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Sports Primer: Take Me Out to the Ball Game!

Baseball is often considered the “all-American” sport.

Baseball has given us idioms: strike out (very unsuccessful), home run (very successful), ballpark number (an approximation), curve ball (something unexpected), keep your eye on the ball (pay attention), out in left field (unexpected or strange), touch base (stay in contact), hit it out of the park (do an excellent job), batting a thousand (to always succeed), step up to the plate (take action), rookie (an inexperienced person).

Baseball has given us classic movies: Bull Durham, Eight Men Out, Major League, Moneyball, The Sandlot, Field of Dreams, A League of Their Own.

There are thirty major league teams and 120 minor league teams in the United States and Canada. For children ages 4 to 16, Little League is active in more than 80 countries, with almost two and a half million participants. Major League Baseball draws the second highest average number of fans to games (only football has more), with more than 28,000 spectators per game, and more than 64 million people attending games throughout the regular season.

But iconic ideals don’t always live up to reality. I’ve had multiple students tell me how excited they were to go to their first baseball game in America. When this happens, I always ask if they are sports fans in general, and most of them are, especially for soccer (what the rest of the world calls football—I’ll have a post about American football in the fall). At that point, I cautiously explain that baseball isn’t nearly as fast-paced as soccer. I never want to dim anyone’s enthusiasm, but I feel that it’s important to have realistic expectations.

Though there are certainly thrilling moments in baseball—the whoosh of a ball as it flies out of the field, the moment when a player steals a base or narrowly escapes being tagged out, a slide into home plate—in general, baseball doesn’t have the same fast-paced intensity of many other sports, especially soccer.

That said, baseball is a fascinating game of strategy combined with athleticism. There are nine innings, where each team has at least three times at bat. If the score is tied after those initial nine innings, the game goes into “extra innings,” until one team scores (both teams still get all their chances to bat in the inning).

Since there is no clock, it’s possible for a game to continue for quite a while. In fact, the longest game in Major League Baseball history was in 1984, when the Chicago White Sox beat the Milwaukee Brewers after 25 innings, which took eight hours and six minutes over the course of two days. That said, most baseball games take about three hours of play.

When the batter steps up to the plate, he has three chances to hit the ball, as long as it’s thrown within the “strike zone.” This is the area above home plate that is between the batter’s knees and the midpoint of their torso. If the ball is thrown outside this area but the batter swings, it is an “strike.” If the ball is thrown outside this area and the batter does not swing, it’s a “ball.” If the pitcher throws four “balls,” then the batter can automatically go to first base. This is called a “walk.”

After three “strikes,” the batter has no more chances to hit—he’s “out.” After three “outs,” that half of the inning is over and the next team has the chance to hit. When a player does hit the ball, he runs to get to (at least) first base. However, if the ball is caught before it ever hits the ground, he is “out.” If he hits the ball out of the park, that’s a “home run,” where the batter (and anyone already on base) scores a point. If a batter hits a home run with men already on each base, that’s four runs.

One beloved tradition of baseball is the “7th inning stretch.” As the name suggests, this is a point during the 7th inning of the game when the fans stand up to stretch and sing “Take Me Out to the Ball Game.” Note that before all sporting events in the United States, the National Anthem is played. It is customary for everyone to stand and face the flag, and for men to remove their hats. Some people will sing along, but it’s fine if you don’t. Recently, some people have made protests by not standing during the National Anthem, but this is rare, especially for fans.

Major League Baseball is divided into two leagues: American and National. Each league is divided into three divisions: East, Central, West. Since the 2013 season, each division has had five teams. Each team also has four “farm” teams. These lower level, minor league teams give players a chance to improve their skills before they move up to the major leagues. Baseball season usually starts in April and finishes with the World Series championship in October.

For an easy children’s book introduction to baseball, with excellent visual explanations, check out, My First Book of Baseball, from Sports Illustrated.

Baseball is a classic American pastime, one that has made major contributions to our shared experiences. Attending a game in person is a great way to participate in that!


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