Why baseball is boring

I went to Yankee Stadium for the first time on Sunday. It’s an impressive place, easy to navigate, and spacious enough to legitimately have a section called The Great Hall. The game was a high-scoring one, in the early innings at least, as the teams put up 6 runs. It was mildly exciting as baseball goes.

But, as I explained to Eric, I was bored. Because baseball is an inherently boring sport. There is one reason, unrelated to Joe Morgan, why this is so: defense is just defense.

In every other sport – indeed, in every other great human endeavor – defense can mean offense. Football. Basketball. War. Chess. Boxing. Tennis. Monopoly. Love. Soccer. Rhetorical debate. Poker. Arm wrestling. Hockey. Personal bankruptcy. You can score off a steal, a deeply-placed return of serve, a talented accountant.

But not in baseball. While on defense, all you can do is stop the other team. Then you stop them again. Then stop them one more time. Make perhaps the greatest catch in a decade – I’m thinking, in particular, of leaping over a wall, pulling back a home run, bobbling the ball, then grabbing it with your free hand while falling to the ground – and it’s just that. A catch, one of many in a game, signifying nothing (For a mildly-related debunking of the myth of momentum, or more specifically, “getting hot,” in sports, skip 22 minutes into this episode of Radio Lab.) Incredible play! Now go, umm, do it again!

Imagine the scene, if you will. It’s 1987, the Eastern Conference finals. Your team is down one to the Detroit Pistons, who are inbounding the ball with 5 seconds to play – you, by the way, are Larry Bird. Isaiah Thomas makes a sloppy pass and you – Larry Bird – steal the ball away, and turn to find a streaking teammate for the game-winning bucket.

But wait! This is baseball, so you must politely give the ball back to the other team, or, if you’re fortunate enough to have already stolen the ball twice, you may amble back to your dugout, wait through three minutes of some Nickelback song, and then you can go make a play that could win the game for your team (if, of course, you are one of the next three batters allowed to participate in the game).

Cricket is the only sport that comes close to baseball in its spurning of those who specialize in forced fumbles, outlet passes, and short-handed goals. And we all know how exciting cricket* is.

*I actually think cricket is more exciting than it is given credit for, much more exciting than baseball. I will explain in a subsequent post.

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2 responses to “Why baseball is boring

  1. Your point on defense potentially initiating offense in most other sports is well taken. (Although I don’t think the lack of any sort of “offense” or “defense” as they’re traditionally understood affects the excitement of, say, the 100-meter dash.)

    However, I don’t think “boring” is the right term to use to describe what you’re talking about w/r/t baseball. (Sorry. I don’t have a right term handy right now.) The reason is, baseball is so dissimilar from pretty much every other spectator sport, so you can’t enter a baseball game with the same expectations for excitement that you would have for another sport. To put it another way, it’s structurally impossible for baseball to be as not-boring as football or basketball. To put it a third way, apples and oranges.

    These structural reasons aren’t meant to be like, excuses for baseball’s “boring”-ness (to borrow your term). Rather, they’re just meant to illustrate how we experience a baseball game much differently than we experience other games. Firstly, unlike a football, basketball, hockey, or soccer game, baseball is untimed. There’s a minimum number of innings, of course (which can be blown through in the event of a tie score); there’s a finite number of outs that a team has to work with in a given frame (which, theoretically at least, they could potentially never exhaust). But by and large, you’ll never have anything like a buzzer-beater or a pulled goalie or a two minute drill. Baseball isn’t boring if you never have that expectation to begin with.

    Secondly, in baseball, the action is actually initiated by the defense. Aside from kickoffs and punts, which happen extremely rarely compared to snaps from center, is there any sport for which this can be said? This is a huge philosophical difference between baseball and other sports, which carries its own unique potential for non-boring-ness.

    Thirdly, baseball isn’t played on a standard surface. The distance between the bases is the same everywhere, but that’s just about where the similarities between ballparks ends. If one stadium can have a 37-foot wall in left field, and another can have a flagpole in center, we need to have different expectations for this particular game. (Again, this isn’t a commentary on how field-size affects relative non-boring-ness, just that there are some radically different things about baseball that need to be factored in when comparing it to other games.)

    Basically, other sports, from the get-go, are designed for defense to lead to offense. It’s like being disappointed that your dog can’t play the guitar. He’s not built to play the guitar, but I bet he can probably catch a mean frisbee.

    Defense-leading-to-offense is a virtue, but it’s not the be-all end-all of excitement. Defense sometimes leads to offense in soccer, but I don’t find soccer to be an overall exciting sport. The field is too big, and most of the action takes place far from the goal. For sure, individual scoring opportunities (which invariably lead to awesome goals or wild saves) are exciting, but they’re also relatively few and far between. Sort of like home runs, or circus catches, or strike-him-out-throw-him-out double plays.

  2. Pingback: On Baseball « Meanderings

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