Why I Love Baseball. Oh, Let Me Count the Ways.

As of this writing, it's an incredibly mild Leap Year Day in Chicago with temperatures at 60 degrees Fahrenheit! It's gotten me in the mood for baseball! My beloved Chicago Cubs' first preseason game will be on March 4 - the City of Chicago's 175th birthday! - and the home opener is April 5 against the Washington Nationals at beautiful and historic Wrigley Field. April is quickly approaching...  I know what you're wondering. Why is she so excited about baseball? What is so appealing about a three-hour game where no one gets tackled, no one dunks, guys aren't punching each other's teeth out on the ice, and where there can be sometimes lengthy stretches when, frankly, nothing happens. Why should I watch such a sport?

As a fan of baseball, I am going to do my very best to convince you to give it a chance and attend a game in person, especially if you are visiting our country for the first time. Honestly, I didn't really get baseball until I went to a game. That's how my love story began. I'm not going to explain the entire game of baseball - I wouldn't even try to, and I will admit this is an oversimplification and probably contains too much jargon. But I hope you will gain an appreciation and become a bit curious. With that, here are five reasons I love baseball:

One, the home run. Hitting a home run is an incredible athletic feat, and it's fricking hawt. The batter needs to accurately guess where a two to three-inch wide ball is thrown with varying spin towards him at speeds of up to 90 miles per hour from 60.5 feet away. From a stationary position, the batter steps his leading foot forward a half step while he moves his arms and turns his upper torso with a such a force to swing and connect the bat with the ball, propelling the ball so it lands outside the boundary of play - at a lateral distance of at least 300 feet (91.4 m) and very often well more than of 400 feet (121.9 m), depending on the stadium. All that happens in a matter of seconds. The home run hitter is a hero, for as long as it takes for him to round the bases, arrive back at home plate and add one point or more to his team's score. Watch Prince Fielder of the Milwaukee Brewers hit last season's farthest home run at 486 feet (148 m). Well, it's not so sexy when Fielder does it, but the man's got power, and I can't argue with that.

Now, home runs are pretty easy to love, that is, until you graduate to the second reason I love baseball: the strikeout. Like great barbecue, the strikeout is sublime in its beauty and attains its perfection with careful attention over a sustained period. Converse to the home run, the strikeout is when the pitcher wins against the batter, preventing him from scoring or getting on base. You know the rule Three strikes, you're out. But, how do you know a pitch is a strike? A pitcher achieves a strikeout when he can throw three pitches that pass the batter. Pitchers throw strikes in a designated area called the strike zone. The batter can attempt a swing or let the pitch pass: either way, the pitch thrown in the strike zone and not hit counts as a strike. Also, pitches will be counted as strikes if they are thrown outside the strike zone, so long as the batter swings and misses the ball. A good pitcher has some ways to throw the ball that confuse opposing batters: fastballs, breaking balls and change-ups. Racking up multiple strikeouts during a game is a result of the pitcher's control, physical stamina, a bit of mind games between the pitcher and the hitter, and non-verbal consultation between the pitcher and his catcher. If one defines beauty in part by its rarity, let me present examples of the no-hitter and the perfect game. Both of these are based on a pitcher's ability to execute a strikeout and the ability to repeat that about 27 times. The strikeout is the baseball equal to defensive moves in basketball: the blocked shot, the full-court press, the steal. In basketball, defense wins championships. Same is true in baseball. Pitchers win Pennants, plain and simple.

I love baseball, part three: Small ball. Major Leaguers can't hit a home run every time they step to the plate. All a batter really needs to do is GET ON-BASE without striking out or being called out in any other way. That's it. Small ball is the strategy of getting as many runners on-base and advancing them to score points via base running, bunting, base-on-balls, stolen bases and other tactics. For teams that might not excel in the long ball (ahem, home run) department, small ball evens out the playing field. Actually, all teams rely on small ball because for as many consistent home run hitters on roster, the very best of batters only hit home runs six to eight percent of the time they bat. Small ball is the reality of baseball. Like a fine Swiss watch, there's a lot of moving parts to consider in addition to the pitcher and the batter: the catcher throwing out a runner attempting to steal second base, the infielders handling hard-hit ground balls to get the out, the outfielders diving for catches even with the sun in their eyes, and even the third base coach waving the runner towards home... It's a number of seemingly small decisions by coaches and players that add up to winning or losing. This is where the game of baseball happens.

The stadium experience, the fourth reason I love baseball. The roar of the crowd. The beer guys, the candy guys yelling as they walk up and down the aisles looking for buyers. The sounds of the pipe organ. The seventh-inning stretch. The between-inning beer run or bathroom break. The knowing banter between fans trying to out-statistic each other. The splendid green of the field. Cracker Jack prizes. Though baseball in any American city has a common tradition, each stadium has its own peculiarities, too. I'm lucky enough to live a ten-minute walk to Wrigley Field, the greatest stadium in baseball, in my humble opinion. Wrigley celebrates its 99th birthday this year. I love Wrigley because of the bricks and ivy, the rooftops, the bratwurst, the hand-operated scoreboard, the W flag, Ronnie Woo-Woo, the L trains racing past, singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame, and the many bars and establishments that make up Wrigleyville. I've even come to admire recent additions like the bleacher balcony and the giant plastic steins of Captain Morgan and Cokes. I love it for the shared memories and fixtures of Wrigley now gone that give it its lore and mystery: Haray Caray, Ron Santo, the curse of the goat (a real goat), the Wild Hare (not an animal, but a reggae club), and even the Bartman incident. I love Wrigley for my own personal memories I've created there: the games I've attended and the saved ticket stubs, the chilly home openers, the Cubs-Cards game on Fourth of July weekend, leading Cubs Nation in a round of cheers to rally our boys in a come-from-behind victory, Sammy Sosa's broken bat, the friends I've introduced to Wrigley and to baseball, and many, many more. Every baseball fan holds a trove of these little treasures of his/her own home field. I'm no different.

My last and best reason to love baseball: The fans. You'll find dads taking their little leaguers to their first Major League game. The serious baseball nuts listening on transistor radio headsets and scoring the game by hand. Sometimes in ink. Autograph hounds. The seat hoppers. Would-be outfielders hoping to catch a souvenir. Kids playing hooky from school a la Ferris Bueller. Adults playing hooky. Folks getting wasted and sunburnt in the bleachers. Hecklers from the opposing team. The camaraderie among fans with the same loyalties. The season ticket holders and the scalpers. The foul-mouthed next to families. The special language of it. People who know what's happening in the game and those who don't or don't care. The standing-room-only crowd rubbing elbows with luxury box one-percenters. It's a cross-section of America, and it's a people-watcher's dream. Among the fans, one observes that within this single institution we label baseball thrives thousands of micro-traditions and idiosyncrasies of American culture. Why we do these things, I can't say for certain. But for me, baseball represents that we fans believe in our team and in ourselves. We believe we're connected to the greater good and the outcome of the game - that our cheers and good faith, our inside-out baseball caps and our life-long devotion to our team all add up to a W. It's the attitude that, though we might strike out the first time, we get back up for our next at-bat. We might lose today's game, but we suit up for tomorrow hungry for a win. It's the baseball memory that allows us to forget and forgive our own failings so we can play ball another day.

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