The Philosophers’ Sport

Every sport has its key characteristic. Football has strength, rugby has toughness, soccer has stamina, and so on. No matter the sport, you can pick a characteristic that is essential to success and it is almost always dependent on physicality—except in baseball.

Baseball is unique among sports and often misunderstood. There is no one key physical requirement. It doesn’t take the strength of a lineman. Surely strength helps, but not as much as practice. Perfect form will send a hit ball much farther than perfect biceps. Speed is essential on the base paths or to chase down a hit to the left field corner, but it is not used all of the time. Touch, for control hitting, or flipping the ball to just the right place to make the out, is essential if you’re going to be good, but you can play nine innings and not use it.

People who don’t understand baseball watch baseball and see players standing still, not hitting each other, not sprinting across the field, not showboating under a backboard, and they think it’s boring. They are not seeing the whole game. Baseball requires so much more than mere physicality, so much more than memorizing a playbook. Baseball is a sport, like many others, that requires rigorous preparation, but in baseball you cannot focus on strength or speed or touch to the exclusion of something else, especially not to the exclusion of your mind.

You need it all. Like other sports baseball requires thousands of hours of skill development, but whereas a receiver runs and catches, every baseball player must be prepared to play offense and defense and, especially for young players, be ready to play any of several different positions at an equally high level. Baseball is just as physical as all other sports, but less specialized and more unevenly paced. A baseball player must be well-rounded physically to be at his or her best, but they need something more.

A baseball player has to have something that is unique among sports. They have to have the ability to be playing a game in which they are not part of the play for long stretches, and then perform to perfection without warning. In other sports, even if a player isn’t the ball handler, they are blocking, running, passing, supporting in some way. Ironically, the thing about baseball that makes the uninitiated see it as boring is its most difficult skill.

To be able to stand in right field, patient, quiet, and perfectly focused, as pitch after pitch goes un-hit, and hit after hit goes foul, or to the shortstop, or the far side of centerfield, and then suddenly, in that perfect moment, to be ready when the ball comes to you, to set yourself, to track the ball over distance or at high speed, to without thought flawlessly execute thousands of hours of practice, maybe for the only time, not just in that game, but perhaps in several games, is a skill unlike any other. But it doesn’t end there.

Once you have the ball your job is not done, the play is not over. After a long period of intense focus, ended by an instant of perfect responsiveness, like a trap snapping shut, you must now react to the play in the field. There is no playbook; there is only your knowledge of the game, the rules, the tactics, and your ability to correctly decide, in a fraction of a second, where the ball needs to go. No one can tell you what to do. There isn’t time. The thousands of hours spent tuning your body to react with skill must now be completed with your solitary decision, which is based on your thousands of hours of study of the game, of playing different positions.

As you stood there with the infield dust mingling with your chewing gum, as you shaded your eyes in center and breathed in the fresh cut grass at evening practice, as you sweated in the gear behind the plate, you watched every play, learned every subtlety and learned what was right. Then you learned, between plays, while you were so focused, to play out every possibility in your head in case this was your perfect moment. And when it comes you’re ready. Your body is ready, your reflexes and skills are attuned, and your decision is the right one. More than that the player at the other end of your decision, who also has no playbook, who had no idea a split second before what would happen, is in position and expecting your play, ready to partner with you perfectly to complete it.

Every baseball player needs a team as much as any other athlete and at the same time is as solitary as any player in team sports. There’s no play called, there’s no back door if you get in trouble. When your moment comes, body and mind must shift instantly from waiting to acting to deciding, but you never know when or if that moment will come. You must shift not just from standing figure to skilled athlete but from solo playmaker to decision maker and teammate, all in the blink of an eye.

Other sports have their physicality and in some ways are much tougher than baseball, but baseball is unique in its mix of physicality, mental acuity, virtuosity, and unscripted teamwork. I don’t mean to say baseball is a better sport. That depends on what you value—strength, action, speed, strategy. But if you value the ability to be calm and patient in one second, and then instantly be fast, skilled, and mentally sharp all in the subsequent half second, if you value understanding so clear that every player on the field is a play-caller and every teammate accepts and completes the play called without a single spoken word, if you value the balance of the prepared body and the focused mind as Classical civilizations did, only baseball has that combination. It is the sport not just of the athlete, but of the player that appreciates the sunset and the fresh mown grass the instant before he catches the fly ball, the player who smiles at the odd taste of infield dirt in her gum after laying down the tag. It is the Philosopher’s Sport.

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