A Game of Forms

I’m not sure I should admit this, because it’ll probably destroy any chance I have of writing for The Classical, but I know nothing about bullfighting. This is at least partially my fault; I have a longstanding rule that when I read the word “bull” in a Hemingway novel, I immediately skip forward to the next chapter. But however elaborate and nonsensical the version of bullfighting that exists in my head, I tend to think of it as a rather graceful sport. The bull charges, the bullfighter glides just out of reach, and the scene continues like a dance until, again in my mind, just before bull or man is bloodily gored in front of thousands of men, women and children. The sky is blue. There are trumpets in the background.

I relate this anecdote to provide context for my mood on Monday morning. It looked to be an arduous week, and so as I prepared my office I gave myself a little treat: I dialed up mlb.tv and enjoyed the phenomenon of position players pitching. There stood Chris Davis, who according to the media guides weighs thirteen pounds less than Seattle Seahawks defensive end Bruce Irvin, as he cast his entire repertoire at the Boston Red Sox in the bottom of the 16th. There was the fastball clocking 89, or perhaps a tick faster than Jered Weaver’s, but even more enjoyable was the indecisive knuckle-change that seemed to give up halfway to the plate.

It was one of his mistakes, however, that led to what drew my interest. With a runner on first, one of Davis’ fastballs found itself up and over the plate, and Mike Aviles relocated it to te base of the left-center wall. Marlon Byrd rounded third and met Matt Wieters.

I have, like many people, complained about catchers blocking the plate as they wait for the ball. The home plate collision invoked a new round of controversy after it felled Buster Posey last year, but I’ve long found the practice distasteful. Catchers are no more entitled to the runner’s path than any other fielder. In this case, however, the catcher stood well in front of the plate, stretching out to receive the relay at its earliest point and sweep the tag back over the plate. The throw was true and early. Wieters turned. Byrd threw his left elbow into the catcher’s ribs. The two men sprawled over, the dust billowed, and Wieters held up his mitt dramatically to reveal the ball still inside. The crowd cheered; the inning was over.

The play felt wrong to me. It felt dirty.

I realize I am in the minority in this respect. The rules don’t talk about home plate collisions in the same sense that the U.S. Constitution fails to tackle abortion: like government, the game of baseball evolves, however slowly, as a sort of social contract between the representatives and the People. In this sense the home plate collision is baseball’s pittance to its fans, a rare acquiescence to the natural fan appeal of goonery. Hockey has its referee-sanctioned fistfights, football has its everything; baseball, in comparison, has merely sacrificed Ray Fosse to the altar of bloodlust.

My idealized baseball would involve no contact at all between the players beyond the tag.I’d like to leave the collisions behind, relegating them to the memories of belt-grabbing and knee-high cleats. My ideal form of baseball is more like my version of Hemingway’s version of bullfighting, an ethereal grace under pressure. In fact, my idealized baseball would involve no contact at all between the players beyond the tag; every moment in baseball centers on each player’s interaction with the ball, not each other. This renders the tag as the most potent and percussive act in the game, like the flourish of the cape. The rest of the game becomes a sort of waltz, performed either by Kinsella’s ghosts or Plato’s forms, both in some way seeking perfection.

This is romantic of me, I realize. But the game is moving this way on its own accord, becoming more visual and less visceral. The players themselves become less real as they are increasingly separated from the fan by distance, security and tax bracket. The game has become an increasingly televised event as baseball’s culture spreads across the country and globe. And perhaps most vitally, the game itself is no longer held in common between player and fan; fewer and fewer people play the game they love, preferring to watch passively. This is not a sign of decay, only change; we as fans love our game a little differently than we once did. Baseball is more symbolic, less tangible than it once was.

Maybe that’s why I felt so strongly about Byrd’s slide; after all, he wasn’t trying to hurt Wieters, nor break any rules. What he did wasn’t wrong. It just wasn’t the baseball I’ve romanticized, that we all romanticize to a certain degree. When Alex Rodriguez tried to slap a ball out of a player’s glove a few years ago, he was condemned, not for his desire to win, but by his gaucheness. This felt the same. The game, for me, is greatest when it is at its most gentlemanly, and it’s a shame that Wieters was unable to flick his wrist and tap the bull as it charged toward him.

4 Responses to “A Game of Forms”

  • But Wieters *was* able “to flick his wrist and tap the bull as it charged toward him.” He chose instead to block the plate, just as Byrd chose to collide with him. Players choose to avoid collisions at the plate all the time–probably more often than they choose to collide. And that’s when “baseball is more symbolic, less tangible than it once was.” There are elements of baseball that are easily romanticized, but to romanticize the game in toto is to ignore the truth of competition and human nature, a truth that leads two grown men to risk their livelihoods for a single run in early May.

  • I’ve watched the replay a few times now, and what I see just doesn’t seem to match what you saw. This is the best screen capture I can get, right as Wieters has caught the relay and is turning toward the runner. From my vantage, he looks to be at least a foot in front of the plate. As Byrd slides, his feet do go directly to the plate, but he twists his upper body, and you can already see his elbows going up to make contact with Wieters.

    Byrd has obviously made his choice. But to be honest, I don’t see how Wieters can avoid this collision; he is in the position he must be in to make a clean tag (and is instead forced to brace himself for impact).

    Competition and human nature can be, to some degree, corralled. We saw it earlier this week when Cole Hamels was suspended for intentionally throwing at Bryce Harper. There’s always going to be a fine line between competition and sportsmanship, but it’s a line I believe we have the power to moderate, and discuss.

  • When I say Wieters chose the collision, I mean he stayed at the plate to receive the ball. Like Posey last season, he did so from a vulnerable position, but unlike Posey he was prepared for a collision and he turned from the impact. Byrd made a clean play. He has every right to be within an arm’s length of either side of the plate. His elbows went up because he was going into a classic blocking position with arms crossed. He did not throw an elbow, he protected himself (and Wieters) by crossing his arms. It happened very fast. As I mentioned on Twitter, this play is different than A-Rod’s because it’s at home plate, where a run is at stake, and because the catcher is protected with armor and fully anticipating contact. If Wieters doesn’t want the play, he wouldn’t drop to his knees and turn into the baseline, he would field the ball from his feet and try a sweep tag.

    Human nature and competition can be corralled. Baseball polices itself pretty well, and Hamels was crushed with criticism. Yours is the only criticism I’ve seen of Byrd’s play. Most telling of all, is that Wieters looks Byrd in the eye after the call has been made, and taps him on the hip with his glove as if to say, “We’re cool, that was good old fashioned hardball.”

    I should really say, though, that I like your essay a lot. It gets at the ways we watch the game and the ways it makes us think. It got me thinking.

  • I have no patience with catchers who block the plate without the ball. The rules are the same for all bases. On the other hand, the plate (or any base) almost has to be blocked in order to apply a tag, even if only with the glove. Remember leaning as a kid how to tag a runner at the bag: catch the ball, and drop your glove hand to the ground between the base and the runner. make him tag himself out. Since the runner does not have to stop at home plate as he does at other bases–and the catcher cannot guarantee where he will have to receive the throw–his best chance for a tag is often by standing in front of the plate and essentially letting the runner tag himself out. The rules also say the fielder/catcher must hold the ball for it to be a legal tag, strongly implying the runner is allowed to use force to knock the ball loose.

    We’re left with two well-defined positions: the fielder cannot block the base/plate without the ball for a tag, and the runner may not go out of his way to make contact. What remains is the fielder/catcher asserting his right to make a play as it should be made, and the runner exercising his right to the base. Occasionally, this will cause a conflict with the laws of physics; two solid objects may not occupy the same space at the same time.

    I don;t like to see any more contact than necessary in baseball, either. But the game stems from throwing a hard ball toward another relatively unprotected person at 90+ mph. It’s a rough game at its core.

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