By Frederic Friedel

This article is not going to win me any US American friends. In fact I may not be allowed into the country, if the authorities read it. But then again, if The Donald gets elected that option will be closed to me anyway.

Okay, I was visiting friends in New Jersey and they took me to a baseball game. They showed me everything of relevance, like how to buy hot dogs and beer and how to yell rude things at the referee. It was an interesting experience, full of sound and fury. People really take things seriously.

But the game has a number of faults. Lets start with the equipment: a round bat? It should clearly have a flat surface for better control. The way it is currently constructed you have to hit the ball with a precision that is inhuman. One hundredth of an inch too high or too low will cause the ball to go where you don’t want it to. Try serving a tennis ball with baseball bat — you’ll see what I mean. Basically you are hitting a ball with a stick. The ball goes flying all over the place, uncontrolled.

So here is my first reform proposals: give the players a proper bat, with a flat surface.

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With a flat surface the batsman can much more accurately control where the ball goes

Then there is the matter of a strike. If the batter is unable to stop the ball going past him to the catcher, it is a strike. But only if passes through an imaginary box directly over the plate. And how do we know if it did? There is an umpire behind the batsman and the catcher who decides this. You yell and kick dirt at him if you disagree with his decision.

My second proposal: put up a net behind the batsman: if the ball goes into the net it is a strike, whether the batsman swings or not. If it doesn’t it is not a strike, even if he swings. Currently I think the idea is if he swings, even if the ball did not go through the imaginary box, as long as the catcher caught it, it is a strike. Correct me if I am wrong.

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Next: the game is totally rigged in favour of the pitcher. After my first baseball game as a spectator my friends took me to practice place where they put me into a cage, gave me a bat and started a machine that pitched balls at me.

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The first two or three I barely registered — it was just a noise and a whoosh. Then I realized that the machine would signal before it fired the ball at me. But it still remained basically impossible to get the bat anywhere close to contact with the ball. It was like trying to catch a bullet with tweezers. After a while I got better and started hitting one out of ten balls.

They had set the machine to a modest 75 mph. And it pitched straight. In professional baseball there are pitchers who go to 100 mph and more, and they throw from a mound, and they use tricks. Did you know that “curveball” is not just an abstract idiom? The baseball has seams which allow the pitcher to make it curve down or sideways. You can watch it in action here — how could anyone hit these pitches?

This is reflected in the “batting average”, which Americans use to define excellence in baseball. Apparently the best players in the game achieve around 0.3, which the way I understood it meant that in 30% of the times they were at the batting plate they managed to hit the ball once (and make it to first base or further). There are nine innings per game, and the batsman can score at the most one hit per batting turn. And the best do it every third time? The best players hit the ball about three times during a game, and the teams usually score around five runs. I feel that can’t be the case— I must be getting something wrong. In cricket, that wonderfully cultivated and logical game (which I played in college) the most famous batsman, Don Bradman, had a career-long batting average of 99.94 runs per game, with a high score of 334 runs in a single game.

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There is more action in cricket, you must admit. Much of it depends on the proper bat that is used and the well-defined strike zone, which is three “wickets” stuck in the ground, with “bails” on the top. If the bowler knocks any of this over, the batsman is out “bowled”.

And the other thing: the bowler is forced to use a special overhead action that restricts his ability to throw bullet-speed balls. They make up for it with clever spins and swings, which you can watch in this selection. And the batsmen, equipped with a proper instrument, can also display excellence.

Incidentally, the second video link in the last paragraph shows you the greatest contemporary cricket batsman, the Indian Sachin Tendulkar, and also gives you an impression of how many people love the game: around two billion world wide. What is the number for baseball?

One more thing: why is cheating allowed in baseball? “Stealing a base” is permitted and many players are experts in doing this. Maybe you have seen a pitcher constantly glancing behind him to make sure a player is not going to steal a base, i.e. advance to a base to which he is not entitled. This video tells you exactly how it works, and here is one that explains the science of stealing bases. It is just wrong, wrong, wrong.

Written by

Frederic Alois Friedel, born in 1945, science journalist, co-founder of ChessBase, studied Philosophy and Linguistics at the University of Hamburg and Oxford.

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