Jesse Jarnow

baseball as dumb show

It has been said often enough that baseball is a game of inches: of a ball that shoulda/coulda/mighta gone foul, of subtle pitch placement, of the exact angle of the bat as it makes contact. But, from the stands, baseball is a dumb show, able only to communicate in the broadest of strokes.

We do anything we can to infer personality from the players. Standing in repose as they do for most of the game — at bat waiting for a pitch (literally in a stance), on the mound waiting for a batter — this is pretty easy. It’s how they approach the plate, or head back to the dugout after grounding out weakly to second. But these are all actions that occur within a formal language, and the result is archetypes: speedy tricksters, crafty veterans, tragic journeymen, graceful future Hall of Famers who move like ghosts through the dugout.

Like the improvised characters in Italian commedia dell’arte, they are recognized instantly and understood for their behaviors. In some ways, at least as far as on-field personalities go, there is rarely anything new under the sun. Sometimes, there is, especially as the racial texture of the game changes, the make-up of pro ball having very much changed from the children of immigrants to immigrants themselves. But these changes are slow.

But, it’s baseball, and they don’t need to be fast. With between 10 and 13 characters on stage at a time with dozens more waiting in the wings (hundreds, if you count the players in the minors), multiplied by 162 games per team/per year (around 2,400 in all of Major League Baseball), the possibilities for sustained drama are functionally infinite.

But we hone in on specific personalities inside the noise, which is why we can so readily read pictures like this in ways that have nothing to do with stolen bases or batting averages or any other kind of detached statistic.