As I (Martin) watched Tim Lincecum of the San Francisco Giants plying his trade against the Los Angeles Dodgers the other night, one thought kept running through my mind: baseball is such a simple game. A ball, a bat, and some fielders: all in the same positions, give or take a little shimmy to the left or right depending on which way the batter holds his ash-spear. Yet, even as I recognized baseball’s simplicity, I had a concurrent thought: which doesn’t mean that it’s easy. To land a ball in or around home plate—or to convince the batter to swing at a ball—takes years of countless errors and misfires to make it look simple; to reach the stage where you can at least hit a ball coming at you at 90 m.p.h. (or more) one time out of four takes an equally long time of failure and flailing.
The annual cricketing slogfest that is the Indian Premier League has just begun. As I watched Dale Steyn of the Sunrisers Hyderabad dismantle the lower order of the Pune Warriors, I was struck by the same thought (albeit in reverse): cricket is such a complicated game. Sure, there was a ball, a bat, and some fielders: yet they were in all sorts of positions, and there were two batsmen, and then stumps, and a complicated scoreboard, and . . . yikes.
Yet, even as I recognized cricket’s complexity, I had a concurrent thought: which doesn’t mean that it’s not simple as well. After all, the same amount of time practicing with bat and ball obtains as in baseball, with similar rates of failure and misfires. But what unites cricket and baseball is how much patience is required for the guy holding the piece of wood to wait . . . and wait . . . and wait to choose the right ball to hit. So much depends, in both games—by instinct, with skill and training, or through experience—on not doing what you so want to do: which is hit the hide off the ball without getting out.
It’s that via negativa—what T. S. Eliot called “the way of dispossession”—that make both baseball and cricket so fascinating—and why to call them “simple” or “complex” games is only to point to the very opposite inherent in either game that makes the simplicity or complexity possible.
Having just spent several months in South Australia, and having watched and enjoyed a number of Twenty20 cricket matches on summer evenings at the Adelaide Oval, it seems obvious to me that perhaps the greatest cricket player who ever lived may never have lifted a cricket bat and currently plays right field for the New York Yankees: Ichiro Suzuki. In his prime and almost until today: Who could see the pitched ball better and know what to do with it? Who, if he had the opportunity to hit the ball foul which in cricket is fair, could have done it with more precision over a greater span of time? And since cricket appears to require more on-field athleticism by more members of the team (as far as I can tell), who has better developed all-around “tools” than Ichiro? Of course there are and have been many physically stronger players but none with the combination of reflexes, strength, focus and mental toughness, “the patience required.. for the guy holding the piece of wood to wait….and wait…” in one person.
I’ve played ball for sixty years, first baseball then softball, and I still play third base each summer weekend; I appreciate good play and good players.
Ironically, Ichiro is not the number-one star among Japanese-baseball fans. That distinction goes to “Godzilla”: Hideki Matsui who, like Ichiro, distinguished himself with the New York Yankees. Fact is, Ichiro has had the greater major-league career, based on the qualities you identify. We at the Right Off the Bat Project are likewise fascinated by so-called touch players. The placing of batted balls is less possible in baseball due to the nature of the game (not in 360 degrees) and equipment (round bat meeting ball) themselves. But we are about as happy to see a Baltimore Chop or Texas Leaguer dunk in over an infielder’s outstretched glove as we are to watch the three-run home run. The batter who swings from the heels can be fun…if he happens to be Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle or Reggie Jackson. But such talents come along every fifty years if that often. There are not many who fit the Ichiro description and profile, either: wiry-athletic; smartly “staying within himself” (the 1990s-era cliche); graceful in all phases of the game; a pleasure to watch, no matter which team one roots for. He made the Seattle Mariners a force and likel y will be elected to the National Baseball Hall of Fame once he hangs up the cleats.
I played softball for years. Judging what is a strike or not is hard if you are facing a good pitcher and they can nick the edge of the plate regularly. T20 has that similar quality about it. You have to hit at some point, you can’t just leave and leave… having to making split second judgements is what makes ball sports so much fun to play and so unknowable.