Why Baseball is the Best Sport

On honor of the 4th of July, the one-year anniversary of Replacement Level Baseball Blog, and my 100th post, here’s the piece that will appear in this month’s Forecaster about why I love baseball.

July is a beautiful month to be a baseball fan. The season reaches its halfway point, the All-Star game selection process is always entertaining (even if the game isn’t), and the rest of the month brings endless trade rumors and the occasional actual trade. Meanwhile, the NHL and NBA playoffs have finally ended after something like nine rounds of best-of-13 series (I think the playoffs started right around Thanksgiving this year). The NFL is still dormant (maybe for longer than usual this year), and college football players haven’t reported for practice yet. Wimbledon is wrapping up, leaving the British Open as baseball’s only real competitor for the sports spotlight. And I couldn’t tell you who won last year’s British Open. Could you?

A 2010 Harris Poll named pro football the favorite sport of American fans. While 43% of those surveyed prefer pro or college football, just 17% considered baseball their favorite sport. Internationally, soccer has been king for decades, and “foreign football” is gaining traction in the states, as media access has allowed more Americans to follow European soccer. I’m a fan of any competition, especially one involving athletes, but for my money, no sport can compete with America’s pastime: baseball.

The most significant factor separating baseball from all the other major sports is the lack of a clock. While a lot of casual fans would prefer a faster baseball game, the lack of a clock can make baseball much more exciting. Football and basketball teams are praised for their abilities to “eat the clock” late in games. A lead of a certain size becomes insurmountable if the leading team can keep the ball out of the trailing team’s hands. In baseball, a 6-1 lead in the ninth inning is only safe if the leading team has a great bullpen, and even then, anything can happen. Jonathan Papelbon has been lights out for most of this season, but how many Red Sox fans feel truly confident when he walks the leadoff man in the ninth inning of a three-run game?

Another of baseball’s many selling points is its unique status as an individual game within a team sport. Every interaction involves one pitcher against one hitter, with eight fielders waiting to factor in the result. Because even the best hitters can only bat once every nine plate appearances, and teams don’t move defensive players to different positions depending on the current batter’s tendencies, no one superstar can make his team great by himself. A starting pitcher may have a profound impact on one game (though he can’t win it himself, whatever the errantly-named pitcher “win” stat wants us to believe), but starting pitchers only play in every fifth game. The best pitcher in baseball last year, Felix Hernandez, played for a last place team, and his team won just 17 of the 34 games in which he pitched. Over a 162-game season, the best hitters in the game only add seven to ten wins over a replacement level player’s production. In basketball, the team with the best player on the field wins most series, as every offensive play can be run through him. In football, it takes a team to be great, but without a great quarterback, very few teams can post winning seasons.

Because baseball’s primary competitor for the affections of the American fan is football, I feel compelled to note that, while they may not come easily to newcomers, baseball’s rules make sense. In baseball, a team can only score when one of its offensive players reaches home plate, and every run scores one point. In football, a touchdown is worth an arbitrary six points, seven if a kicker subsequently kicks a ball through goalposts (an activity completely unrelated to the original objective), or eight if the team would rather play more football and score another touchdown (though it’s not called a touchdown the second time). For an equally arbitrary three points, a team can choose to forego the end zone and perform that same one-point action for a three-point reward. And let’s not even get started on safeties.

Perhaps the most absurd element of football is “moving the chains”. A team must move ten yards from the spot of each first down to earn another first down. Except after a touchback, the ball is placed on the field based on a subjective ruling by a referee. The offensive team then gets four downs to move the ball ten yards. If they get close, that same referee (or sometimes a different one) watches the play, takes his best guess as to where the football was when the player’s knee or body hit the ground, and again subjectively places the football where he thinks it should be. Then a team of officials picks up a set of posts and chains, drags it exactly ten yards from the original spot, and determines, with ersatz precision, whether the two subjective endpoints are within ten yards of each other, inevitably resulting in a roar or a groan from the hometown fans. If we have the technology to put a yellow line on the television showing us where the first down line is, couldn’t we be a whole lot more precise in determining whether a team earned a first down without a surveying team and its nineteenth-century apparatus?

Baseball would never let this happen. While the sport has been slow to embrace technology (we’re ready for instant replay, Bud), its rules have remained largely unchanged for over a century because, as obtuse as they may seem, they make so much sense. A ball is fair if it lands (or crosses a base) between the foul lines. A runner is out if he’s tagged (or a forced base is touched) before he gets there. Balls and strikes are subjective, but at least baseball will admit that they are, rather than having an umpire call a pitch a strike and then bringing in six goofballs with rulers and protractors to see if the batter gets to go to first base anyway.

I’ll play or watch just about any sport and probably love it, but no sport can hold a candle to baseball. Baseball has been around longer than the automobile, Canada’s independence, even John McCain; yet the game remains largely unchanged. For every Albert Pujols, there’s a Stan Musial. For every Roy Halladay, there’s a Bob Feller. Players and managers will come and go (with the possible exception of Tony LaRussa), teams will win and lose, advantages for hitters and pitchers will keep affecting the results, but after all these years, a routine grounder to short still beats the runner by a single step.

If the Harris Poll is accurate, 83 percent of you probably disagree with me. I’d love to hear why. Comment below if you disagree.

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