By Frank Blechman
With the Nats going to the World Series, baseball has gotten much more interesting to folks here in the DC area who previously dismissed the sport as too antique, too slow, too confusing to be worthy of attention.
I want to suggest that the endurance of this activity is rooted in something much deeper than winning or losing, infinite statistics, and trading cards. We should all pay attention to the fine points of the game because, in fact, LIFE IMITATES BASEBALL. The principles of the game are applicable everywhere, across ages, cultures, religions, and places. For example:
- Keep your eye on the ball. In our time filled with distractions, this one is more important than ever. Yet there is always something (if it’s not one thing, it’s something else) that marks the center of activity. Pay attention and you can make effective decisions. Don’t do this and an event will be endless, surprising, and beyond control.
- It’s a long season; you don’t win them all. The old perfessor, Casey Stengel, famously said, “The worst teams in baseball win 60 games a year. The best teams in baseball lose 60 games in a season. The difference between the best and worst is what they do in the other 42.” At the more personal level, a batter who gets a hit 20% of the time (bats .200) won’t stay around in the major leagues for long unless he contributes mightily to the team in some other way (defense, pitching). A batter who gets hits 25% of the time is OK. A batter who hits 30% of the time is an all-star. And a batter who gets hits 35% of the time is a hall-of-famer. The differences between good and great are incremental and small, but they add up over the course of a long season. And, with hard work, small improvements can be made year to year. No one “good” or “bad” performance can make or break a career. Keep going.
- The infamous infield fly rule. Any competition can be gamed. That is, a competitor will look for and find loopholes that allow him or her to take unfair advantage of a certain situation. (Generally, a fly ball forces base-runners to stay tagged on base until the ball is caught and the hitter is out. The infield fly rule says that in the event of a short fly ball/popup, the officials can invoke this rule, declaring that the batter is automatically out; runners on base can advance at their own risk. This prevents the fielder from intentionally dropping the ball, forcing runners to run and creating the likelihood of a double or triple play.) A fair competition will use rules to try to minimize the ability of anyone to take advantage of certain circumstances.
- Take what the game gives you; adjust. In baseball, you can’t succeed because you do one thing well. The other team will figure out what you do and make it impossible. If you can hit the high fastball, you will never see one. You have to adapt to what the situation calls for and what it gives you. Adjust to survive. That’s a lesson for life that takes a while to understand and apply.
- Baseball is chess (or) timing. Some people say the game is slow, but that is because there is so much strategy going on. Hitting a round ball with a round bat requires exquisite timing. A fraction of an inch low and the hit is a pop-up. A fraction of an inch high and the hit is ground ball (out). The batter is trying to guess the next pitch to get the timing right. The pitcher is all about destroying that timing with deception and a variety of pitches. While you have to stay in the moment, you also have to look ahead. A great play is one that is right for now and sets up something in the future. The manager has to think about the current situation (Who’s on base? How many outs? What’s the score?) and the long term (Who’s coming up next, and after that? If I put in a pinch hitter, are we giving up defense? Who’s left in the bullpen?) In life, “How do I balance now with then?” is always the question.
As usual, Yogi Berra may have said it best: If you don’t know where you are going, you may wind up somewhere else.
Baseball is fun. But its lessons are serious. Life really does imitate baseball.