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The Ultimate Individual Sport

Last night, I read a very silly article on Salon.com. The second paragraph from said article:

This fetishization of the individual has intensified since the 1980s. We see it in political activists’ focus on presidential elections to the exclusion of almost all other political arenas. We see it in young people who have traded in idealistic “save the world” goals for dreams of celebrity. We see it in the revival of Ayn Rand’s Objectivism as a powerful political ideology in Congress. We see it in both the left and the right mindlessly and unquestioningly parroting whichever cable-news deity they revere. Now, we see it even in America’s ultimate team sport.

Let’s forget the political ramblings and focus on that sentence in bold.

Were this not a depository for high-quality musings on the sport of baseball, I’m sure many would be left wondering exactly which sport the author were referring to. If it weren’t for the “America” qualification, my first guess would have been Austrailian Rules Football or maybe hockey. Soccer relies on the intricate interactions of 11 players on each side all at once, as does our football. Basketball requires a well-organized offense with picks and passing and cutting. Even NASCAR, unwatchable as I find it, has pit crews, one of the most impressive team displays in sports.

But no, the author is referring to baseball. The game where, for 90% of the live action, it is merely pitcher versus batter. Even defense, the most team-oriented aspect of sports, is effectively devoid of teamwork outside of the double play and relay throws. Baseball is the sport where “greater than the sum of its parts” is less a thing that actually happens and more a handhold for baffled pundits when a team performs better than expected.

The “team aspect” makes for great talking points at the bar or at the family barbecue, but those who have actually played the game — yes, a FanGraphs writer is playing this card — surely know better. They know that helpless feeling of watching a teammate bat in the bottom of the last inning, knowing no matter how loud you yell or how much you want it, literally nothing you can do impacts the result on the field. Or maybe that feeling on the mound, as you watch a batted ball scream towards the team’s worst fielder, just hoping that maybe this once he keeps his glove down, or just this one goddamn time your shortstop would make a fucking play.

I am Zack’s Raging Bile Duct.

There is no other characteristic of baseball that sets it apart from the other team sports more than the striking amount of individualism. Passing, blocking, picking, help defense, formations. None of these exist in baseball. The only teamwork we find in baseball terminology is the sacrifice. Yes, the sacrifice, the one show of teamwork, is a play repeatedly shown to actually be a detriment to a team’s chances of winning. What a team sport!

But maybe that’s the beauty of baseball as a team sport. Those who have been a part — player, coach, trainer, whatever — of a real live baseball team know that baseball team bonding reaches as deep as those in any other team sport despite the inherently separate and discrete nature of the game. We as baseball players learn to embrace the individual nature of the game, but we also learn to share our failures — rarely our successes, as baseball is a game of individual failure — and make them our own, as a team. And maybe, in a way, that makes baseball the ultimate team sport. But, for me, I think it makes baseball the ultimate individual sport. There just happens to be 25 men playing it together.