David Carlson: Play ball

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Perhaps we all have thought at one time or another: “If I have to make another decision, my head is going to explode.”

It is true that we can become overwhelmed and worn down when we are faced with one decision after another. Taking a nap can be a good response when the “decider” part of our brains can’t deal with another issue. Another default response, especially for men, is to watch a sporting event in person or on TV. Last weekend, while taking a break and turning on a baseball game, I realized the irony of the situation.

Without a doubt, the ball game helped me relax and forget for a bit the decisions facing me. I thought of the old song “Take me out to the ballgame … I don’t care if I never get back.” But then the reality of the experience dawned on me. If I wanted to avoid decisions, I should watch something other than a baseball game. Why? Because baseball must be one of the heavily decision-laden sports in the world.

Before the game starts, think of the numerous decisions that the manager and his coaching staff have to make. Who should start as pitcher? Do we want more right-handed or left-handed hitters in the lineup? How should we pitch to the big hitters on the other team? Who on our team is hot and deserves to play? Who on our team has gone cold and needs to sit out a game or two, or maybe even be traded?

But those preliminary decisions are nothing compared to the decisions made within every inning. Before every pitch, the third-base coach gives the batter a signal. At the same time, the catcher gives a sign to the pitcher indicating which pitch to throw while with his mitt indicating the desired location.

In those same seconds, the manager in the dugout relays signals to the players in the field, moving them in or out, to the left or right. If there is a runner on base, a coach is relaying the steal or take sign. Finally, with each pitch thrown, the umpires have to decide if the pitch is a ball or strike, if the batter has swung or held back, and if the hit ball is fair or foul.

These same decisions must be made again with every pitch. If we assume that the batter faces on average six pitches per time at the plate, and that in every inning, four or five players will on average step up to the plate, the sum total of decisions per each inning is over a hundred.

By multiplying the number of decisions per inning by nine, we arrive at a number in the thousands for the decisions made in just one game. Now multiply that figure by the one hundred and sixty-two games in a regular baseball season, and we can see that baseball teams make millions of crucial decisions every season. And that figure doesn’t include the added decisions needing to be made postseason in the playoffs and World Series.

It seems ironic that baseball is commonly referred to as “America’s pastime.” One dictionary defines “pastime” as something that makes time pass agreeably and is a pleasant means of amusement or recreation. Watching baseball can be an agreeable and pleasant amusement, but is playing the game something that serves to make time pass agreeably; a pleasant means of amusement, recreation, or sport?

We might even reconsider calling professionals in any sport as “players,” especially with all the analytics that are now part of every sport. We’d never describe a top-rated surgeon, mechanic, ballerina, or actor as someone who “plays” for a living. Aren’t baseball professionals making more decisions at work per minute than people in these other careers?

Readers might think that I am overthinking baseball. Perhaps I am guilty of that charge, but accepting how complex my favorite sport is at the major league level leaves me with a wish. I wish that the pros on the field, who must pay attention to every aspect of the game’s complexity, would feel at least once per game what those of us watching the game are feeling — that baseball is something truly beautiful.

David Carlson of Franklin is a professor emeritus of philosophy and religion. Send comments to [email protected].