Baseball in a New Light


Are you a professional fan, a beginner, a semi-expert or a deeply serious geek when it comes to baseball?

If you are any of the above, Zack Hample, himself a serious baseball geek and professional fan, has written a delightful summer book, Watching Baseball Smarter, published by Vintage Press.

I read this wonderfully cheerful book in one sitting and was immediately overcome with a compulsion to find a baseball game on television to watch. I did, and it was far more interesting for having read the book, even though baseball was always my favorite game during school days.

Hample does not load you down with statistics or arguments about who was better than whom. His knowledge of the game in all its aspects, on the field and off, is frankly astounding, and he covers every aspect of the game in a breezy, lighthearted manner.

One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about baseball is that it’s not on the clock. In both basketball and football, the clock will eventually run out, and if your team is way behind in the waning minutes of the game, you know it’s impossible to catch up. Not so in baseball. Your team can be way behind, with two out in the ninth inning, and stage a rally to win the game. In baseball, it’s never over until the last out.

What amazes me about this book is that I can’t think of a single question he doesn’t answer. He starts with the rules, then takes the positions one by one, all along attacking his subject with high good humor and no apologies. He covers salaries, contracts, steroids and controversies with a gentle, humorous style that is neither self-righteous nor argumentative.

He tells you how to score a game, how to read a box score, how to compute batting averages. And he knows his history. Did you know that in 1910, President William Howard Taft began the tradition of the seventh-inning stretch as well as the tradition of a president tossing out the first ball?

Taft didn’t intend to start a tradition, but the wooden seat got to be hard on his 300-pound frame, so in the seventh inning he stood up. Fans, expecting the president to leave the stadium, also stood up. Then Taft sat back down and so did the fans, but the tradition of standing up and moving about was instantly born.

It’s these little bits of history Hample drops in that make the book such an entertaining read. He quotes Red Barber, a famous sports announcer, as saying, "Baseball is dull only for people with dull minds." That’s true, I think. There is a lot going on during a baseball game besides the obvious.

There is the duel between the pitcher and the batter, a duel in which the catcher and coaches play a role. There’s the problem of the pitcher getting fatigued. In the major leagues, someone keeps track of the number of pitches thrown to avoid overtiring the pitcher. This has become a rule recently adopted by Little League that will surely save some young arms from premature surgery. In the majors, where the players are the best of the best, these guys study the game and each other. Like poker players, they look for "tells," habits that might indicate what a pitcher is about to throw or whether a base runner is about to steal.

The news these days tends toward the bloody and the dreary, so it’s nice to know that there is still a good hunk of the baseball season left. Whether you watch Little League, the minor leagues or the major leagues, Hample’s book will add to your enjoyment of the game.

Charley Reese [send him mail] has been a journalist for 49 years.

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