A Beginner’s Guide to Baseball

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The 2015 Major League Baseball season will commence this Sunday, 5 April, with the St. Louis Cardinals visiting the Chicago Cubs at Wrigley Field. The opening of the new season affords a particularly opportune moment for those wishing to get into the sport – once its first few weeks are done, it may feel like the beginning of a story has been missed, and understanding and attachment made impossible for another year. Yet baseball’s entwinement within the fabric of American society and culture, its rich history, and its detailed regulations and statistical bent, serve both to inspire interest and as a barrier for those who lack knowledge about the sport. So what follows serves as a basic guide to Major League Baseball’s history; to its iconic figures and moments; to its rules and scoring; and to the season which is about to ensue.

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A Concise History of Major League Baseball

The history of baseball in the United States extends back to the early decades of the 19th Century, when varieties of the sport began to develop and flourish, particularly in and around New York. The New York Knickerbockers, founded in September 1845, were the first club to play along the lines of modern baseball rules; and in 1857 they and fifteen other clubs in the New York area formed the National Association of Base Ball Players, the sport’s first governing organisation. Membership of the NABBP grew rapidly, reaching 100 by 1865, and quadrupling to 400 by 1867.

The game was played on an amateur basis until, in 1869, the Cincinnati Red Stockings became the first side to declare themselves fully professional. With other clubs soon following their lead, the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players was established in 1871, running until 1875. It was replaced in 1876 by the National League of Professional Baseball Clubs.

In these early years of professional baseball, a host of leagues attempted to establish themselves in competition with the National League. The American Association was the most prominent, lasting from 1882 until 1891, and encouraging sides in America’s river cities and among working class populations. Its champions met the National League champions seven times between 1884 and 1890, in games which were precursors to the World Series.

From the decline of the American Association and the Western League developed the American League, which was declared a major league, on a par with the National League, in 1901. The two leagues have existed at the pinnacle of professional baseball ever since. The first World Series took place in 1903, between the National League pennant winners, the Pittsburgh Pirates, and the American League pennant winners, the Boston Americans. After a disagreement resulted in no game in 1904, the World Series has been a fixture of every subsequent year.

The first two decades of 20th Century baseball are referred to as the ‘Dead-ball era’, a period of few home runs and low scoring games which ended upon the emergence of Babe Ruth in 1919. Baseball’s farm system – where Minor League teams produce players for their Major League counterparts – was established through the 1930s. 15 April, 1947 saw Jackie Robinson become the first black player to play in the major leagues since the 1880s: he played for the Brooklyn Dodgers, under Branch Rickey, in the National League, and his achievement was matched a few months later in the American League by Larry Doby of the Cleveland Indians.

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Heroic Figures and Iconic Moments

Babe Ruth Calls His Shot: In the fifth inning of the third game of the 1932 World Series, Babe Ruth – according to popular conception, although Ruth would later readily confirm the account – pointed to the centre field bleachers, and proceeded to hit a home run precisely to his indicated spot.

The ‘Shot Heard ‘Round the World’: The most famous moment in baseball’s history. With the National League pennant at stake, and the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers having taken a game apiece, Bobby Thomson’s home run gave the Giants a 5-4 game victory and made them National League champions. This completed a remarkable turnabout in the Giants’ season, as for much of it they had been behind in the standings.

Thomson’s shot is best known via Russ Hodges’ commentary. Hodges was calling the game for WMCA-AM radio, a local station in New York. When Thomson hit his home run, Hodges’ repeated cry, ‘The Giants win the pennant!’, encapsulated and immortalised the emotion of the occasion.

It is worth noting that, such is the way in American sport, both the Giants and the Dodgers would relocate to California – to San Francisco and Los Angeles respectively – for the start of the 1958 season, where they have remained since.

‘The Catch’: A remarkable catch and throw made by Willie Mays of the New York Giants in the first game of the 1954 World Series, which prevented the Cleveland Indians from taking an early lead. The Giants went on to sweep the series.

Buckner’s Error: With the Boston Red Sox leading the New York Mets 3-2 in the 1986 World Series, a mistake by Bill Buckner – who let a rolling ball run through his legs – gave the Mets an extra-innings victory in game six. A comeback in game seven meant the Mets won the World Series, and left the Red Sox ruing Buckner, and lamenting whatever curse had continued to leave them without a World Series triumph since 1918.

Buckner has been rehabilitated in recent years, via an ESPN 30 for 30 documentary, ‘Catching Hell’, and an appearance on Curb Your Enthusiasm.

A 1949 poem by Ogden Nash, ‘Line-Up for Yesterday: An ABC of Baseball Immortals’, written for SPORT Magazine, offers an engaging guide to some of the major figures in baseball through the first half of the twentieth century. For instance, the letter G:

G is for Gehrig,

The Pride of the Stadium;

His record, pure gold,

His courage, pure radium.

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Major League Baseball’s Structure In the Here and Now

Today, thirty teams compete in Major League Baseball. There are fifteen in the National League, and fifteen in the American League: five teams in each league’s East, Central and West divisions. Baseball’s regular season consists of 162 games for each team, 81 at home and 81 away, which take place over a period of 180 days – meaning teams get about one day off in every ten. There is one break in the season, when teams take three days off in early July for the MLB All-Star Game.

Teams play the other four clubs in their division 19 times each (for a total of 76 games); 6 or 7 games against the other ten clubs who make up their league (for 66 games in total); and the remaining 20 games are inter-league fixtures. The 2013 season was the first to feature inter-league games throughout – they had previously been confined to two discrete periods of the campaign.

When the regular season concludes after these twenty-six weeks, around late September or early October, the postseason begins. Ten teams, five from each league, qualify for the postseason playoffs: the three division winners from each league, and the two sides from across each league with the next best records, who are classified ‘wild-cards’. Each team is seeded, from 1-5, based on their regular season records. The postseason playoffs then progress through four stages:

1. The two wild-card teams from each league play one another, Seed 5 at Seed 4, in a one-off Wild Card Game.

2. With four teams left in each league’s playoffs, two best-of-five series take place: Seed 4 or 5 vs. Seed 1; and Seed 3 vs. Seed 2. This stage of the playoffs is referred to as the Division Series.

3. The two victorious teams from the Division Series of the playoffs meet for a best-of-seven series, determining the National League and American League pennant winners. This stage of the playoffs is referred to as the League Championship Series.

4. The two pennant winners meet in the World Series, a best-of-seven series which results in a World Series Champion.

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The Game Itself Explicated

Teams are comprised of nine players, who take it in turns playing offence and defence, batting and running and fielding. Typically all nine players will feature in turn at bat and take up positions in the field. However in the American League, the designated hitter rule allows one player to bat for his team in place of the pitcher: the designated hitter will then only take part in the offence, while the pitcher remains part of the defence.

A game consists of nine innings, and each inning has two halves, or a top and a bottom. The away team bats at the top of the inning, and the home team bats at the bottom. Batters attempt to score runs by hitting the ball thrown by the opposition pitcher, and progressing the four bases of the baseball diamond: first, second, and third base, before reaching home plate. A home run is when a batter can round all four bases in one play, typically after hitting the ball over the outfield.

A team’s turn at bat ends when they have suffered three ‘outs’ – that is, when three of their batters have been given out. These outs come when a player is run out, either by being tagged with the ball when running, or by failing to reach a base before a fielder touches it with the ball; when a running batter’s ball is caught in flight; or when a batter strikes out by failing to hit the ball three times, or by caught out on third strike.

Whichever team has the most runs after nine innings wins. If the home team is ahead after the top of the ninth inning, the bottom of the inning becomes irrelevant, and is not played.

Baseball Score

A look at the score graphic above may be useful. After the two teams’ – the Toronto Blue Jays and the New York Yankees’ – scores in terms of runs (in this case, the score is 0-2), the highlighted diamonds indicate if the offensive team have any runners on bases. Here, the Yankees have a runner on the second base.

On the line below, the first segment indicates the inning currently being played, with the pointed arrowhead showing whether it is the top or the bottom of the inning. The next segment indicates the count. This refers to how many ‘balls’ the pitcher has thrown, versus how many strikes there are against the batter. If a pitcher pitches the ball outside of the batter’s strike zone, the pitch is counted as a ‘ball’; and if a pitcher throws four ‘balls’ the batter can walk to first base without having to make a hit. If a pitcher pitches three times within the strike zone, and the batter fails to make a hit, the batter strikes out. The count above is one-and-one: one ball and one strike.

The following segment shows how many outs the offensive team currently have suffered. The final segment shows the total number of pitches thrown by the current pitcher. A team’s starting pitcher will often be substituted for a relief pitcher as the innings run their course.

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Previewing the New Season

The Washington Nationals topped the National League East in 2014, with what was widely considered the best pitching rotation in Major League Baseball. Without losing any of their five starting pitchers from last season, in the offseason they added Max Scherzer on a seven-year, $210 million contract. This has made them many people’s favourites to feature come the World Series in October. Their main challengers in the NL East should be the Miami Marlins, powered by the big-hitting of Giancarlo Stanton, who back in November agreed the biggest deal in the history of sport: a contract extension worth $325 million over thirteen years.

The St. Louis Cardinals will remain the team to beat in the National League Central, with the Pittsburgh Pirates hot on their heels; and perhaps a challenge too courtesy of the Chicago Cubs, who during the offseason hired Joe Maddon as their new manager, and signed Jon Lester to lead their pitching rotation. The Cubs have faced controversy after eventually determining to send Kris Bryant – tipped as one of the best prospects in baseball – to the minors for the start of the campaign.

The San Francisco Giants defeated the Kansas City Royals, four games to three, to take the 2014 World Series. They are likely to once again go head-to-head in the National League West with the Los Angeles Dodgers: considered to have the best pitcher in the game in Clayton Kershaw, and who beat the Giants for the division title in 2014. But a reformulated San Diego Padres could also have a say.

In the American League East, the Toronto Blue Jays added Josh Donaldson and catcher Russel Martin to a strong offense, but failed to strengthen in the pitching department. With a group of talented youngsters headlined by Mookie Betts, David Ortiz still a potent designated hitter, and Hanley Ramirez added at the cost of $22 million a year, the Boston Red Sox will hope to oust last year’s surprise AL East title winners, the Baltimore Orioles.

Meanwhile in the American League Central, the Chicago White Sox were one of the busiest teams of the offseason, bringing in Jeff Samardzija, Melky Cabrera, Zach Duke, David Robertson, and Adam LaRoche. The White Sox will hope to dethrone the Detroit Tigers who – with star players Miguel Cabrera, Victor Martinez, and Justin Verlander, and David Price added last season – have taken the AL Central title four years in a row. The Kansas City Royals face a tough task repeating last year’s triumph, when they unexpectedly became American League champions; but the Cleveland Indians look well-rounded and ready to compete.

The Los Angeles Angels had the best regular season in Major League Baseball in 2014, taking the American League West with a total of 98 wins. They haven’t strengthened significantly in the offseason, and with the Oakland Athletics – who finished second in the division last year – having overhauled their roster, the Angels ought to be challenged for the division title by the Seattle Mariners, spearheaded by five-time All-Star pitcher Felix Hernandez.

The 2014 Major League Baseball season gets underway on Saturday, 22 March, in Australia: for the start of this season, MLB has scheduled the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks to play a series of two games at the Sydney Cricket Ground. The season will then commence in full from Sunday, 30 March.

The 2013 Major League Baseball season begins tomorrow night, 31 March, at 8:05 pm Eastern Time, with the Texas Rangers visiting the Houston Astros.

Justin Verlander of the Detroit Tigers – runners up to the San Francisco Giants in last year’s World Series – has signed a contract extension which, providing him with $180 million over the next seven years, makes him the highest earning pitcher in the game. For their part, the Giants have worked prior to this season on signing a number of their best players to extended contracts.

The Toronto Blue Jays have significantly increased their payroll: agreeing back in November a twelve-player trade with the Miami Marlins which saw Jose Reyes, Mark Buehrle and Josh Johnson among others move to the club; signing R.A. Dickey – the winner of the 2012 Cy Young Award for pitching – from the New York Mets; and also bringing in Melky Cabrera and Maicer Izturis.

The Los Angeles Dodgers’ payroll increased similarly last season, when they completed in late August a nine-player deal with the Boston Red Sox, signing up players including Josh Beckett, Adrian Gonzalez and Carl Crawford. The Dodgers will be hoping for success from these players in their first full seasons with the team.

The New York Yankees have this week been declared the most valuable team in US sport, valued by Forbes at $2.3 billion and thereby overtaking the NFL’s Dallas Cowboys. Their preparations for the baseball season are not going well, however, with Derek Jeter, Alex Rodriguez, Mark Teixeira and Mariano Rivera all injured.

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How Do I Get Involved?

You pick a team, buy the relevant baseball cap from a nearby sports store, and settle down to watch the games. ESPN, Fox and TBS have national broadcasting rights in America. ESPN also shows games via its channels and affiliates across Europe. However, the best way to really follow the MLB season is via MLB.TV. Their service provides, via monthly or yearly subscription, live broadcasting of every single MLB game – and there are almost 2,500 in total – which isn’t being shown locally on live television. Those that are being shown live are broadcast instead via radio, and become available to watch a few days after the fact.

The service is comprehensive: all games are stored and can be watched or listened to in retrospect at any point through the season; a range of highlights videos are available; and the service is rich in news, summaries and statistics. $19.99 a month gives access to all of the content via the internet; an additional $5 allows you to watch videos from both teams’ perspectives, and to access the content via your phones and video consoles. I started paying attention to baseball in 2012, and used MLB.TV for some of the season, and the service is impressive – especially contrasted, for instance, with the sort of package you receive paying up to £50 a month for Premier League football via Sky.

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