First and third basemen are on the move, charging home plate for the anticipated bunt. Moving just a little bit early — the pitcher is not yet in his wind-up — they leave the bases unattended. Runners at first and second see their chance and go for it. The shortstop shadows the runner from second, waiting for the throw that will let him tag out this runner at least. Unaccountably, the pitcher stands there, gobsmacked — maybe wondering why the hell everyone is running around all of a sudden. Both runners arrive safely at their new bases, the ball never having left the pitcher’s glove. I wonder whether I’m imagining that faint whimpering sound from the dugout.
The next batter hits a ground ball, fielded by the second baseman. Instead of taking the sure out at first, he tries to prevent the run, throwing home. Well, throwing near home, at least. Landing just short of home plate, the ball bounces behind the catcher. Both base runners score — those same runners who advanced so unusually just a minute ago — and the batter is safe at first. Now I’m pretty sure I can hear something, but is it weeping or cursing?
Ah, college ball — at least college ball in a country where no one gets a university scholarship to play baseball. After watching spring training in Arizona, and a major league game in the Big Smoke just five hours down the road, this college baseball is entertaining, but sometimes in entirely the wrong way.
Sometimes it looks like a Little League game, with more on-field coaching going on than is typical of any of the professional versions. The third-base coach — who might also be the manager — advises the runner on second base to ‘take another step’ in his lead-off and augments hand signals with enthusiastically audible directions throughout the inning. Another coach emerges from the dugout from time to time to wave madly at the outfielders, repositioning them in response to something I can’t detect.
Sometimes it seems that the batter and the base runner have an inexplicable advantage. Even in our inter-county league team, where the games are all on weekends because the guys have day jobs, we take double plays almost for granted. Here, with any small bobble — the barest mis-handling of the ball — both runners are safe, again and again. Travelling significantly slower off the bat, the ball reaches the infielders just that crucial second or fraction thereof later than it does in the pros and semi-pros, changing the balance of power between offence and defence. This helps to explain the league’s mercy rule — after the fifth inning, a lead of 10 runs ends the game.
And sometimes, it looks regrettably like a Keystone Cops routine. An ass-over-teakettle collision in left field not only lets the pop-up drop, it takes the left fielder out of the game. An over-the-shoulder attempted snag by the catcher — when the first baseman is right there to do the job and has the better sight-line — misses an easy out. An around-the-infield celebration ends ignominiously when the ball sails over the shortstop’s head into left field. The passed balls outnumber the wild pitches.
Of course, not all the differences are on the field. With fans numbering fewer than ‘family plus friends’ should total, the 50/50 draw — which ranges into the hundreds of dollars even at the inter-county games — delivers a grand total of $43 this fine early-fall afternoon. Hey! Beer money for the after-game party, the location for which has already been announced over the loudspeaker. The mid- and inter-inning contests feature $10 and $25 prizes from local eating and drinking establishments, also well represented in the program’s list of league sponsors. ‘Know your customers’ — the first rule of marketing (just ask Cadillac and Cialis, prominently featured on PGA tour event coverage). The de rigueur race against the mascot — a chance for a pre- or grade-schooler to shine in other leagues — instead shows off the ability of a blonde co-ed to traverse the bases without losing a drop from her open glass of beer. First-timers, we’re unsure whether the beer handicap is a regular feature or her improvisation. The dance contest — family-friendly in other venues — becomes almost an X-rated activity when the mascot gets involved. And when foul balls hit the stands, the ball boy runs over, clearly expecting that any caught ball will be thrown back. Those things cost money, you know.
Slick, it certainly isn’t, not from a business or an athletic perspective. And yet…
They do make some double plays — none of them taken for granted, not by them or by us. A throw from deep right field comes in right on the money to third base and we all marvel, as well we should. The catcher guns down one would-be stealer at second. The opposing team’s starting pitcher is still throwing hard in the sixth inning. Hitting with less power than the pros — the fence is never in jeopardy here in Canada’s second-largest ball park — the batters still break their share of bats with the force of their swings. And when they do connect, setting in motion all those unpredictable events from errors to spot-on defence, it is a joy to watch it play out. Indeed, its unpredictability might even be part of the joy.
None of these players gets anything out of this endeavour, at least not monetarily. Instead, they pay a fee for the privilege of playing — one revenue source in a league that doesn’t charge any admission. They play, apparently, for the love of the game. That seems right — it’s the same reason we watch.