“Beauty is not the goal of competitive sports, but high-level sports are a prime venue for the expression of human beauty. The relation is roughly that of courage to war.”
– David Foster Wallace
I’ve always been a baseball fan, and specifically a fan of the Cleveland Indians. I don’t remember deciding that I liked baseball, or this team; like so many other pieces of culture, the fandom was passed down patrilineally and I didn’t so much choose it as not choose to resist it. I played tag in the empty bleachers at Municipal Stadium as a seven-year-old, and as an eight-year-old I saw Carlos Baerga hit a grand slam that I could swear was still gaining altitude when it bounced off the facing of the upper deck. I remember Manny Ramirez making Dennis Eckersley say “Wow” in the bottom of the twelfth inning. I remember Kenny Lofton scoring from second on a wild pitch. I remember Jose Mesa. These are ingrained in not only my memory, but the collective memory of thousands of Cleveland fans. Being a part of this shared history has begun or cemented countless friendships for me, as it has for so many of us.
At the same time, I’ve always found much more of interest in baseball as practiced in reality than I have in baseball as discussed in conversation. In large part, baseball is talked about through the lens of statistics. It is an iterative game with discretely defined roles, and as such lends itself to counting and averaging in the name of constant and obsessive comparison. Perhaps thousands of times per season, for example, a pitcher will face a batter with one out and runners at first and third. All of these situations are essentially comparable, and ESPN will never tire of coming up with new ways to compare their outcomes. The physicality of baseball being played is generally treated as subordinate to the numbers, the binary wins and losses and hits and strikeouts and ERA, that it generates. If the physical movement of a player is discussed, by sportscasters or by fans, it tends to be in the context of a failure to follow some fundamental and prescriptive axiom of the game: “Didn’t keep his eye on the ball.” “Didn’t get his body in front of it.” “Didn’t set his feet before throwing.” This kind of discussion implies that there is one correct way to execute any given baseball action. In so doing, it lends itself to a purely quantitative view in which all singles, all home runs, and all errors on the shortstop are equal.
The first time I tried to listen to a game on the radio, I realized that numbers and situations and counts and quantitative data fundamentally had nothing to do with why I care about baseball. There are baseball players with swings so graceful that I would sit and watch them hit line drives foul down the right field line all damn day. There are also players with motions that I find so inscrutable, or downright hideous, that I can’t enjoy watching them no matter how many home runs they hit for my team.
What is overlooked in a statistics-focused reading of baseball is the fact that just as in-game situations are standardized and made comparable by statistics, the aesthetics of the individual ballplayer are similarly standardized and made comparable by the television camera. We see thousands of instances of various people, from the same camera angle, addressing the same challenge. Because of this visual standardization, baseball may be the only place in contemporary culture where it’s possible to look at someone’s posture and comportment and understand that posture and comportment as being situated in a temporal and situational context. What I mean by this is that it’s possible, for example, to have a 1970’s style batting stance, or to pitch in an identifiably pre-World War II manner. This, in turn, implies that form in baseball is not a purely utilitarian consideration. The fact that baseball has been shown to us, over the course of lifetimes, from a consistent center-field vantage point, has allowed us to perceive generational changes in style among players – and moreover, it makes these stylistic changes possible by creating a feedback loop of formal copying. Children want to emulate their sports heroes, no matter the sport – but young baseball fans have enough visual information to actually copy what their favorite players are doing as differentiated from other players. When kids wanted to be like Michael Jordan, they would stick their tongues out as they took shots. The televised presentation of basketball does not provide aesthetic standardization sufficient for kids to mimic Michael Jordan’s actual comportment during the game, so they settled for copying his obvious mannerisms. These same kids could, and did, actually pick up a bat and swing it like Mark McGwire or Albert Belle or Ken Griffey, Jr. Some of those kids would grow up to play professionally themselves. A batting stance, a swing, or a pitcher’s delivery, as flattened and mediated through television, is identifiable as a unit of culture.
By age twelve (1997), it’s safe to say that I had watched at least two hundred full baseball games on TV. That’s more than ten thousand at-bats. Close to fifty thousand pitches. It’s possible that throwing a baseball is the single human activity that I have most often watched over the course of my life. Swinging a bat probably isn’t far behind. All of these were filmed and shown to me from the same camera angle – center field, just to the shortstop side of the second base bag. Seeing this much baseball in my formative years, especially while simultaneously learning to play the game, had an effect on me: I don’t so much watch someone swing a bat or throw a ball as I feel that motion by sight. It’s not an exaggeration that when I say I like one player’s swing and dislike another’s, I am really reacting to my own interpretation of how it physically feels to do that thing. In large part, it is the television-based aesthetic standardization of baseball kinetics that allows us to convince ourselves that we have a visceral sense of what it feels like to bat as Seattle’s mid-1990s right fielder Jay Buhner, in whose hands the bat looks/feels like it weighs as much as a wiffle bat, and also what it feels like to bat as Cleveland’s current first baseman Carlos Santana, in whose hands the bat looks/feels like it weighs almost as much as the man wielding it. The fixed center-field camera angle flattens and oversimplifies any given swing or pitch, but what we get in return is the ability to see – and feel! – any one of these in context.
The late-1990s Yankees had a right fielder called Paul O’Neill. O’Neill was an excellent hitter, but more importantly, his swing was like great art to twelve-year-old me. Here was a guy who I’d watch take batting practice all day. He had an uncanny way of making every part of his body, as well as his bat, seem lighter, quicker and more whiplike than it should have been. Before the pitch, he got into his rhythm with a wonderfully dismissive kick of his front foot. Where another player might stride directly towards the pitcher, O’Neill incorporated this sarcastic little dance step. It always seemed so cocky and nonchalant; it worked both as a standalone piece of bravado and as part of the complete composition. The swing itself was simple; he held his bat high and just guided it as it fell onto the ball. Nothing about this motion ever indicated strength or power to me. I was always struck by the way he just seemed to be channeling energy that was already there with a sequence of minimal and effortless flicks of his arms and legs. Before he began his swing, he was the epitome of loose and casual; after making contact, his follow-through was equally so. It’s often said of great athletes that they make things look easy, but Paul O’Neill’s swing did more than that; it made it clear that he was showing off exactly how easy it was for him. As a shy twelve-year-old, seeing someone hit like this expressed to me in a way that nothing else could what it really felt like to be a cocky, bad-ass sonofabitch.
This is why televised baseball-hitting is like art, or maybe more like architecture; we, the more-or-less informed lay public, are able to inhabit – and maybe if we’re lucky, convince ourselves that we understand – someone else’s attitude toward a basic and primal task [that of using a simple tool to address a hostile external stimulus.] The case can be made that batting is, or should be, purely a utilitarian exercise – but there is an undeniable element of aesthetics, or at least of style, to the baseball swing in the age of TV reproduction. It’s a powerful thing to not only be able to see the rich proliferation of style in baseball, but to also be able to feel it; to try on one person’s approach to the unexpected and then try on another’s.
There is a beautiful and naive simplicity in the swing of former Cleveland outfielder Manny Ramirez. It has an elegance and purity that dare the observer to question why anyone would swing any other way. Ramirez stands at the plate in a crouch, bringing the bat through the strike zone once or twice, and then pulls the bat back up and behind his head, tracing exactly the reverse of the swing to come. As the pitch comes, his front leg tucks up into his torso, his hips twist back to face the catcher and his shoulders twist even more in that same direction. He quite literally coils himself up like a spring and releases all of his energy at once with such force that he often ends up on one knee, completely off balance after throwing everything he has into this singular motion. There are obviously parts moving in concert with respect to one another during all this, and I’d love to read a hitting coach’s technical explication of them – but that is absolutely not what the viewer sees. The viewer simply sees a man doing what we’d do if we were told we just had to swing a bat as hard as we possibly could. If T-ball was played professionally – that is to say, if the hitter didn’t have to account for unpredictability in the eventual location and timing of the ball – everyone would hit like Ramirez. As it is, he only hits the way he does because the rules don’t allow him to take a running start from the steps of the dugout, run full pelt into the batter’s box and throw the bat at the ball. His actual swing is enough like that, though; it’s a giddy and lovably childlike celebration of his own unimaginably good hand-eye coordination. It shares with O’Neill’s swing the element of reveling in one’s own talent, but where O’Neill uses it to say a cynical “Fuck you,” Ramirez uses it to shout an exuberant “FUCK YEAH!”
Style isn’t always just superficial in baseball. As baseball has developed in Japan and South Korea, the culture of the game has grown apart from its American roots both in ethos and in aesthetics. As large numbers of Japanese players began to play in the United States in the 1990s, they brought with them novel and bizarre styles which were influenced by, but not subordinate to, an alternative approach to the game. The motions of pitchers like Hideo Nomo and hitters like Ichiro Suzuki had little in common with anything we’d seen as fans of Major League Baseball. Ichiro in particular was something of a revelation; both his swing and the approach to the game that it evinced felt entirely new.
Ichiro is a contact hitter who relies on speed, which is nothing new. It is in fact more or less the prototype for a leadoff hitter. The way he enacts that role at the plate, however, is the real distinction. Before Ichiro, we took for granted that hitters swung the bat, followed through according to their own formal agenda, and then began to run to first base. Ichiro does both at the same time; his legs begin to run to first base while his arms swing the bat. He waits to swing until the last possible moment, trading away power for increased certainty that he will put the ball in play, trusting that he will be able to place the ball out of reach or beat an infielder’s throw to first base. His pre-swing routine is impeccably scripted; after establishing his footing, he slowly and methodically extends his right arm, bat in hand, towards the pitcher. He looks the pitcher in the eye with an inscrutable smirk while adjusting the right shoulder of his jersey with his left hand. He does all of this, the same routine on every pitch, with a cautious but very obvious confidence. All of this makes his swing look even stranger; he begins to run to first base out of a knock-kneed posture with an abrupt twist of his hips and then, almost as an afterthought, he reaches out and slaps at the ball with the bat. The aesthetics of the swing could not be more different from those of the pre-swing routine. The contrast feels intentional, like the whole thing is an elaborate setup for the same trick play over and over again. It is jarring, visually dissonant and often far from graceful.
It’s difficult to describe what it feels like to be shown something that obviously belongs to a familiar category, but is still drastically different from anything else you know to be in that category. It implies a shattering of presumed boundaries and an expansion of possibilities. Ichiro’s is the rock and roll of baseball swings. After Ichiro’s 14 seasons as one of the best players in baseball, it’s almost canonical now – but it is important not to lose sight of how disruptive this motion really was when we were first introduced to it. The swing itself is an engineer’s solution to the problem of batting as a small, slight man who can run extremely fast – but at the time it absolutely looked like witchcraft. Baseball fans were all of a sudden talking qualitatively about batting stances when they’d never thought to do so in the past. People previously might have noticed or copied a peculiar swing, but they loved or hated Ichiro based on their feelings about his kinetics. Hearing this from other people felt new to me.
Ichiro came from the Japanese league to MLB in 2001. I was sixteen. Even as I was wrestling with the question of whether to associate myself with organized sports or to rebel against them, I never failed to find Ichiro and his swing compelling. This was when I realized that even though it took something big to make everyone actually acknowledge it in words, we baseball fans all do care about and viscerally understand the aesthetics of the game as much as I always have.
In baseball, runners are not allowed to advance on a ball that’s caught on the fly until the catch is actually made. I find this strange. If this rule did not exist, there would be strategic value to a pop-up hit high into the air. This rule is predicated on the idea that to hit a line drive is “right” and to hit a pop-up is “wrong.” In baseball, this value judgement is taken for granted; because the rules of the game preclude runners from easily advancing on the play, a pop-up is among the least productive ways that a hitter can make an out. However, it isn’t any easier to hit a pop-up on purpose than it is to hit a line drive on purpose. This rule only exists because at some point someone decided, for some unknowable reason, that they preferred line drives to pop-ups. The game is literally structured to reward certain kinetic properties that we like more than others. Perhaps baseball, after all, has always been partially about creating a framework for the display of the aesthetics of the human figure. My twelve-year-old self, sitting alone watching the Indians and self-consciously wondering if anyone else thought about the game like I did, would have found this observation to be such a sublime vindication.