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One of the more obvious truths about baseball is that it brings pleasure and excitement to millions of people who have only the vaguest notions about the simple mechanics of the game or the field dimensions which determine its basic strategy. It is a sport enjoyed by all ages and intellects and both sexes—and for many different reasons.
To some, baseball is a picnic in the sun with peanuts and beer; to others, a vicarious release of aggressions and emotions. Thousands of others never see a game from one season to the next but derive pleasure from attaching themselves emotionally to a particular team and following its fortunes in print.
Obviously, it is not necessary to understand how and why everything is taking place on the field in order to enjoy the game. But it is equally true that with every added bit of understanding, enjoyment increases. For baseball is an unparalleled exhibition of competitive skill. Individual and team proficiency are required; speed of hand and foot, timing, guile and courage are all on display. And, as in every contest of universal appeal, the area of competition is clearly defined, easy to focus on and bound by two dimensions—time and distance.
When the lead-off batter steps up to the plate at the start of a game, the situation is unique so far as the rest of the afternoon is concerned. Nothing extraneous enters into the competition between the batter and the nine men on the opposing team—eight spread out in front of him and one crouched behind him. The stage will never be set so simply, so let's examine it.
The batter's aim is to get on base safely and there are three ways he can accomplish this. The pitcher can walk him or hit him with the ball or he can hit the ball and run to first before the opposing team gets the ball there and puts him out. It is 90 feet to first base and most big leaguers can run there in a fraction over three and a half seconds. (A left-handed batter has about a tenth of a second headstart.) The pitcher winds up and throws the ball and it will travel the 60 feet six inches to a position where the batter can hit it in about a half-second. Don't be deceived by that figure; the batter does not have all that time to decide whether or not he will try to hit the ball. He must decide and start bringing his bat around in about half that time or he will be too late. One reason players stand at the rear of the batter's box is to gain an extra split second in which to make the swing-or-not decision.
As the ball approaches the plate it may do one of several things to further bedevil the batter: it may continue in a relatively straight line, curve toward or away from him or rise slightly or fall away abruptly—depending on how much and what kind of spin the pitcher has put on it. Whatever it does, if it crosses the 17-inch-wide plate between the batter's knees and armpits, it's a strike.
The ball we're following is headed for the strike zone. Most pitchers try to get the first ball they throw to a batter over the plate, not only to get ahead of the batter quickly but because there are few good first-ball hitters in baseball, which is another story. Our batter, however, steps into this first pitch and hits it on the ground toward the hole between the third baseman and the shortstop. He bats right-handed and he consistently hits to the left side of the diamond because he consistently swings a split second early. That makes him a "pull hitter."
THE RACE TO FIRST
At the crack of ball meeting bat the batter starts for first and the shortstop starts moving to his right to field the ball; the race is on and, if you remember, you know it will be over in less than four seconds. The ball is moving slowly along the ground and before the shortstop reaches it, two and a half seconds have elapsed. Aware that time is running out on him, the shortstop scoops up the ball with one hand and, without cocking his arm completely, sends it off toward first in one smooth motion. Such a throw, however, has little power behind it. Though the first baseman strains every inch toward the approaching ball while he keeps one foot on the bag, it takes three quarters of a second to hit his glove. Too late. The batter's foot touched the base an instant earlier. He's safe.
The second batter comes up to the plate in a confident mood. And why not?—his teammate got a hit on the very first pitch, an augury of happy times ahead. Not only that but he and the man on first are about to attempt one of the game's neatest bits of strategy—the hit-and-run play. Now this is by no means the ideal situation for the hit-and-run. Percentage baseball would call for a simple sacrifice bunt to put the runner on second, which is scoring position. And then the heaviest-hitting part of the batting order would be coming up. But our manager is in a confident mood too and feels that such a surprise move might pay off.