Readers of this blog are probably familiar with the writings of Mike Celizic, a free-lance writer whose articles regularly appear on MSN and NBCSports.com. I have always enjoyed his insights and last year around this time he wrote an online article heralding the return of baseball. I saved it because it perfectly captured why I love this game and why Baseball Is Life:
Celizic: At last, our pastime is here again
There is no better team game than this most American of sports
By Mike Celizic
updated 9:05 p.m. ET, Sun., March. 30, 2008
It is a game of geometry, a game of subtlety, a game of power, a game of strategy, a game of speed, a game of skill, a game of deception, a game of visual beauty. It is baseball, and there is no better team game than this most American of sports.
Football is more popular. Basketball, when played as we’ve seen in the NCAA tournament, is terrifically exciting. Hockey is jam-packed with collisions and breathtaking speed. Soccer is a passion bred like religion into its fans from before they are even aware that they are alive.
But baseball is the best.
We remind ourselves of this truth as we do every year when the calendar reaches April, and the game that will carry us through spring and summer and into fall begins its languid journey. If the sun is shining on opening day, there is a thrill to the sight of the sharp white lines that outline an emerald diamond populated by figures in unblemished uniforms.
Football is a game of drives and marches. Basketball is one of possessions. Baseball is one of anticipation and journeys.
Bart Giamatti, the former commissioner of baseball, wrote eloquently about that journey that begins with the batter standing at home, trying first to leave it and then to get back — to be safe once again at home. For him, it was a grand metaphor of life, this circuitous journey that could be fraught with danger and obstacles, that could demand daring and bravery to complete.
Others delight in the unique nature of a team game that is played by individuals, a game in which the team that is on offense sends its players one at a time out to do battle, one-on-nine, with the defense. And even there it is different, because the defense and not the offense controls the ball.
The ball itself is just the agent of play. In other games, you score by putting the ball — or the puck — somewhere important. In baseball, you score by putting the players somewhere important. Even when you hit a home run, the ball itself doesn’t score. Its journey out of the field of play merely gives the players a free pass to go home again.
Then there is the anticipation of baseball, the gradual build-up to moments of critical mass that the savvy fan can see coming. You can look ahead in baseball as you can’t in any other sport. Count the outs remaining, figure out what your team needs to do to get its big guns up, check the pitch count, estimate when the bullpen is going to have to get involved.
Your superstar in any other sport is a constant threat to score. In baseball, you have to wait your turn, and there’s something really cool about that. That’s one reason it’s so much fun to play. Even the worst player on the team gets his times at bat, and the worst player in the field will discover that the ball will find him. Unlike other sports, you can’t hide your weaknesses; everybody on the field is important, everybody can be there at the critical moment when the game is won or lost.
Every sport has statistics, but everywhere else they’re just numbers with little reach across the history of the game or into the guts of it. They support rotisserie leagues, but they’re not things you can ladle into a bowl and take nourishment from.
Baseball statistics start with the superficial — at-bats, hits, home runs, runs, RBIs — and just keep getting deeper.
Go to baseball-reference.com, the online answer to “The Baseball Encyclopedia” of yore, to find someone’s batting average in 2003. If you’re not careful, three hours later you’ll still be merrily clicking through his stats and those of other players similar to him and those of players back to the dawn of baseball time.
The top line of statistics at baseball-reference.com includes 22 categories. Under that block of numbers are another 13 “special batting” statistics. Under that are 13 categories of fielding statistics. That’s 48 sets of numbers, some of them league averages for comparison purposes, for every position player in the game.
For pitchers, there are 24 statistical categories directly related to the simple act of delivering the baseball.
Credit — or blame — Bill James and the Society for American Baseball Research (SABR) for realizing that there is a lot more to the game than just batting averages and home runs. Thanks to them, people who think Derek Jeter is overrated can prove it to you with numbers.
The numbers can become an obsession, but the wonderful thing about them is that you don’t need them to appreciate the game. And if you think Jeter is the best shortstop in history, you’re free to ignore the numbers and talk about what you see on the field.
You take what you like. When I went to my first big-league game, the overwhelming impression was of the glorious vision of a huge stadium encasing the brilliant diamond, the smells of food, the calls of the vendors, the cheers of the fans. I had no idea what I was watching, but I wanted to come back and see it again.
Now I know about counts and location and changing speeds and pitch selection and defensive alignment and situational hitting and pitching and getting into the bullpen and runners in scoring position and all the rest of it. I understand the game more and I appreciate its depth and the skills required to play it.
But I can’t say that I enjoy it more than I did when I was that little kid overwhelmed with the sights and sounds and smells and the excitement of baseball’s moments. That’s the beauty of the game. You don’t have to pay attention to every day and every game if you don’t want to, and you don’t have to know what OPS or RISP means to enjoy it.
For weeks on end, you can get by with checking the scores and the standings. It’s just there for you, the background noise of summer, waiting for you to check in and appreciate its moments, waiting for you to discover its greatness again.
Mike Celizic is a contributor to NBCSports.com and a freelance writer based in New York.