to field well, throw hard, run fast, hit home runs, and hit for a high batting average. Barry Bonds, in his prime, was the ultimate five-tool player.

With pitchers, scouts look for velocity and accuracy, but they don't just want throwers; they want pitchers who use their heads and have a game plan. Left-handers are always in demand because their pitches naturally have more movement—no one's really sure why—and because they're more effective against left-handed hitters. Teams seek tall pitchers, not only because their big bodies are more durable, but because their long arms allow them to release the ball closer to home plate, giving hitters less time to react. Tall guys also have better leverage, meaning their higher release points allow them to throw with a greater downward angle for more velocity. Look at any team's roster and you'll notice that there aren't many players—especially pitchers—under six feet tall.

THE ROAD TO THE MAJOR LEAGUES

Of the tens of thousands of players selected since the draft began in 1965, fewer than two dozen have jumped directly to the majors. Mike Adamson became the first in 1967 when the Baltimore Orioles plucked him from the University of Southern California. Dave Winfield is the lone Hall of Famer on the list, but there are other big names, such as Burt Hooton, Dick Ruthven, Mike Morgan, Bob Horner, Pete Incaviglia, John Olerud, Chan Ho Park, and one-handed pitcher Jim Abbott.

Everyone else faces the ugly reality of life in the Minor Leagues. During homestands, some players live with host families who volunteer through their teams. On the road, all players endure endless bus rides, stay at cheap hotels, and receive a measly $20 a day for meals. They earn a maximum of $850 per month during their first season at the bottom of the professional baseball totem pole—and most of them couldn't be happier.

Most teams' minor league systems have these six levels, each divided into several leagues:

LEVELLEAGUE NAMES
RookieAppalachian, Arizona, Gulf Coast, Pioneer
Class A Short-SeasonNew York-Penn, Northwest
Class AMidwest, South Atlantic
Class A AdvancedCalifornia, Carolina, Florida State
Double-AEastern, Southern, Texas
Triple-AInternational, Pacific Coast

The Detroit Tigers, for example, have a Rookie team in the Gulf Coast League, a Class A Short-Season team in the New York-Penn League, a Class A team in the Midwest League, a Class A Advanced team in the Florida State League, a Double-A team in the Eastern League, and a Triple-A team in the International League.

When advancing to Triple-A, the highest level before the majors, players face a significant competitive jump because the rosters include many former major leaguers (and current ones recovering from injuries on rehab assignments) who are trying to get back to The Show.

Skipping a higher level of the Minor Leagues is rare; most players advance one level at a time only after demonstrating that they're better than most of the competition. So think twice before you yell, "He stinks!" about any major leaguer; he's spent his entire life beating the odds and proving himself as the best of the best of the best of the best of the best.

Players and scouts often mention that it's more difficult to make it from the minors to the majors than it is to get drafted in the first place. Of the minor leaguers who do reach the majors, many get just a cup of coffee before fading into oblivion—but even they get their names in the Baseball Encyclopedia. Most minor leaguers never make it and get released when their organizations give up on them (if they don't get discouraged and quit on their own). Still, they'll always be able to say that they played professional baseball.

LEAGUES, DIVISIONS, AND TEAMS

Major League Baseball (MLB) has 30 teams and two leagues. The National League (NL) and American League (AL) each have three divisions called the East, Central, and West. Take a look at the breakdown:

NL EASTNL CENTRALNL WEST
Atlanta BravesChicago CubsArizona Diamondbacks
Florida MarlinsCincinnati RedsColorado Rockies
New York MetsHouston AstrosLos Angeles Dodgers
Philadelphia PhilliesMilwaukee BrewersSan Diego Padres
Washington NationalsPittsburgh PiratesSan Francisco Giants
St. Louis Cardinals

AL EASTAL CENTRALAL WEST
Baltimore OriolesChicago White SoxLos Angeles Angels of Anaheim
Boston Red SoxCleveland IndiansOakland Athletics
New York YankeesDetroit TigersSeattle Mariners
Tampa Bay Devil RaysKansas City RoyalsTexas Rangers
Toronto Blue JaysMinnesota Twins

Before 1997, teams played only within their league during the regular season. Then baseball officials introduced interleague play. The new matchups, though limited to just a handful of games each year, boosted attendance but angered purists who felt that the World Series should have remained the only meeting between the leagues. Many people think it's odd that the NL has two more teams than the AL, but if each had 15, the odd number would force one team in each league to either play an interleague game or take a day off every day.

The major difference between the leagues is the designated hitter (DH). In the National League, the pitcher, like everyone else who plays the field, has a spot in the batting order. In the American League, the DH bats for him. In interleague play, All-Star Games, and the World Series, the home team's ballpark determines the DH rule. Why does the AL have a DH? Good question. After fans supposedly got bored seeing pitchers dominate the sport in the 1960s, the American League adopted the DH in 1973 to bolster offense and attendance; the National League voted against it and still drew more fans than the AL.

(In order to call yourself a baseball fan, you must have an opinion on the designated hitter; you either love that it creates more offense by replacing weak-hitting pitchers with full-time sluggers or you hate that it eliminates the late-inning strategy of dealing with those pitchers. If a guy is pitching well, should the manager let him bat in a crucial situation so he can return to the mound for another inning or two? Or should the manager use a pinch-hitter and turn the ball over to the bullpen? These decisions don't exist in the AL.)

SPRING TRAINING

After each dreary off-season, baseball comes back to life in mid-February when pitchers and catchers report to Spring Training. All other players show up five days later because, quite simply, their positions are less demanding and don't require the extra work.

In the old days, players used Spring Training to get in shape for the regular season. Nowadays, everyone arrives in top physical condition. Superstars want to prove that they deserve their salaries, while many other players compete to make the team and avoid beginning the season in the minors.

There's no NL or AL in the preseason (but the home team still determines the DH rule). Instead, 18 of the 30 major league teams, mostly from the East and Central Divisions, play in Florida in the Grapefruit League. The other 12 teams, mostly from the West, play in Arizona in the Cactus League.

THE REGULAR SEASON

For most teams, the 162-game regular season begins on the first Monday in April and ends either on the last Sunday in September or the first in October. Major League Baseball uses an unbalanced schedule, which means that teams don't all face each other the same number of times. Instead, they play more games within their divisions. Teams sometimes complain that their road trips are too long, that they don't play a particular divisional rival until July, or that they lose money when the popular matchups take place in the other team's ballpark. Too bad. The schedule makers organize 2,430 games each season and can't please everyone.

Teams don't always finish the season having played exactly 162 games. They may play one fewer when a meaningless late-season contest gets rained out and can't be rescheduled. Or if two teams are tied after 162 games with one postseason slot remaining, there are certain circumstances that would force an extra one-game playoff, creating a rare 163-game season.

THE POSTSEASON

Let's start from the beginning. The first World Series was played in 1903 as a best-of-nine contest, and the Boston Americans (who became the Red Sox five years later) beat the Pittsburgh Pirates five games to three. All other World Series have been best-of-seven, except those from 1919 to 1921, which reverted to the original format. The Series used to be the only postseason matchup; there were no divisions, so the first-place teams in each league played each other after the regular season and wham! that was it.

Divisional play began in 1969 when the leagues divided into East and West. This created another round in the postseason called the League Championship Series (LCS) and allowed four teams to compete: the first-place team in the NL East played the first-place team in the NL West in the NLCS, and the two first-place teams in the AL played in the ALCS. The two winners then faced off in the World Series.