I was born in Texas the year Nolan Ryan got his 5,000th strikeout. I lived in St. Louis when Mark McGwire hit his 70th home run in 1998. I moved to Houston the year the Astros made their move to Enron Field. Given my history, it seems that I was fated to be a baseball fan. My dad grew up less than 10 minutes from the original Grapefruit League spring training grounds, and my grandpa’s childhood was spent watching Mickey Mantle, Whitey Ford and Yogi Berra light up Yankee Stadium. But somehow, the sport never really caught my attention.
I played a year of coach-pitch, went to a game every couple of years, and up until a couple weeks ago, couldn’t name more than five current major league players.
But this year, with the influence (and “gentle” coaxing) of a certain person, I was re-introduced to baseball. At first I was bored stiff. As an avid basketball fan, I could not comprehend how one might watch a game that doesn’t even need a halftime. It was so slowly paced. But this past Friday, I went to my first Opening Day game, and with a sturdy grasp of the basics of the game and a helpful expert coaching me through each inning, I realized something: Baseball is beautiful. This might not be surprising to those of you who already love the game. You’re probably shaking your head at my tardiness to the party. But for anyone who isn’t already an avid fan, let me try to paint a picture.
The field is a diamond, a geometric shape of color that suggests simplicity in a game that is anything but. There is a name for everything; the linguistics alone could merit a lifetime of study. Its idioms are so entrenched in our daily language, we don’t even recognize them anymore.
The generic phrase “Step up,” actually comes from “step up to the plate” — a hitter’s duty to bat. The “three-strikes” rule in our legal system are derived from baseball’s generosity of three chances to hit the ball. And the intricacy of every position means you can watch a single game three or four times in a row, then watch the highlights, and still pick up on nuances (I’ve seen it done). There is a rule for every potential play and an exception to every rule. There are statistics enough to satisfy any math major, but enough emphasis placed on heart and soul to appease even the most emotional. There is a confluence of past and present, of resistance to change and constant flux — tradition is paramount, but the players and the standards are ever changing.
Team devotion is often multi-generational and divides cities in half. Rivalries bitterly span decades upon decades, and yet there is a childlike wonder and whimsy that pervades every game from the seventh-inning stretch singing to the thrill of catching a foul ball. Baseball is magical, and it is a science. It is physics met with wisdom met with instinct — it is a pure wonder, and it is inherently American. I wish I had learned it sooner, but at least now I know: Sports are great, but baseball is beautiful.
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