Re-imagining Baseball


This correspondence comes from the 43rd annual SABR convention in Philadelphia, PA. Earlier this morning, I watched a panel presentation titled “Imagining Baseball” which featured Eric Rolfe Greenberg, Steve Wulf, and Dr. Mark W. Cooper who are, at least in terms of baseball, famous for writing a baseball novel, being one of the original members of the Rotisserie League, and owning an expansive collection of baseball board games, respectively. The whole shebang was moderated by Baseball’s Grandpa, John Thorn. It was engaging to hear people discuss how baseball is played in their head, especially considering that so much of baseball is played in our heads. If we listen, we are creating the space. If we read a recap of some kind, even more so. Even watching a game, we may be predicting or wishing the next play, or perhaps recounting what could have happened. It’s just as much mental as it is visual or audible, perhaps even more so.

Since I’m usually terribly upset with the mundaneness of life in general, I often try to combat my abject fear of the normal by thinking about the world if little things — or sometimes big things — were different. The parallel universe and/or butterfly effect concept interests me — how a small decision made by some person or thing¬† would change the course of our species. On a smaller scale, I fantasize in this manner with regards to baseball. What if there were four outs? Foul balls did not always count as strikes. What if that were the case today? Say if someone hit a ball out of the park, it counted instead as an out. What if the shortstop went away? What if there was a fourth outfielder? Will these dumb questions ever end?

Yes, they will. I am not the only one to have thought of this, of course, nor am I claiming to have. So stop saying I’m claiming that I am. Craig Robinson made an illustration regarding baseball having five bases. Sam Miller put pits all around the infield. I’d tell you to put your own fun ideas in the comments, but you were already going to do that, weren’t you? Oops, another question. These can be simple fleeting thoughts, or deep, penetrating thought experiments, with all the repercussions and changes to stats and legacies considered.¬† I’ve done a little of this in these very pages.

There really isn’t a point to the whole thing, other than perhaps a short amount of mental amusement. And maybe that’s point enough. It’s never a real terrible thing to exercise one’s mind. But I think it’s an extension of the way we looked at the game when we were kids, perhaps. In back yards and sand lots we had to imagine most of the fielders, the foul poles, and where the outfield was. Hell, sometimes we were by ourselves and had to imagine the whole damn thing. Whatever the case, our brains were the muscle being used most. Well, that’s probably always the case, and the brain isn’t really a muscle, but you get the idea.

But we should continue this as adults and often, I believe. Not just for the sake of good mental workouts, not because we should behave like children more often, but because it keeps us engaged in a meaningful way. We shouldn’t just try and “fix” the game, make it a better and fairer thing. That’s an exercise in self-aggrandizing. We should create alternate universes, worlds where the butterfly didn’t flap its wings, or where the helmets are wood and the bats are plastic. We should put pits outside the batter’s box. Because it helps us dream about baseball, which is what we should have been doing all along.

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David G. Temple is the Managing Editor of TechGraphs and a contributor to FanGraphs, NotGraphs and The Hardball Times. He hosts the award-eligible podcast Stealing Home. Dayn Perry once called him a "Bible Made of Lasers." Follow him on Twitter @davidgtemple.

21 Responses to “Re-imagining Baseball”

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  1. Matt O'Neal says:

    Nice read, David. This kind of hits home to why many of us are baseball fans to begin with. It really is an exercise in mental amusement. While I love watching five games at once on a big TV, I still like sitting on the porch listening to a game on the radio. To me, that’s entertainment. And why I love the game.

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  2. Bart says:

    At my high school, we used to play a game in practice where after every fielding opportunity, players would rotate one spot counterclockwise. First base would go to right, right would go to center, etc. The catcher would stay in the same place just so we would not have to switch gear. Would be interesting if it were mandatory. Not sure what types of players teams would focus on getting if they had to play all positions.

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  3. tz says:

    Love the article, but I could do without the illustration.

    Looks too much like the surgeon’s diagram of my recent lobotomy.

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  4. cass says:

    Trees! Baseball needs trees! Who wants just a plain old field when, just like my backyard growing up, it could have trees all over it? Imagine fielders having to avoid running into the trees. Imagine the ball bouncing off the tree and causing havoc. I don’t have to imagine, because this is how things were in my backyard. But what if MLB parks were like that? Most other parks have trees – city parks, state parks, national parks – why not ballparks? Apple trees are as American as apple pie. Let’s put some in the outfield!

    (Thanks for linking to the pits article – hilarious.

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  5. cass says:

    I should also note that our backyard, while big by backyard standards, was not that big. And as my brothers and I got bigger, it became easier and easier to hit a whiffle ball over the fence. Our mother tried to tell us that a ball over the fence was an out, not a home run, because we kept losing so many balls in the woods over the fence. But we never listened. Any ball where you are punished for hitting a ball too far is not a sport at all. This is why soccer is not very popular.

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  6. JMS says:

    I’ve always wanted teams to have more distinct home field advantages. E.g.:

    Arizona’s home outfield is entirely comprised of sand.
    The bases at Citi form a trapezoid, with second and third only being 50 feet apart.
    Philly can have a 10x10x10 spike-lined pit in right center [ground rule double if hit into]
    Kansas city can have enormous hohos/hahas all over the infield.

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  7. JuanPierreDoesSteroids says:

    I’ve always wondered if eliminating the shorstop in favor of a 4th outfielder would be a good idea or not. In theory, I think you could arrange it in a way that you rarely give up in hits on balls in plays that aren’t singles. But you would likely give up alot more singles. And most plays that have need a cutoff man or the pitcher backing up a base MAY not need all 6 infielders anyways.

    Am I the only one who has wondered this?

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  8. reillocity says:

    Something to do with occasionally running the bases in reverse order – home to third to second to first to home. Like whenever there are no runners on base the batter has the option to run towards first or third when he hits the ball, but once he starts going in a direction he has to continue in that direction for the rest of the play and if he happens to reach base then the remainder of the inning is played in that bases order direction or at least until there are no runners on base again during it.

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  9. Josh M says:

    What if Chuck Knoblauch could actually throw the ball where he wanted it to go?

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  10. dave d says:

    I always thought the most fun change would be that if you cross home plate, you have the option of trying to run to first. It would be treated as a steal of first, the run always scores, but once committed, the runner must advance to first, as he cannot return home safely. Home runs would be the exception, of course, slightly lowering the value of a home run.

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  11. binqasim says:

    Some nice recollections there.

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  12. awalnoha says:

    What if the catcher dropped the 3rd strike, it was not an out, the runner could attempt to get to first and had to be thrown out like a regular hit. That would be hilarious.

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  13. mrfood says:

    A runner going from first to second should be able to keep his fielding glove, and pick a throw off from 2b/ss and throw it somehwere into the field of play – it would have to be between the foul lines – if a defender catches the throw it would still count as a double play, and if a defender retrieves the throw, he can still throw it to a base for a force out.

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  14. mrfood says:

    Also, a player should be required to moonwalk around the bases if he hits a walkoff homerun. If a playoff walkoff homerun occurs, the batsman shall be required to cartwheel from 3rd to home, unless the player cannot do a cartwheel, in which case the game does not end, the score remains tied, or will go to a tie, and play continues. If a World Series clinching walkoff homerun occurs, the batsman shall be required to serve a full term as the team city’s mayor, and if he is recalled or embroiled in scandal, the title reverts to the losing team.

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  15. Darkstone42 says:

    Devising an entirely internally consistent fiction is an outstandingly intellectually challenging practice. Not just asking “what if?” but subsequently answering that question, trying to account for every variable.

    Doing it with baseball also makes it fun. :)

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