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.
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.
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.