ANOTHER baseball season is under way. It will be a good season. Every baseball season is a good one. The strength of the game is proved year after year, despite expansion teams (which in recent years have done no worse than the old St. Louis Browns used to do season after season) and changes in rules and record-keeping. The designated-hitter experiment seems to have done no lasting harm. The livelier ball has been introduced, but the relative strength of hitters and pitchers seems to be in reasonable balance. The cowhide cover, proposed as a substitute for horsehide, has been rejected. The hardwood bat has survived the onslaught of aluminum and plastic substitutes.
Baseball, forever resilient, has adjusted to night games, to artificial turf, to the Astrodome, and to Charlie Finley.
The reason is not a matter of accident. It is a matter of essence, for baseball is different from other games. Its strength is inherent, metaphysical. Why? The game has a singular and distinctive relationship to time. Only baseball can be called a ``pastime.'' Baseball is above or outside time.
Football, basketball, hockey, and soccer are arbitrarily divided into measured quarters, halves, or periods. They are controlled, even dominated by time. Not so of baseball, which either ignores time or dominates it. An inning theoretically can go on forever. The same, of course, is true of a game.
Interruptions generally are limited to ``acts of God,'' such as darkness or rain, or to cultural and quasi-natural occurrences, such as curfew or midnight (in games played under the lights). If for some reason - dust in a batter's eye, rain, or the like - a baseball game must be halted, ``time out'' is not taken. Rather, time is ``called'' by the umpire. Theoretically, time could be ``called'' and remain ``called'' forever.
Baseball is played in a unique spatial frame. Other games are played inside defined and limited areas: rectangular or near-rectangular fields, floors, or rinks. Not so with baseball.
Baseball is played within the lines of a projection from home plate, starting from the point of a 90-degree angle and extending to infinity. Were it not for the intervention of fences, buildings, mountains, and other obstacles in space, a baseball traveling within the ultimate projection of the first and third base lines could be fair and infinitely in play. Baseballs never absolutely go out of bounds. They are either fair or foul, and even foul balls are, within limits, playable and are part of the game.
Baseball is distinguished from other games also in the way it is controlled by umpires. An umpire is very different from a referee, a field judge, or a linesman. One occasionally hears the cry ``Fire the referee,'' but one seldom hears ``Kill the referee.'' That cry is reserved for umpires with good reason.
Umpires have to be dealt with absolutely, for their power is absolute. Referees are men called or appointed. Umpires, by contrast, seem to exist by their own right and exercise undelegated power that is not to be reviewed. They are not asked to make judgments. They make them. The word itself carries this strength. It is derived from the old French word nompere, meaning one who is alone or without a peer (literally, without a father or superior).
Baseball is different from other major sports in two other significant ways. First, the individual is under constant surveillance. At all times, one player, at least, is personally accountable. In football a player may fall down and get up with mud all over him, and no one knows whether he has done his job. In basketball and in hockey, it is difficult to follow the action and measure the responsibility of each player.
Second, baseball is a game of records, team and individual. The bookkeeping is balanced. It shows earned runs and unearned runs. Hits are credited to batters and debited to pitchers. Errors are recorded along with assists and putouts. Times at bat, home runs, triples, singles, sacrifices, strikeouts, passed balls, wild pitches, walks, balks, runs batted in, runs scored, and batting, fielding, and pitching averages are all in the book. The game is played for the game, but also for the record.
The game is the same whether played in the Astrodome, in Yankee Stadium, or as described by Robert Fitzgerald in his poem, ``Cob Would Have Caught It'':
In sunburnt parks where Sundays lie, Or the wide wastes beyond the cities.