Baseball Theory

A Baseball Essay

by Joe Di Pietro
Copyright © 1998 by Joe Di Pietro

"The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It's been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt, and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game, is a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good, and that could be again. Oh people will come, Ray. People will most definitely come"

-Terrence Mann - "Field of Dreams"

NO DOUBT BASEBALL has over the decades, assumed its rightful place among our great cultural icons. "More than just another game", we have established the "national pastime" as an institution of reverence, endowing it with an almost metaphysical aura. Woven into the fabric that defines who we truly are as a society, so painfully evident by the prodigious pride we take for its mere invention, which we revere as some noble gift we have benevolently bestowed upon modern man. "Only America...", we often boast, "...could have invented baseball."

Perhaps nothing better symbolizes the paradox of baseball more than the goal (most commonly referred to as "home plate"). Neither quadrangular nor round, it takes the unlikely form of a pentangle. (Which also happens to be a symbol traditionally associated with magic).
And yet, why is "The Game" so unique? What is it that makes baseball different? After considerable contemplation, it has become apparent that the answer can, to a significant degree, be found in the game's very framework. Namely, that baseball fundamentally deviates from basic operative principles that govern all team sports.

Understanding exactly how baseball deviates from these principles necessitates the enumerating of specific procedural elements apparently inherent and common to all "team sports" In the process of doing so, we can arrive at a definition of a "team sport"

A careful examination of a varied sampling of sports played the world over would show that they share specific procedural elements. Bearing this in mind, it would be a fair assumption that a team game can be defined as any physical contest between two teams, consisting of two squads. Squads can consist of an individual or multiple participants. One squad is the offense, and the other is the defense. Both squads compete simultaneously on a symmetrically designed field of play. The aim of the offense is to score, by utilizing an object that it has in its possession. Possession of the object virtually defines the offense. In most cases the object is spherical, but this may not always be the case. Scoring is accomplished when the object is, in some manner, carried or propelled, into, on, or over what is most commonly referred to as a goal. The defense must prevent the offense from scoring. This is accomplished in two basic ways. One, by physically preventing the object or members of the offense from reaching the goal; and the other, by seizing possession of the object, at which time the defense immediately becomes the offense and, as such, the offense becomes the defense. All team sports continue alternately in this fashion for a defined period of time. At the end of such time, that team which has the greater number of scores is the winner.

The aforementioned procedural concepts seem to be traditionally inherent in all team sports. These principles appear to have been in existence for as long as mankind has been playing games. They have remained intrinsically universal, regardless of culture or history. The " universality" of these elements is evidenced in every team sport and has, in a sense, evolved into a "cosmos", if you will, by which all team sports function.

Accordingly, any game or contest that is not governed by these principles cannot be considered a team sport. Bowling for example, while possessing elements such as teams, scoring, a field of play, and an object, does not posses the dimension of defense and as such, is not a team sport, but more a contest of skill between participants. The same can be said for wrestling, which lacks the element of a material object as do other sporting activities such as track, archery, weight lifting, swimming, and so on. Conversely, enumerating the countless litany of games that do in fact subscribe to our definition, would no doubt, be unnecessarily redundant.

In baseball the concepts of offense and defense are perverted by the fact that while both squads participate simultaneously, at no time do they occupy the field of play at equal strength, with the defense always predominating in terms of manpower.
Baseball, no doubt, possesses all of the aforementioned elements of a team sport. However, despite this, it conspicuously deviates from almost every operating principle that governs all other team sports.

This deviation is glaringly apparent in the most intrinsic of those characteristics: the elements of offense and defense. Unlike any other team sport, where the offense is defined by possession of the object, the offense in baseball is never in possession of the object during the contest, nor is it ever permitted to intentionally physically touch the object in any manner without penalty. Moreover, scoring is often unrelated to the object, nor is the object necessarily always a requisite in the scoring process. In some instances the object is entirely inconsequential to a successfull score. In a broader sense, it can be said that the aim of the offense is to be as distant to the object as possible, in order to score.

Rather, the object is a tool of the defense, which uses it to prevent the offense from scoring! It is the primary aim of the defense to possess the object as often as possible. This is manifested by baseball being the only team sport that begins and proceeds with the defense in possession of the object. It is the defense whose uncharacteristic responsibility it is to put the object in play. Rather than attempting to gain possession of the object from the offense, the defense's goal is to relinquish that possession, and hence, become the offense. Paradoxically, this is ultimately accomplished by how proficiently the defense handles the object while it has control of the object. Scoring is often referred to in the context of the defense "allowing runs". The concepts of offense and defense are further perverted by the fact that while both squads participate simultaneously, at no time do they occupy the field of play at equal strength, with the defense always predominating in terms of manpower on the field of play.

The field (more often academically referred to as a "diamond") possesses a configuration as distinctively unique as the game itself; with one end consisting merely of a point at which two lines intersect, while the opposite end is theoretically boundless. For while it is no doubt humanly impossible to hit a ball 10 miles over the center field fence, it is nonetheless technically still a fair ball. With the exception of the infield portion, no standard dimensions are mandated by rule. Consequently, dimensions of each field arbitrarily vary. Rather than the rules governing the field dimensions, the opposite is true. It is for this reason that every game must begin with a conference to establish what particular ground rules will be played on each field. Additionally, ground rules are legally permitted to be changed or altered provided they are done so within a particular framework (which would be the subject of an entirely separate discourse!) Baseball dubiously delegates the home team with the responsibility of establishing ground rules for approval. If this were not enough, baseball also permits legal playing activity outside the boundaries of the specific field of play (foul territory).

Baseball fundamentally deviates from basic operative principles that govern all team sports.
Unlike any other team sport, where the single act of scoring occurs when the object reaches its goal, scoring in baseball is a process of several activities indirectly related to the object's location. While one of the requisites of scoring could involve the propulsion of the object, this alone does not necessarily result in a score. The offense needs to successfully complete the scoring process, which can involve: running, touching bases legally, or avoiding contact with the object. Moreover, scoring in baseball does not require the object to be propelled at all. In fact, the offense can successfully score without ever utilizing the object in any manner.

Perhaps nothing better symbolizes the paradox of baseball more than the goal (most commonly referred to as "home plate"). Neither quadrangular nor round, it takes the unlikely form of a pentangle. (Which also happens to be a symbol traditionally associated with magic). Although the goal must in fact be touched to complete a score, the object uncharacteristically plays no part in this process, as its proximal relationship to the goal is inconsequential. While there is only one goal (almost all have two), homeplate possesses a unique dual function, utilized by both the offense as well as the defense.

Since baseball lacks a defined time period, one could argue that baseball does not fall into the category of a team sport. It is true that a baseball game's duration is not restricted by any quantity of time. Instead, the expiration of play takes place with the occurrence of a defining event. Thus, baseball does in fact possess a defined ending, and while this cannot be predetermined in terms of minutes or seconds, it is nonetheless, defined. Interestingly enough, this "event" is not a singular action, but rather a multitude of possible scenarios that can spawn the "last inning". It is also worthy to note that the game's expiration can be effectuated defensively (retiring the last out) or offensively (scoring the winning run) depending upon the situation.

In a modest attempt to shed some light on the mystery of baseball, I have offered the foregoing thoughts. And while baseball clearly is a "team" sport it has been shown to be antithetical to the procedural norms which typically govern such team oriented games. By doing so, in a sense, baseball invents its own "cosmos", and therein lies its singularity.

JOE DI PIETRO has been umpiring amateur and college level baseball games for twenty years. He writes that recently he has begun to blend his "passion for the written word with my love of baseball umpiring." When he is not umpiring or writing about umpiring Joe spends his time protecting the citizens of New York where he is a 21 year veteran of the New York City Fire Department. Joe can be reached via internet email at

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JCBA 17- Baseball Essay
Published: October 9, 1998
Copyright © 1998 by the Cosmic Baseball Association