Play Ball!

It’s no secret that I’m a bit of a free spirit with a bad case of wanderlust. I can’t count the amount of times I’ve thrown the necessities into a backpack and left on some adventure for a day or a weekend or who knows how long. With that in mind, welcome to the chaos of this past week. A few months back, my partner and I discovered that one of our favorite bands, Bear vs Shark, were reuniting for a few shows in select cities. For years, we told each other if they ever reunited, we would travel wherever to see it, and since they’re a Detroit band, we were prepared to have to travel to Michigan. The good news? We only had to travel to San Francisco. But man, was it one whirlwind of a trip. Driving from Seattle to San Fran and back in 4½ days is no joke. Anyway, I mention that only because I realize a post talking about my depression and anxiety followed by a week+ of silence could be seen as bad form. Or maybe I’m over thinking it (which I’m prone to do). But in reality, over half my week was simply occupied with other concerns.

Speaking of other concerns, the World Series begins tonight! I love baseball. There’s something wonderful about sitting in a ballpark on a summer evening, overpriced beer and peanuts in hand, alternating between action and conversation in tune with the rhythms of the game. Moving along in three-out increments, it’s impossible to determine how long each half inning will take and what will occur in that time. Baseball, then, is a patient sport. And as a fan of baseball, I’m incredibly excited for the Cubs to be in the series for the first time in over 70 years. They’re an iconic, historic team who plays in one of my favorite ballparks, Wrigley Field. While I haven’t been fortunate enough to catch a game at Wrigley, I did have the opportunity to tour the park; I even got to stand on the field behind home plate. Looking at the signature ivy that lines the outfield wall from that perspective…it’s something I’ll never forget.

I dunno if it’s just me, but I find ballparks themselves to be fascinating structures. Every time I watch a game, I inevitably end up thinking about how the ballpark itself shapes the action and is thus an actor in the game. That is, the park in which a game is played has a tangible impact on the outcome of said game. I know some would say this is the same for any sporting event, given factors such as hometown crowds and, for outdoor sports, climate. However, most team sports are played on a regulation field. When you watch/play American football, soccer, hockey, basketball, rugby, etc., you may notice individualized aspects of the building (like the giant Heinz ketchup bottle in Heinz Field in Pittsburgh), but the playing fields themselves are all uniform, all conform to the regulations of the sport.

But not baseball, not ballparks. Baseball is different — each ballpark has its own unique characteristics that impact the gameplay itself. That’s not to say the field is unregulated; the distance between each of the bases, the distance of the pitcher from home plate (in essence, the baseball diamond itself, the infield) is absolutely regulated. However, it’s when we get into the outfield that things get interesting. For starters, every park’s outfield is different. While the general shape is the same (you have a curved wall at the back of the park, with the longest distance from home plate to the wall being in center field), the specific curve and the distance from home plate varies. Yankee Stadium is famous for the short distance between home plate and the right field wall, which leads to an increase in home runs in that park. Additionally, the height of the wall itself is a factor. For instance, the left field wall at Fenway, the Red Sox stadium, is nicknamed “The Green Monster” for its imposing height; a home run in most other parks get stopped by this wall. Even foul territory impacts gameplay. Since parks are constructed differently, the size and shape of foul territory changes. Some parks have a large amount of space between the infield and the dugout/seats; this means there is more of an opportunity for a pop up that would drift into the stands elsewhere to be caught by a player, leading to an out. Or, perhaps there is very little foul territory in the outfield, like at the previously mentioned Fenway, so nearly every shot to the outfield is fair and playable.

I mention these brief examples to demonstrate how baseball players don’t just play against the opposing team, they very much play against/with the park as well. Professional ball players must be rhetorically attuned to the way the park shapes the action and adjust their gameplay strategy accordingly. Additionally, home field advantage is painfully real – if half of your games every year occur in the same place, you’re going to intimately learn how to read and interact with the park. The sheer amount of time a team spends in their own ballpark means a heightened rhetorical sensitivity to the ways that park acts on the game.

I’ve never looked into what work has been done on ballparks, materiality, and the rhetoric of baseball. I’d be shocked if I’m original in my thinking or observations. But I’ve been musing over it for so long, I felt I had to get it out of my head and into writing. And who knows, if there hasn’t been a lot of work done to this extent, maybe I have another future project on my hands (like I don’t already have enough of those. Silly brain won’t stop being curious about things). But for now, I’ll watch the World Series, hoping to see the Cubs win it for the first time in over 100 years.