Re-imagining Baseball


This correspondence comes from the 43rd annual SABR convention in Philadelphia, PA. Earlier this morning, I watched a panel presentation titled “Imagining Baseball” which featured Eric Rolfe Greenberg, Steve Wulf, and Dr. Mark W. Cooper who are, at least in terms of baseball, famous for writing a baseball novel, being one of the original members of the Rotisserie League, and owning an expansive collection of baseball board games, respectively. The whole shebang was moderated by Baseball’s Grandpa, John Thorn. It was engaging to hear people discuss how baseball is played in their head, especially considering that so much of baseball is played in our heads. If we listen, we are creating the space. If we read a recap of some kind, even more so. Even watching a game, we may be predicting or wishing the next play, or perhaps recounting what could have happened. It’s just as much mental as it is visual or audible, perhaps even more so.

Since I’m usually terribly upset with the mundaneness of life in general, I often try to combat my abject fear of the normal by thinking about the world if little things — or sometimes big things — were different. The parallel universe and/or butterfly effect concept interests me — how a small decision made by some person or thing¬† would change the course of our species. On a smaller scale, I fantasize in this manner with regards to baseball. What if there were four outs? Foul balls did not always count as strikes. What if that were the case today? Say if someone hit a ball out of the park, it counted instead as an out. What if the shortstop went away? What if there was a fourth outfielder? Will these dumb questions ever end?

Yes, they will. I am not the only one to have thought of this, of course, nor am I claiming to have. So stop saying I’m claiming that I am. Craig Robinson made an illustration regarding baseball having five bases. Sam Miller put pits all around the infield. I’d tell you to put your own fun ideas in the comments, but you were already going to do that, weren’t you? Oops, another question. These can be simple fleeting thoughts, or deep, penetrating thought experiments, with all the repercussions and changes to stats and legacies considered.¬† I’ve done a little of this in these very pages.

There really isn’t a point to the whole thing, other than perhaps a short amount of mental amusement. And maybe that’s point enough. It’s never a real terrible thing to exercise one’s mind. But I think it’s an extension of the way we looked at the game when we were kids, perhaps. In back yards and sand lots we had to imagine most of the fielders, the foul poles, and where the outfield was. Hell, sometimes we were by ourselves and had to imagine the whole damn thing. Whatever the case, our brains were the muscle being used most. Well, that’s probably always the case, and the brain isn’t really a muscle, but you get the idea.

But we should continue this as adults and often, I believe. Not just for the sake of good mental workouts, not because we should behave like children more often, but because it keeps us engaged in a meaningful way. We shouldn’t just try and “fix” the game, make it a better and fairer thing. That’s an exercise in self-aggrandizing. We should create alternate universes, worlds where the butterfly didn’t flap its wings, or where the helmets are wood and the bats are plastic. We should put pits outside the batter’s box. Because it helps us dream about baseball, which is what we should have been doing all along.

David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.

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Matt O'Neal
8 years ago

Nice read, David. This kind of hits home to why many of us are baseball fans to begin with. It really is an exercise in mental amusement. While I love watching five games at once on a big TV, I still like sitting on the porch listening to a game on the radio. To me, that’s entertainment. And why I love the game.