Hitting close to home

U of C students should take themselves out to the ballgame.

By Adam Gillette

I’ll admit that I’m hopelessly biased, but here in these early days of spring, I’d like to make a humble proposal: University of Chicago students should love baseball. All of us.

If you’re reading this in today’s Maroon, baseball season started two days ago, with Wednesday night’s official Opening Night game between the St. Louis Cardinals and Miami Marlins. And if you missed it, fear not—the season’s not over until late October. You’ve got plenty of time to catch up, and I’d like to make the case for why you should. This is a brainy place with brainy people who tend to like brainy things, so for the less sports-inclined among us, consider the ways baseball intersects with the things we study. There’s something for everybody, so be sure to find your way to a game this season.

History. For obvious reasons, baseball is most closely associated with American history and domestic stories like labor, women’s, and civil rights. (But for more international flavor, check out the surprisingly un-imperialistic way an American game took root in East Asia and the Caribbean.) Baseball labor showdowns used to be more interesting than unionized millionaires petitioning billionaires for more money. Women have been organizing professional baseball leagues since the late 19th century, but for something more recent, look up Kim Ng, A.B. `90, who’s been shattering glass ceilings in Major League Baseball ever since she left Hyde Park. And though the game, like the rest of the country, has an ugly history of segregation and racism, Major League Baseball was officially desegregated before the U.S. Military or public schools.

Mathematics. There’s a movie about a book about a baseball team that made a lot of noise last year: Moneyball. It’s entertaining and digestible, whether you’re a sports fan or not, but it’s also about how math—statistics and economics—changed the game. Moneyball is about the Oakland Athletics, who upended generations of baseball knowledge about a decade ago. They found that baseball isn’t really about having the conventionally “best” players; it’s about scoring more runs than the opposition. So they used sophisticated, often-esoteric statistics to find players they could afford—ones bigger, richer teams had overlooked—who could get on base and score runs. Instead of buying “players,” they adopted a practice of buying “runs,” and in 2002, they won 103 games—as many as the New York Yankees, who outspent them 3 to 1. I advise reading the book (the Reg has a copy), but go to any game today to see the new statistics of baseball at work. After the Athletics’ success, every team started spending money the new, smarter way.

Natural Sciences. Admittedly, all sports break down to this, the building blocks of human life. But take it from one of baseball’s legends, Willie Stargel: “They give you a round bat and they throw you a round ball and they tell you to hit it square.” The physics of baseball are astonishing—balls pitched at 100mph, bats swung at 80 mph, with less than half a second for the hitter to make a decision before exercising the hand-eye coordination required to operate the fast-twitch muscles that connect the round ball to the round bat. The chemists among us will remember that baseball’s steroid scandals were first made possible in the lab.

Humanities. If baseball were a major, it would fall in the humanities department. Sportscasters frequently and energetically praise the poetic rhythm and calm of pitchers’ craft and the musical crack of the bat or slap of the glove. And that’s not even counting literal baseball poetry like “Casey At The Bat” or music like “Take Me Out To The Ballgame” (which is actually about a freeloading girl trying to get a boy to take her to see some baseball). But little can compete with baseball’s anthropology. Here are some baseball players: Oil Can Boyd, Dice-K, Shoeless Joe Jackson, Goose Gossage, The Big Cat, Whitey Ford, El Guapo, Lefty Grove. And in a single baseball play, the game’s lingo will tell you that the ace throws gas to the slugger who hits it on the screws and sends a frozen rope past the hot corner and into the alley and in a bang-bang play the guy with wheels crosses the dish. Baseball’s language and mythology is unparalleled, and every spring is an opportunity to celebrate its timelessness.

That opportunity is available to you. Walk to East 55th Street, catch the 55 to the Red Line. Headed toward Howard, stop at Sox/35th for the Chicago White Sox, continue onto Addison for the Chicago Cubs.

Sometimes at this place we forget that things can be good on the surface, without reflection or deconstruction. If you want to forget your studies and just enjoy a day at the ballpark, do that. Buy a cold beer, munch on a hot dog, sit in the sun, and enjoy the plodding rhythm of pitch after pitch. Yes, it’s a slow game. All the better to savor.

Adam Gillette is a fourth-year in the College majoring in history.