The Stadium Experience: Defense

I have recently come to believe that defense is the most important thing about watching baseball games in person. It occupies the most of our time, it captures the most of our imagination,  and in person,  it’s the easiest thing for fans to see. Here are five reasons why defense is integral to the stadium experience:

1. Space, or The Anti-Television Experience

The television viewing experience is claustrophobic. You are zoomed in behind the pitcher’s mound for a close-in view of the plate. As balls are batted into play and the game unfolds, your scope is limited to what the camera man and producers decide to reveal. You don’t see the spectrum of players standing patiently between pitches. You don’t get an idea of who is backing up who on any given play. You are fed a certain version of the game – a slice that is forced to stand in for the whole. You are required to infer every subtle defensive shift, for example. Your visual understanding of the game is affected by the blathering of announcers. Your field vision is obscured by graphics.

In other words, on television, you have no concept of space. You are so busy tracking the ball and the batter and listening to the analysis that it’s difficult to grasp the sheer distance an outfielder runs to make a spectacular catch. It’s impossible to comprehend the speed of a grounder as it jumps off the bat and hops off the chest of a waiting third baseman. In person, baseball is defined by space. Most of what we see is space.

2. Speed

In person, greatness happens much faster. One can blink and miss a spectacular, game-altering play. Or one can focus and see something that feels so much more impressive, so much more sudden, than a highlight on television. The entire sequence of pitch to contact to catch, for instance, is mere seconds long. I went to a Mariners-A’s game at Safeco Field yesterday. It was a terrible game, but Coco Crisp made a catch that frightened me. He ran straight back at full speed and caught a Miguel Olivo drive a step from the center field wall, slamming into it hard. The entire play happened in an instant. A gasp, a catch, a momentary hesitation as Crisp lay on the ground. I was hundreds of yards away. The stadium was practically empty. Yet no television camera could do the moment justice.

3. Multiple Dimensions

The challenge of simultaneously tracking ball and runner and fielder creates a holistic experience. It gives a better sense of the different systems of the ballgame. When a first baseman makes a diving stop and fires to second for the first half of the double play we are caught up in the urgency of not just the catch and the throw and the turn, but the slide into second and the runner coming up the line at first. There is an element of this urgency on television, but we can’t see all it. We can’t feel it.

4. Errors

Errors are always more stunning in person. They are discomforting. We often don’t know whether the ball went through a fielder’s legs or just rolled beside him. We can’t tell from a distance whether a grounder took a bad hop. Our vision of fly balls and line drives is askew – think of how many times per game the crowd rises to its feet to cheer a potential home run that does not even reach the warning track. Players are not the only ones who misread batted balls. We do too.

5. Down Time

In person, defensive players are who we interact with. We see them warm up between innings. We (collectively, maybe not you or I), beg ungraciously for a ball. We heckle them the most. We adore them the most. We watch them the most closely. In the field, personalities reveal themselves slowly. Jayson Werth stands around right field looking bored, pacing small circles, playing with his glove. Ichiro stretches and contorts his body and seems to not even realize it. Derek Jeter asserts grace and confidence in just the way he walks — zone rating be damned, sayeth the scout sitting above the dugout, just look at him. No matter where you’re sitting in the stands, almost without exception, the closest player on the field is a defensive player. We’re drawn to what’s already in front of us.

6 Responses to “The Stadium Experience: Defense”

  • Yes, yes, yes. Television never shows you how the fielders line up to receive/cut-off throws from the outfield. A few enlightened cameramen/directors are slowly learning to take advantage of wide screen televisions and show broader perspectives. Some even let you watch a pitch from behind the catcher, which gives a little more of a panoramic view.

    They still don’t address my pet peeve, which is watching runners score. Runner on second, ball hit into the corner, and most directors will pick up Prince Fielder as he rounds third on his 45-second trip home. Meanwhile, the ball has taken a funny carom past the right fielder, who digs it out and overthrows the cutoff man, allowing the batter to dive headfirst into third, barely safe. What we saw was Prince rolling home and the cloud of dust next to the umpire signalling “safe.” (That’s an exaggeration, but not by much.)

    Drives me crazy.

  • And the collective joy of being there to see something. At the Diablos Rojos vs. Petroleros game yesterday, there was a ball whacked that looked like it was going out. The Diablos’ centerfielder snagged it at the fence, pelted it back to the second baseman who relayed it to the firstbaseman to get the runner furiously trying to get back. It would’ve looked great on TV, but the space and distances are, as you say, more real, and it was the best play of the game. The CF was cheered all the way off the field.

  • Very well said Eric. Baseball in person is so much better than on the TV. That’s not necessarily true of other sports, in my opinion, and I think you’ve hit on exactly why. Baseball is an expansive game that the constraints of television shackles.

    On a related note, this helps explain to me a problem I’ve been having. People lament the increase in strikeouts and walks in baseball, because it makes the game more boring. As a fan who, regrettably, has been forced to watch almost exclusively on TV for the last few years, I didn’t get it. Strikeouts and walks are very exciting on TV, because they are the epitome of the batter vs. pitcher battle. For a fan in the stands, however, the vast, expansive space that gives the game so much of its appeal becomes irrelevant when those one on one battles become more frequent and more protracted.

  • I agree with all of you on everything you have said, including Craig’s story, which is really not an assertion at all. I still agree.

    Also, Paul, if you think there’s a post in that problem, I’d love it if you went ahead.

  • I still always wonder why TV directors absolutely refuse to show fans at home one of baseball’s most exciting plays: the outfield assist. Is there any possible reason why we should be shown a close up of the runner rounding the bases? That provides almost no useful information to the viewer. We should get a wide angle shot of the fielder coming up and throwing, perhaps with inset frames in the corners to show where the base runners are.

    There is nothing like seeing an outfielder fire a missile 150 feet to beat a runner by a fraction of a second. I guess it’s better to see a closeup of a guy running instead.

  • @ JP
    I could not agree more, especially with the vistas available with wide-screen, high-definition television.

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