- The Washington Times - Saturday, May 6, 2006

Baseball’s timeless appeal captures the minds of fans enthralled by a game that, like the Odyssey, tells a story of confronting enemies, helping friends, and, of course, getting home safely.

This appeal applies to softball and little league baseball as well as to the Major Leagues. In other games, teams of equal size battle from one end of a court, arena, or field to the other.

In these “back and forth games,” success is measured by crossing a line or placing and object in a goal. Not so in baseball, where the batter competes against nine opponents and success is measured by a player’s ability to overcome the odds by safely moving from base to base so he or she gets home safely.

Baseball is played on the largest field in team sports not involving a horse, even larger than cricket. Its field is distinguished from those of the back-and-forth games, which are all rectangles covered with lines, circles and dots, by its simplicity with two lines diverging at 90 degrees from a single point to define both the infield and the outfield. At the point of intersection is home plate, an oddly shaped five-sided figure, at 17 inches, smaller than a basketball hoop, where all action begins and ends.

The infield is a square taking up the first 90 feet that is tipped on its end to form a diamond with the outfield beyond. There are three 15-inch bases positioned on the corners of the 90-foot square. The pitchers mound rises 10 inches above the infield, 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate. All infields have this perfect symmetry, while outfields vary widely.

The story unfolds as the batter stands in the batter’s box facing his nemesis, the pitcher. The batter is surrounded by seven fielders and the pitcher in front with the catcher behind. The pitcher starts the action by pitching the ball over or just near home plate. The ball is leatherbound and moves at lethal velocity. Fear is the first emotion the player must overcome to play the game well. Many young players drop out when they can hear the ball in flight, are knocked down by an errant fast ball or fooled by a curve into falling away, swinging weakly, insulted, stripped of all dignity, humiliated as courage and skill are shown to be lacking.

The pitcher attempts to put the batter out by using his extensive arsenal of pitches to cause the batter to strike out, or hit the ball so it is caught in the air, or on the ground to an infielder who throws him out.

The pitchers can use any combination of speed or spin to defeat the batter, including illegal spitballs that sink precipitously, or scuffed and cut balls that spin viciously, Pitchers succeed in putting batters out about 74 percent of the time.

If the batter hits a fair ball, he becomes a runner and begins an odyssey around the bases. This must be done carefully, but speedily, as he moves from the sanctuary of one base to another. The sanctuary of the base is available to one runner at a time and a runner is compelled to leave the sanctuary when the batter becomes a runner and there is no empty base between them. When a runner is forced to leave the base to go to the next base, he can be forced out merely by having a fielder touch the next base while holding the ball. Otherwise, the runner is safe while touching the base, but is subject to being put out anytime a fielder touches an “off base” runner with the ball.

For Odysseus and his crew, the ship was the base and sanctuary and Odysseus tied himself to a mast to be safe from the Sirens’ pitch. Fielders, like Scylla, Cyclops and Circe, can use any form of deception, guile, misdirection, feints, hidden ball tricks, and pick-off plays, all aimed at putting a vulnerable runner “out.” All the runner wants to do, like Odysseus, is to get home safely, and to do so, he must be crafty, careful, fleet of foot, take risks, and usually needs a little help from his friends. Like Odysseus, the runner often finds home blocked by the catcher, armored like a Greek warrior in mask, breast plate, and greaves, who is the last barrier to success.

The runner’s fate is determined by umpires who are the ultimate judges of safe and out, or life and death, which they signal with single swipe of a hand, thumb extended, for “out” or both hands outstretched, palms down, for “safe, which means nothing notable happened, let’s keep going. The “nothing” that happened is no out was made and baseball keeps time with outs.

Baseball’s most prestigious feat is the home run. However, it only accounts for one run, plus one for each runner on base, where in cricket, a ball hit over the boundary on the fly counts six runs. The home run derives its prestige from the fact it is the act of turning the hostile pitch and driving it out of the field of play in a show of complete victory. The ultimate show of dominance like Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot. A home run allows the batter to trot, regally, with impunity, in an ostentatiously slow, plodding, sometime taunting pace, while the fielders must stand and watch, incapable of action, mute.

Baseball tells a story that relates to the human condition. The game requires great physical and mental skill in hitting a pitched ball, fielding, throwing, running, and taking risks to advance through the dangers of the infield. It is unique in its imagery and its appeal is the story of players alone in the wilderness, relying on friends for help, being alert to dangers while focused on the single goal of reaching home safely.

For a baseball player, like the rest of us, this occurs every day, and the story played out in a game is like life itself and that is the appeal of the game that has enraptured its fans for more than 150 years.

Clark C. Griffith II, a Minneapolis lawyer, is the grandson of Clark Griffith and son of Calvin Griffith, former owners of Washington’s earlier baseball team, the Washington Senators.

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