April 01, 2014

Advance Sheet: Is SportsCenter Killing the Law?

Like baseball, it requires context to understand what a ruling really means.

Robert E. Shapiro

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Baseball is the most contextual of sports. It is simply not possible to understand it from the rules of the game alone. Try taking someone who is uninitiated in baseball’s ways, a foreigner perhaps, to a baseball game, having explained its key elements, such as balls and strikes, and outs and innings. That person will not understand a thing. And be bored to tears besides. The rules are important, of course, but they do not begin to explain what’s happening in the game, what’s happening on the field. So much of baseball exists in the interstices of the rules, the context of the action.

In fact, the rules even sometimes seem wrong, or the game does, a mismatch of what’s required and what occurs. Think about a sacrifice bunt, for example. The batter makes an out—on purpose. Now, why would that be? To move a runner on first into scoring position. But why make an out? Why not try for a hit instead? And why is a runner on second base in scoring position? The next batter hits a hard line-drive single, and the runner on second does not score. Scoring position? Really? The next batter hits into a double play. The inning is over, and no runner ever scores. How to make sense of it all?

Baseball creates its own context. Baseball is one of only two major American sports that is not played against a clock (the other is tennis). Baseball has, instead, a time of its own. Baseball games do not go on forever, as many people claim. They are almost all of exactly the same duration: nine innings. And the duration of an inning is precise as well, and always identical: three outs for each side. To understand and appreciate baseball, you have to adjust to something different from the beat, beat, beat of chronological time. And the game ebbs and flows accordingly. Five hits and an error, leading to two runs, amid three strikeouts, will seem to extend for an eternity to your foreign guest. Three ground ball outs, or successive pitches, will seem very fast. But to the baseball aficionado, each is just a half an inning long.

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