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Baseball: An appréciation
by Roger W. Smith
There is no clock to regulate duration of play. “With no clock, no regulation of seconds, minutes, and hours, baseball need not submit to the inexorability of temporal limitation,” notes English professor George Grella, singing the praises of the sport in The Massachusetts Review. A “team cannot stall, or run the ball into the line to kill the clock, or manipulate the clock in order to score. A tie game does not exist — all games must end in a victory and a defeat, and a tied game could conceivably go on forever. The game succeeds in creating a temporary timelessness perfectly appropriate to its richly cyclical nature.”
It is a sport not limited in any total sense by boundary lines; think catcher or third or first baseman leaning into the stands for a foul ball.
It has a wonderfully fair method of scoring — one for each run. And each team has to get the same number of outs — 27 outs made by the opposing team — to beat them in a nine inning game. Any long time fan has seen it, often: A team that appears to have an insurmountable lead ends up losing when the opposing team mounts a late inning rally.
I once saw a game on television where the eventual winning team, the home team, was down by seven runs with two outs and a man on first in the bottom of the ninth inning. They scored eight runs and won 13-12. It’s not as uncommon as one might think for teams to come back from such deficits. In this particular game, eleven batters in a row reached base with two out: There were four singles, six walks, and a grand slam home run. The opposing team couldn’t say, “Time’s up. Game over.” They had to — but couldn’t — get that twenty-seventh out. Time is “stretched,” or trumped, in a sense, because the losing team is entitled to keep batting as long as they have another out left. It doesn’t matter what inning or what the score happens to be.
Baseball is a blend of the team and the individual. (Most commonly at any given moment during a game it is a question of nine men against one.)
It is a game which consists of the unexpected occurring — nobody on the field or in the park knows where, when, or if the ball will be hit.
It is an uncluttered and beautifully designed game. In baseball, the scoring is done by the team that doesn’t have the ball. “There is no grubby battling for possession; there are no interceptions,” as Charles Einstein pointed out in his preface to The Fireside Book of Baseball.
“A nine-year-old knows baseball inside out, yet … it utterly confounds the foreigner,” observes Einstein. It is a uniquely American sport.
There have been few basic changes in baseball rules for over one hundred years, making it possible to compare players of different generations.
The baseball field is beautifully designed. “[W]ith its congested infield arching around home and its vast and underpopulated outfield expanding in an ever-widening arc beyond the congestion,” as literary scholar Ed Folsom puts it. The bases are a magic ninety feet apart. Consider how often a batter is thrown out by half a step, compared to instances when he outruns a peg from deep short. According to Grella, “One of the most fundamental and significant truths of the game derives from the peculiar shape of its playing area. With the exception of cricket … baseball is the only team sport played with a ball that does not use a rectangular field. All other ball games are territorial and circumscribed; all play occurs within a box, where a team defends one end and attempts to penetrate the other. In such games success is measured by the number of penetrations a team perpetrates and/or permits; football is so territorial that one of its hallowed statistics deals with land acquisition, i.e., yardage gained and lost. Territorial games rely upon time, depending always upon a predetermined duration of the clock. Baseball, on the other hand, virtually denies the limitations of space and time.” Or, as novelist W. P. Kinsella has written, “[T]he field runs to infinity. … There’s no limit to how far a man might possibly hit a ball, and there’s no limit to how far a fleet outfielder might run to retrieve it. The foul lines run on forever, forever diverging. … Every other sport is held in by boundaries, some of absolute set size, some not: football, hockey, tennis, basketball, golf. But there’s no limit to the size of a baseball field.”
A baseball. The ball itself. Holding one in your hand. Idly tossing it. The shininess and hardness. The stitching. The delight of boys in having a new, white, shiny, unscuffed ball. The crack of a wooden bat (or the ping of a metal one) connecting with a ball and sending a fly well past the infield.
Almost everything in baseball looks easy and evident (as a skilled player having honed his skills through endless practice makes it appear), but learning the game is not. Watch kids trying to swing a bat and connect, throwing weakly (perhaps a dribbler), or being inept at catching a ball tossed underhand at close range. But, then, the child begins to get the hang of it. And, doing the simplest things such as throwing and catching is so satisfying to be able to do. Giving a young person a sense of grace and athleticism.
It’s a game which requires inborn athletic ability — athleticism: strength, agility, speed. A hitter’s power, a pitcher or fielder’s arm, a baserunner or outfielder’s speed.
Yet a boy or man possessing these attributes — a natural athlete — will not necessarily succeed in baseball without the desire to do so and an interest in the game, and without years of first learning the fundamentals and then endless practice — the same as with a virtuoso musician — both in the “backyard” and in actual games. Playing in games from youth leagues to high school and college and amateur and perhaps semipro to the minor leagues is crucial for learning how to “leverage” one’s skills (a pitcher learning different pitches, for example, and finding which pitches work best for him) and, perhaps most importantly, developing “baseball instincts” and learning strategy.
A batter is up in a crucial situation. Hand eye coordination and raw power are crucial. The ability to hit is, needless to say, a sina qua non. Intense concentration is required. But it is all for naught without perfect execution. Swing a little too early or late, get a little over or under the ball and it’s a swinging strike, a dribbler, a pop up or lazy fly ball. Doesn’t matter whether you’re Ted Williams or Mark Belanger.
And just how do you play the game well? I heard a player say once, in a televised interview, that this is — which he implied without using the word — paradoxical. To play the game, he explained, requires intense concatenation at every moment — one can never tell when the ball will be hit to oneself; a batter must be totally focused on the pitcher’s windup and delivery. At the same time, to succeed in baseball, a ballplayer has to be relaxed. Think of an overanxious fielder bobbling a ball.
The sport is relatively free of contact. The predominant focus of a game is THE BALL. Where it is at a given moment: zooming into home plate (or perhaps floating like a knuckleball); a scorching grounder hit towards an infielder or a seemingly routine one perhaps taking a bad hop; shot in a straight line as a line drive that may or not be snared; the high arc of a fly ball floating and perhaps hanging in the air before it comes down to an outfielder, or launched toward the deepest point of the park, or over the fence; the “pill” being whipped to first to nip a runner or to another base to perhaps catch a lead runner. The cutoff man. Relays. Rundowns. (Sometimes they seem to go on forever, with scoring such as 5-2-6-3-5-2-1, or whatever — so many players are involved.) All eyes follow the ball, which controls what happens. There is something pure about this.
How a game progresses, from batter to batter, pitch to pitch, and inning to inning.
The flight of the ball. An outfielder catching up with it in flight. Or gathering it in in pre-game practice. “It is a beautiful sight to see a good outfielder gather in a fly ball,” as Mark Harris wrote in his novel The Southpaw, “moving over as graceful as you please while from 250 or 300 feet away someone has tossed the ball up in front of himself and laid into it and sent it upward and upward in a high arc until the ball is just a white speck against the blue sky, and then it hits its highest point and begins to drop, and you look down and there is a player loping over, moving fast or slow, depending on how he sizes up the situation, and he moves under the ball and it zooms down in his glove. It looks so easy when a good ballplayer does it. It is not easy. Ask any kid that has ever tried to play ball whether it is easy, and he will tell you. But when a big-league ballplayer does it, it looks easy because he is so graceful, and he gathers it in and then runs a few steps on his momentum and digs his spikes in the ground and wheels and fires that ball back where it came from, and it hops along, white against the green grass.”
The fact that, in different baseball stadiums, dimensions are not uniform, which affects strategy and the composition of teams — such as a team built on defense and speed or one with a lineup of left or right-handed sluggers. The intricacies and oddities of different ballparks, such as cozy Fenway Park with its left field wall. Cozy Ebbets Field, where fans were on top of the action. The short porch in right field in Yankee Stadium, and Death Valley in left field of the old stadium before it was renovated in the 1970’s. The odd shape of the now demolished Polo Grounds, home of the New York Giants, with its very deep center field (where Willie Mays made his famous catch in 1954) and its very short right field (to which Dusty Rhodes hit a pinch hit home run in the tenth inning of the same game to win it for the Giants). How managers and players have taken advantage of these features, such as Carl Yastrzemski masterfully playing caroms off The Wall at Fenway Park, holding the batter to a single, and Roger Maris hitting his sixty-first home run into the short porch in right field in the final game of the 1961 season. How stadiums affect the makeup and personality of teams: Dodger Stadium: defense and pitching … Comiskey Park in Chicago and Memorial Stadium in Baltimore: the same … Shea Stadium: a dismal stadium with no personality or aesthetic appeal and colorless Mets teams.
It is such an aesthetically satisfying game to play and watch. The shortstop throwing out a runner, narrowly nipping him, from deep in the hole. Watching a double play executed with such speed and dexterity, in a matter of a seconds. A peg which just nips the runner. (“A peg as flat as the tape a runner breaks,” in the words of the late poet Donald Hall.) A gasp-inducing throw to the infield or home plate by an outfielder with a rifle arm. It all comes down to this: A man or boy trying to outrun a ball.
The slow, deliberate pace, which seems more typical of another era. The absence of a clock. The feeling that time stands still as suspense about the outcome mounts. “The game’s slow rhythms creating a natural tension,” as a writer in The Economist put it. Baseball is for the leisurely afternoons of summer.
Watching pre-game practice. “I can’t think of any other sport … where the practice sessions are worth the price of admission,” notes sportswriter Wilfrid Sheed. A coach or player with a fungo bat lofting fly balls to the far reaches of the field. Fly-shaggers arching them back towards home plate. Batting practice. Infield practice. Coaches slapping grounders to infielders, two deep at every position. The ball snarls around the horn. Third, short, second, first, catcher. Pepper games by stars and lesser players in front of the dugouts.
The fact that Major League baseball is played almost daily in the spring and summer months.
The opportunities for improvisations such as pickup games and tossing a ball around or taking swings in a relaxed setting such as a back yard.
The simple pleasure and restful rhythm of playing catch. The thud (a sort of snapping sound) of a ball thrown straight and hard in a boy or man’s glove. Father and son tossing a ball back and forth. Two friends. Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter doing so (as I used to observe before Yankee games) in front of the Yankee dugout. The fun, joy, of playing catch. How it induces tranquility, an almost hypnotic state.
The serene and meditative state baseball can induce in the spectator, and even in a participant (an outfielder, say); the enjoyment and pure delight in simply watching. It is a thinking man’s game because it can be observed and contemplated with great satisfaction, not only by spectators or viewers, but also — even — by players. (As former Cincinnati Reds shortstop Alex Grammas put it: “there’s a lot of dead time in baseball” — this permits contemplation. *) Rather than working the mind up to a frenzy, as other sports such as football and basketball do, baseball relaxes the mind — can do so if one is so disposed.
“In addition to its richness of ritual and history, its fascination of character and event, baseball offers ample material for philosophical speculation,” Grella notes. “The true fan is not only a spectator, enthusiast, and historian, but also must be a student of the ethics, aesthetics, and ontology of the game. The thoughtful fan investigates more than simply the obvious lore; he pursues the essence of baseball, its shape and meaning, its resonant possibilities.” And, baseball’s vast archive of statistics, current and past. Who had the highest on base percentage of all time? How many times did a power hitter such as Ted Williams or Joe DiMaggio strike out in his career?
That the spectator/watcher can reflect upon what is happening on several levels, both through anticipation, or foreknowledge, of possible scenarios, strategies, and outcomes; and later, through the re-creation of games in one’s mind, discussions of games, and memory and retrospective analysis of games and plays from decades or even centuries ago that are still remembered.
The fact that baseball is played and enjoyed, by both players and spectators, on so many levels: by the very young in yards, fields, and playgrounds; on sandlots and in youth leagues; in high school and college; in amateur, semiprofessional, and adult leagues (including softball, which is a form of baseball). The “farm system” and the Major Leagues.
In all these settings, game situations, and locales, including amateur leagues and sandlot games, there is a kind of “universal grammar” of the sport which is “reassuring.” You see situations, plays, and minutiae, such as a batter digging in and taking a stance; a base runner taking a lead and the pitcher trying to pick him off; whiffs or balls flying off the end of the bat; foul balls; wild pitches; the ball being tossed around the horn after an out; great plays or the opposite; daring base running; arguments over whether the runner was safe or out; and so forth. From a game observed in a local park to one in Yankee Stadium.
Situations and scenarios. Men on base. How many outs? The count. Pitcher versus batter. Left handed versus right handed when it comes to pitcher-batter matchups. Which players are on the field and at what positions.
The way ball games can be charted with such precision, as noted by historian and fan Doris Kearns Goodwin, whose father taught her at age six how to keep score so she could tell him about the day’s Brooklyn Dodger game, as announced on the radio by Red Barber (most games were played in the daytime then), after the former came home from work.
The rituals of the game overall, and of each game. Tossing the ball around the infield before an inning and after an out. The umpire dusting off the plate. “Play ball!” The pitcher’s windup and delivery. The on deck circle. Other rituals which even kids sometimes copy from major leaguers.
How it is such a mental game, much of which comes from the way the game is designed and played, and as such, how baseball games can be reconstructed afterwards in the mind with such pleasure, including long after, so that the fan remembers how the Yankees tied up the seventh game of the 1960 World Series in the top of the ninth and then lost it to the Pittsburgh Pirates on Bill Mazeroski’s home run in the bottom of the ninth. Sandy Amoros snaring Yogi Berra’s fly to left field with a one-handed catch in the final game of the 1955 World Series. When Rick Burleson did not take third base on Jerry Remy’s single in the ninth inning of the 1978 tie-breaker game between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees, very possibly preventing the Red Sox from tying the game. What happened in the tenth (final) inning of the final game of the 1912 World Series between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Giants.
The moments which live in the memory of old and new fans: Boston Red Sox shortstop and relay man Johnny Pesky failing to nip the St. Louis Cardinals’ Enos Slaughter at home plate in the final game of the 1946 World Series. Andy Pafko watching Bobby Thomson’s home run sail over the left field fence in the final game of the 1951 national league playoff. Willie Mays’s unbelievable catch in the first game of the 1954 World Series and his awesome throw to prevent a base runner from tagging up and scoring. Ted Williams hitting a home run in his final career at bat. The Houston Astros’ José Altuve’s mad dash around the bases to score the winning run in Game 2 of the 2017 American League Championship Series. And countless other games and plays. These plays stay in the mind because of their simplicity (perhaps one should say, clarity or preciseness), their beauty of execution, and the drama of how and when they happened. In short, one can recreate games in one’s mind. Yes, there are dramatic moments in football and basketball. But almost every play, inning, and game in baseball can be recreated this way. Baseball is “a lot easier to analyze than, say, football, which has so many moving parts,” says baseball author Stew Thornley, who was quoted in a New York Times article. Suppose Jim Brown wrote in an autobiography: “I was huffing and puffing as I strained to get from the 40-yard line to the end zone. I shed two tacklers and made it to the end zone.” As New York Times sportswriter Filip Bondy put it: “baseball is a sport made for … scholarly examination.” And for endless dissection.
Unlike, say, basketball or football, baseball does not seem to favor players of any particular build or size. All that matters is that one can play it well. You see wiry players (Richie Ashburn, Hank Aaron, Didi Gregorias), stocky ones (Babe Ruth, Carl Furillo, Pete Rose), “muscle men” (Ted Kluzewski, Greg Luzinski), tall ones (Aaron Judge, Carlton Fisk, Frank Howard), short ones (Phil Rizzuto, David Eckstein, José Altuve), rotund ones (Fernando Valenzuela, David Wells, David Ortiz, Prince Fielder). “[S]ize doesn’t matter in baseball. In many ways, size is irrelevant,” notes New York Times reporter Billy Witz.
How the positions have different identities, generically speaking. The shortstop. The best defensive player on the team. A wizard with the glove. Has fast hands. Gets rid of the ball in a fraction of a second, transferring it from glove to hand. The second baseman. Usually a scrappy player. The pivot man. The third baseman. The stolid guardian of the hot corner. Known for diving backhand stabs of balls hit down the line. The first baseman. Often left handed; usually tall with a long reach; needs to be a slugger. The catcher. Squat and almost square in shape. The field general and most knowledgeable player on the field, strategy wise; has a unique vantage point from his position affording a view of the entire field and the rest of the defense. The center fielder. Ball hawk. Rivals the shortstop for defensive importance. A gazelle swift of foot and graceful. Able to run down balls the corner outfielders can’t get to. Usually a star who can hit too.
No player really predominates. It is sometimes said that the best hitter and run producer carries the team. But, each player (one should specify each position player in leagues that have adopted the designated hitter rule) has his spot in the batting order; everyone must bat in turn. A player such as the shortstop or center fielder may appear to play a predominant role in the defense — and in fact will often do so — because of his position on the field and the probability that more balls will be hit to him than, say, a corner outfielder, but all this doesn’t matter when a ball is hit to the right fielder. (Think of Dwight Evans catching Joe Morgan’s fly ball in the eleventh inning of the sixth game of the 1975 World Series. The game hung in the balance. Evans’s catch prolonged it and turned the momentum around.) Every player in the lineup is important, and each has a role to play. No player can dominate, and if, say, a player comes to bat in a crucial situation that can determine the outcome of the game, or if a play is made or not made by a fielder, it is essentially by chance, what is called the luck of the draw. If a ball is hit to a fielder, he instantly becomes the focal point of the action. (Other fielders may become involved in the play as it unfolds.) When a batter is facing a pitcher, no other player can help him hit a pitch. If a runner is trying to score, no other player can help him avoid being tagged out, unlike where in football a lineman can block a potential tackler.
Colorful characters: Casey Stengel, Babe Ruth. Saintly types (aka “nice guys”) such as Mel Ott and moral exemplars such as Christy Mathewson. Rogues, villains, and miscreants such as Hal Chase, Leo Durocher, and Pete Rose (who, before his suspension for betting, gravely injured Cleveland Indians catcher Ray Fosse in a home plate collision that never should have happened). Greek gods who seemed to play with effortless grace, such as the Yankee Clipper, Joe DiMaggio. Pathos: Lou Gehrig — icon and hero tragically struck down. Courage and dignity: Jackie Robinson. Heartbreak: Ralph Branca.
Nicknames; Moose Skowron, Birdie Tebbetts, Smoky Burgess and Smoky Joe Wood, Jim Mudcat Grant, Dizzy Dean, Cool Papa Bell, Yogi Berra, Pumpsie Green, Willie Puddin’ Head Jones, Wahoo Sam Crawford,** Gabby Street, Schoolboy Rowe,*** Tom Plowboy Morgan, Oil Can Boyd, Bobo Newsom, Choo-Choo Coleman, Sal (The Barber) Maglie, Ken (Hawk) Harrelson, Joe (Ducky) Medwick, Jim (Catifsh) Hunter, Herold D. (Muddy) Ruel, Shoeless Joe Jackson,**** Pistol Pete Reiser, Sad Sam Jones, Jumping Joe Dugan, Indian Bob Johnson, Pee Wee Reese.***** Big Poison and Little Poison (Paul and Lloyd Warner).****** The Flying Dutchman, The Grey Eagle, The Georgia Peach, The Yankee Clipper.
Baseball has a rich vocabulary. Many terms with other, more common usages have been adapted for baseball, such as ace (the best starting pitcher on the team), diamond, fireman (a team’s top relief pitcher), green light, sent to the showers (for a pitcher), table setter, cup of coffee (meaning a short time spent by a player at the major league level), on his horse (in reference to an outfielder tracking down a fly ball), leather for a fielder’s glove (a player with good leather is a good defensive player), lumber for a bat and bag or sack for a base, submariner for a pitcher with a low slung style of delivery, mop-up man for a relief pitcher used in a non-critical situation, mustard referring to a high amount of velocity on a fastball, and nail-biter for a close game. “I wus robbed” when a fielder’s spectacular play denies the batter a hit or a home run. And, many baseball terms have been incorporated into the English language, often as slang, with a broader meaning not limited to baseball. For example: bush league, choke up, telling someone you will take a rain check on an invitation.
Baseball coinages: around the horn, bench jockey, bullpen, Grapefruit League, seeing-eye single, inside out swing, hill (the pitcher’s mound), hit ’em where they ain’t, swing for the fences, horsehide for a baseball, hot corner and hot stove league, keystone sack, men in blue, round tripper for a home run, seventh-inning stretch, shoestring catch, putting your foot in the bucket, suicide squeeze.
Can of corn: an easy-to-catch fly ball hit to the outfield. The phrase is said to have originated in the nineteenth century and relates to an old-time grocer’s method of getting canned goods down from a high shelf. Using a stick with a hook on the end, a grocer could tip a can so that it would fall for an easy catch into his apron. One theory for the use of corn as the canned good in the phrase is that a can of corn was considered the easiest “catch” as corn was the best-selling vegetable in the store and so was heavily stocked on the lowest shelves.
Catbird seat: a desirable or auspicious situation in a game. Popularized by Red Barber, longtime broadcaster for the Brooklyn Dodgers. James Thurber wrote in his short story of the same title: “[S]itting in the catbird seat means sitting pretty, like a batter with three balls and no strikes on him.” The catbird is said to seek out the highest point in a tree to sing his song, so someone in the catbird seat is high up.
Gopher ball: a pitch that leads to a home run, one that the batter will “go for.” (The term has nothing to with gophers.)
Hook: a curveball, but also used in the sense of a manager removing a pitcher from the game for a reliever. A manager who is said to have a short hook is typically quick to remove a starting pitcher. It is said that this usage may have come from the large hooks that were sometimes used in vaudeville to yank unsuccessful acts off the stage if they were reluctant to leave on their own. Cincinnati Reds manager Sparky Anderson was called Captain Hook.
Miscue for an error. The usage comes from billiards, when the cue stick slips or just brushes the cue ball, thereby leading to a missed shot.
Southpaw or portsider for a left-handed pitcher. Most baseball stadiums are built so that home plate is in the west and the outfield is in the east, so that when the sun sets it is not in the batter’s line of sight. Because of this, a left-handed pitcher’s arm is always facing south when he faces the plate. “Port” refers to the left side of a ship.
Rabbit ears to indicate a player who becomes nervous or chokes when opposing players or fans yell at or razz him. Or an umpire who picks up on every complaint hurled at him from the dugout.
Rocking chair. Refers to the position occupied by the third base umpire, likely because the third base umpire does not generally have to make as many calls as the other umpires. An ingenious and humorous coinage.
Fungo, which designates a fly ball hit for fielders to practice catching. This is accomplished by a batter tossing the ball a short distance up in the air and then batting it himself. (No one has ever determined with certainty its etymology.) And, shag (as in shag flies) and shagger.
Rhubarb. A rhubarb is a plant. Brooklyn Dodgers announcer Red Barber used the word for an argument, fight, or a mix-up on the field of play. He called Ebbets Field “the rhubarb patch” because there were so many arguments there.
And phrases you will often hear used during a game from players or spectators, often in the case of Little League and sandlot games, such as “a walk is as good as a hit,” “good eye,” and “keep your eye on the ball.”
Baseball invites good writing. Consider the wonderful literature the sport has spawned, by writers such as Zane Grey, Ring Lardner, James Thurber, James T. Farrell, Mark Harris, Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth, and Don DeLillo; and the poets Carl Sandburg, William Carlos Williams, Marianne Moore, Robert Frost, and Donald Hall. The same can be said of nonfiction works and sports writing by writers such as W. C. Heinz, Arnold Hano, Roger Kahn, Roger Angell, and Red Smith describing Bobby Thomson’s “shot heard around the world” in the New York Herald Tribune: “Now it is done. Now the story ends. And there is no way to tell it. The art of fiction is dead. Reality has strangled invention. Only the utterly impossible, the inexpressibly fantastic, can ever be plausible again.”
* Quoted in This Side of Cooperstown: An Oral History of Major League Baseball in the 1950s, by Larry Moffi.
**Born in Wahoo, Nebraska in 1880.
***Lynwood Thomas “Schoolboy” Rowe received the nickname “Schoolboy” while playing on a men’s team as a 15-year-old high school student.
**** Shoeless Joe Jackson got his nickname during a mill game played in Greenville, South Carolina. Jackson had blisters on his foot from a new pair of cleats, which hurt so much that he took his shoes off before he was at bat. As play continued, a heckling fan noticed Jackson running to third base in his socks, and shouted “You shoeless son of a gun, you!” The other players kidded him, calling him Shoeless Joe, and the name stuck.
***** Harold Reese, nicknamed Pee Wee, was a championship marbles player in Kentucky, where he grew up. A pee wee is a small marble.
****** Big Poison and Little Poison (brothers and Pittsburgh Pirate outfielders Paul and Lloyd Warner) got their names when a sportswriter overheard an Ebbets Field fan mispronouncing “person” as “poison” — as in here comes that “big poison” or “little poison.”
— Roger W. Smith
Roger W. Smith, “On Baseball”