Baseball's Virtues

Baseball's Vices

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There's a great scene in Field of Dreams, though probably less memorable than the one where Ray Kinsella is playing catch with his dad or where Shoeless Joe first appears.  It's the scene in which Archibald “Moonlight” Graham gets his only at bat among major league ballplayers.  The elder Graham, played by Burt Lancaster, has lamented that he played one inning in the major leagues and never came to bat.  He expresses to Ray his wish that he could have one at bat, in which he winks at the pitcher and then hits a triple. 

When the younger Graham gets his turn to bat in the field of dreams, he comes to the plate with a man on third and fewer than two outs.  He immediately winks at the pitcher.  After a few brushback pitches, he lifts a fly ball out to right center field to score the runner.  He ends his career having never reached base and perhaps having not even had an at bat*, yet when he finds his seat on the bench he is as satisfied as someone who had just hit a home run.  That's the way it is with baseball's virtues. 

Baseball is a game of distinct acts, not of a particular flow.  Basketball, soccer, hockey, and other team sports progress back and forth seamlessly along the playing field, and football is made of a series of progressive plays that involve the entire team.  Only in baseball does the offensive burden rest entirely upon one man, with the other eight reduced basically to spectators.  Sometimes, of course, there are men on base who affect how the one man's attempt will be judged.  And while many people watch SportsCenter to see who hit the home runs, the ones who are keeping score in the bleachers know to pay attention as well to the players who did not act quite so selfishly. 

There's an apocryphal story in which a wet-behind-the-ears minor leaguer ignores a bunt sign and instead hits a home run, meriting his dismissal from the team.  The point of the story is that although we think of the home run as being the absolute best thing to do in baseball, players and managers need to believe that humbly giving of oneself is sometimes superior to grabbing the ultimate glory.  And given the low-scoring ballgames and the close-knit clubhouses that characterize the great game, it's a philosophy that will benefit even the most individualistic ballplayer. 

The most obvious type of sacrifice is, well, the sacrifice.  Major League Baseball has seen fit to remove much of the sting from the sacrifice by not counting it as an official at bat.  But the batter must still pay an opportunity cost, which means that he forfeits what he otherwise would have accomplished during the at bat.  In this sense, laying down a bunt to move a runner from first to second is much less of a sacrifice for the light-hitting pitcher than it is for the cleanup hitter.  The real virtue in a sacrifice bunt for any player is that it must be practiced: players spend time working on something that will never show up on the flipside of a baseball card. 

Occasionally, players will intentionally forgo an out and an at bat to aid the team, in the lost art of “moving the runner over.”  Not recognized as an official sacrifice, a well-placed ground ball that is hit behind a runner on second or third will have the same effect as a sacrifice bunt or sacrifice fly.  But this type of hit is a sacrifice in every sense of the world. 

Baseball's blue bloods are especially appreciative of the type of forfeiture that might not be noticed by others.  For example, batters often “protect” the baserunner, meaning that they swing at a bad pitch to allow a runner to reach second on a hit and run.  Or they allow hittable pitches to go by them when a runner is trying to steal.  Also, the sight of a player headed for second who wildly flails toward the pivot man of a double play may appear reckless to the novice, but true baseball fans regard it as a thing of beauty. 

Players gladly accept suspensions and fines, not to gain victory in a game, but to maintain the trust and camaraderie that are necessary in a clubhouse over a very long season.  When a batter has been hit by the opposing pitcher, he may approach his own pitcher and ask for reprisal.  The pitcher, if he wants the respect and trust of his teammates, will usually consent, even though he knows it may mean missing his next start.  If a brawl occurs on the field, players are expected to leave the dugout and bullpen, not necessarily to throw punches but to stand and be counted as members of the team. 

Baseball's virtues are not about earning headlines, they are about earning respect.  Similar to baseball's vices, they cannot be fully understood by spectators.  Like in military circles, the most heroic mindset is not necessarily the bravest one; it is the one that produces the best result most of the time.  As we can see from Archie Graham, earning the respect of teammates by doing the right thing can be more rewarding than doing your own thing.

*Starting in 1908, a batter who hit a fly ball that was caught but scored a runner was not charged an official at bat.  This rule was repealed in 1931 and reinstated in 1954.  In Field of Dreams, the game takes place in 1988, but the players, equipment, umpires, and, presumably, rules are from the 1910’s, 20’s, 30’s, 40’s, and 50’s.  So depending on which rules were in play, Archie Graham, in realizing his baseball dream, may not have “officially” come to the plate. 


© 2003 Daniel Lauve