Baseball’s Timeless Appeal

This is a re-post of my favorite baseball article. Harmon Killebrew told me the description of the homerun was his favorite such description ever.  


Baseball’s timeless appeal captures the minds of fans who are enthralled by a game that, like the “Odyssey,” tells a story of the human condition, of confronting enemies, helping friends, and, of course, getting home safely. This appeal applies to softball and Little League baseball as well as to the Major Leagues. In other games, teams of equal size battle from one end of a court, arena, or field to the other. In these “back and forth games,” success is measured by crossing a line or placing an object in a goal. Not so in baseball, where the batter competes against nine opponents and success is measured by a player’s ability to overcome the odds by safely moving from base to base so that he or she gets home safely.

Baseball is played on the largest field in team sports not involving a horse, even larger than cricket. Its field is distinguished from those of the back and forth games, which are all rectangles covered with lines, circles, and dots, by its simplicity, with two lines diverging at 90 degrees from a single point to define both the infield and the outfield. At the point of intersection is home plate, an oddly shaped five-sided figure, smaller than a basketball hoop, where all action begins and ends. The infield is a ninety foot square that is tipped on its end to form a diamond with the outfield beyond. There are three
15 inch bases positioned on the corners of the 90 foot square. The pitcher’s mound rises 10 inches above the infield, 60 feet, 6 inches from home plate. All infields have this perfect symmetry while the outfields vary widely.

The story unfolds as the batter stands in the batter’s box facing his nemesis, the pitcher. The batter is surrounded by seven fielders and the pitcher in front with the catcher  behind.  The pitcher starts the action by pitching the ball over or just near home plate. The ball is leather bound and moves at lethal velocity. Fear is the first emotion that the player must overcome to play the game well. Many young players drop out when they can hear the ball in flight, are knocked down by an errant fastball, or fooled by a curve into falling away, swinging weakly– insulted, stripped of all dignity, and humiliated, as
courage and skill are shown to be lacking.

The pitcher attempts to put the batter out by using his extensive arsenal of pitches to cause the batter to strike out or hit the ball so it is caught in the air or on the ground to an infielder who throws him out. The pitchers can use any combination of speed or spin to defeat the batter, including illegal spit balls that sink precipitously, or scuffed and cut balls that spin viciously.  Pitchers succeed in putting batters out nearly 75% percent of the time.

If the batter hits a fair ball that is not caught, he becomes a runner and begins an odyssey around the bases. This must be done carefully, but speedily, as he moves from the sanctuary of one base to another. The sanctuary of the base is available to one runner at a time, and a runner is compelled to leave the sanctuary when the batter becomes a runner and there is no empty base between them. When a runner is forced to leave the base to go to the next base, he can be forced out merely by having a fielder touch the next base while holding the ball. Otherwise, the runner is safe while touching the base, but is subject to being put out any time a fielder touches an “off base” runner with the ball. For Odysseus and his crew, the ship was the base and sanctuary and Odysseus tied himself to a mast to be safe from the Sirens’ pitch.  Fielders, like Scylla, Cyclops and Circe, can use any form of deception, guile, misdirection, feints, hidden-ball tricks, and pick-off plays, all aimed at putting a vulnerable runner out. The runner is bound to stay on the straight and narrow base path while his enemies plot his end.  He, like Odysseus, only wants to get home safely, and to do so, he must take risks, and be crafty, careful, and fleet of foot, and he usually needs a little help from his friends. Like Odysseus, the runner often finds home blocked by the catcher, armored like a Greek warrior in mask, breastplate, and greaves, who is the last barrier to success.

The runner’s fate is determined by umpires, who are the ultimate judges of safe and out, or life and death, which they signal with single swipe of a hand, thumb extended for “out” or both hands outstretched palms down for “safe,” which means “nothing notable happened, let’s keep going.” The “nothing” that happened is no out was made and baseball keeps time with outs.

Baseball’s most prestigious feat is the home run. However, it only accounts for one run, plus one for each runner on base, whereas in cricket a ball hit over the boundary on the fly counts for six runs. The home run derives its prestige from the act of driving the hostile pitch out of the field of play in a showing of complete victory. It is the ultimate show of dominance, like Alexander the Great cutting the Gordian Knot. A home run allows the batter to trot regally, with impunity, in an ostentatiously slow, plodding, sometimes taunting pace, while the fielders must stand and watch, incapable of action, mute.

Baseball tells a story that relates to the human condition. The game requires great physical and mental skill in hitting a pitched ball, fielding, throwing, running, and taking risks to advance through the dangers of the infield. It is unique in its imagery and its appeal is the story of players alone in the wilderness, relying on friends for help, and being alert to dangers, while focusing on the single goal of reaching home safely. For a baseball player, like the rest of us, this occurs everyday. The story played out is like life itself, and that is the appeal of the game that has enraptured its fans for more than 150 years.
______________________________________________________________________ Clark Griffith is a lawyer and arbitrator in Minneapolis. He grew up with four uncles who played in the Major Leagues, Clark Griffith, for whom he is named, Joe Cronin, Joe Haynes and Sherrard Robertson. His great uncle Clark and Uncle Joe Cronin are in the Hall of Fame. He learned a lot about baseball from these uncles, but it was his mother, Natalie, who taught him the majesty of the game just as she had learned it from her father.

Malaysian 370, the Latest and Maybe the Final Word

This morning, the Malaysian Prime Minister gave out the news that sophisticated analysis of satellite data had placed Malaysia 370 in the middle of the Indian Ocean, 900 miles west of Perth, Australia. He claims a high degree of reliability in this analysis that read the pings from the plane, analyzed the timing of the pings and doppler effect as well,  to position the plane far from any course that would have made any sense. He said all 226 passengers and 13 crew members are presumed lost.  The problem I thought existed with this sort of analysis is that the satellite is in position over the equator and the plane was sending pings but that the analysis was not so sophisticated as to be able to read the exact position of the plane. A ping from position A would be read as a possible ping from positions along a circle. But maybe there is some merit here. The circle’s center is a point on the surface, perpendicular to the satellite. As the plane flies away from the center point, the angle increases, as it would in a northern course, or decrease if the plane flew towards the center point then increase as it flew away from that point, like south of the equator. So this does narrow things down a bit.

(I had predicted a controlled course to some Pakistani airfield, or, at least some airfield between Pakistan and North West China.)

The problem here is that there is no wreckage from this plane. A 777 flying into the sea would breakup unless it landed like that fellow Sulzberger  landed that plane in the East River several years ago. That was a river and this is the sea and 370 was arguably out of fuei and may have been falling from the sky. A Sulzberger type, slow, gradual, landing that leaves the plane floating on the sea, at least for a while, would have allowed at least a few passengers to exit through those exit doors I find myself sitting next too so often. I also assume that rafts would be released. However, none of this has been spotted, so we must assume 370 went in hot and broke up on impact. That event would litter the sea surface with the flotsam of such an impact. There has been none of that spotted, or, at least, nothing spotted has been confirmed to be part of 370.

We will have final resolution to this story soon. Unless, however, the plane landed perfectly, sank in one piece withhout allowing any passengers to exit, as would be possible in a perfect landing, and then sank to the 23,000 foot depth that is in that part of the Indian Ocean. That may be beyond the reach of the black box signals and may mean that we will never find this plane.

I hope we know soon, and I hope it is in some hanger in Pakistan. However, the evidence given today was based on physics and is presumed to be accurate.  We all want to know the truth here. Hopefully, we will  soon.

Malaysia 370, The “Twilight Zone” Version.

Today, after reading of the mystery of Malaysia 370 and pondering possible outcomes, it occurred to me that it was like Twilight Zone,”  a scifi series from black and white TV.

Rod Serling produced amazing stories and his version of Mayasia 370 would end as follows:


Malaysia 370, Did the Pilots Die in a Fire? The Occam’s Razor Solution (updated)

Although the theory here is interesting, the sighting at 6:15 AM in the Maldives, two hours behind the Straits of Malacca, means the plane would have been flying for 8 hours up to that point. Also, it only takes four hours to fly the distance. So two hours are not accounted for. Also, the plane made the left turn from the Beijing course and that turn was not done on an emergency basis as it was programmed into the flight computer. A pilot made the “good night” comment after the turn and was not distressed.
So I am back to the original theory Here. This one is gaining popularity.

But this story is still interesting. I wonder how many more interesting stories we will read tomorrow.

The latest, and I must say, compelling for Occam’s Razor reasons is the theory that the plane turned from its original course to Beijing because it was looking for a place to land due to a fire in the nose or cockpit. The theory has it that the fire was caused by a nose wheel that overheated on the long take off run in Kuala Lumpur and burst into flame when retracted. This has happened before. Pilots would immediately upon noting the smoke and flames, turn for the nearest airport. Pilots are said to always be aware of the nearest airport for just such emergencies. 

The turn to the left or West, took place, but the fire intensified, killed the pilots and who know who else, and the plane, then over the straits of Malacca, was pointed south of the southern tip of India, four hours away.  With the plane in turmoil, the pilots and more dead, maybe with the cockpit door bolted closed, it just flew on. This occured about 1:30AM.

What makes this plausible is the story this morning that a fisherman in the Maldive Islands (West of the southern tip of India) saw a white jumbo jet fly over at low altitude at 6:15AM. Flight time from Kuala Lumpur to Male, Maldive is 4 hours, 29 minutes. The time matches. (UPDATE: The time doesn’t match. The Maldives are two hours behind Kuala Lumpur))

This is appealing for Occam’s Razor puposes because it doesn’t require nefarious plots, secret airbases, Uyghurs, Al Queda, pilots killing pilots and the rest of the story we have heard so far. All that is required is a calamitous fire, pilots overcome, and a plane that can fly itself. All of that is present here. Maybe we should be looking 500 miles to the west of the Maldives in the Indian Ocean. It the easiest answer so far.

NOTE: Occam’s Razor says the simplest answer is often the correct answer.

Malaysian 370, Did the Pilots Do It?

The big question today about MH 370 is the degree to which one or both pilots were involved in the plane’s disappearance.
John Hinderaker, with whom I have discussed this issue at great length, has pubished this article in
It is clear that Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 was hijacked by an experienced pilot who knew
how to operate a Boeing 777. This report in the New York Times supports what was already an
overwhelming conclusion:
The first turn to the west that diverted the missing Malaysia Airlines plane
from its planned flight path from Kuala Lumpur to Beijing was carried out
through a computer system that was most likely programmed by someone in
the plane’s cockpit who was knowledgeable about airplane systems, according
to senior American officials.
Instead of manually operating the plane’s controls, whoever altered Flight
370’s path typed seven or eight keystrokes into a computer on a knee-high
pedestal between the captain and the first officer, according to officials. The
Flight Management System, as the computer is known, directs the plane from
point to point specified in the flight plan submitted before a flight. It is not
clear whether the plane’s path was reprogrammed before or after it took off.
Suspicion has focused on pilot Zaharie Ahmad Shah and first officer Fariq Ab Hamid for one
obvious reason: they were the only people on board the airline who, as far as is publicly
known, knew how to fly it. Certainly the airplane could have been taken over by one or more
Islamic terrorists, but it would have to be someone far better trained than those who carried
out the September 11 attacks–someone at or close to the level of a commercial airline pilot. A
list of the passengers on the flight has been made public, but little or no information about
them is known. China has said that it conducted background checks on the Chinese nationals
who were on board (around two-thirds of the passengers) and found no links to terrorist
groups. That at least reduces the likelihood of Uighurs being responsible.
There is another possibility that I have not seen discussed: here in the U.S., it is common for
airline employees to hitch rides on their airline’s flights when seats are available. Could there
have been another Malaysia Airlines pilot “deadheading” to Beijing on Flight 370, perhaps one
with links to extremist groups? I have seen no discussion of that possibility. Thus, while we
cannot rule out the possibility that there was another skilled pilot on board the airplane, at
present there is zero evidence to support that supposition.
Which brings us back to the pilot and co-pilot. As the only people on the airplane known to
have the skill and experience demonstrated by the hijacker(s), they are the prime suspects.
That said, nothing that has come out about Zaharie Ahmad Shah or Fariq Ab Hamid adds
materially to the case against them. Shah had a flight simulator in his home? So what? His
wife and children left home the day before Flight 370 took off? OK, but did they flee the
country or go to visit grandparents? He was a supporter of a prominent Malaysian politician
who opposed the current government? That cuts in the other direction; Shah supported a
“normal” political party, not a terrorist group. As former El-Al security chief Isaac Yeffet said ,
Shah does not fit the profile of a terrorist.
Neither does first officer Hamid. He was 27 years old and engaged to be married. No one has
described any connections with radical Islamic or other potentially terrorist groups. As with
Shah, no one has brought forth any evidence to suggest that Hamid may have been suicidal.
Attention has focused on Hamid because he allegedly spoke the last words from the
airplane–”all right, good night”–at around the time the transponders were turned off. If it
really was Hamid, and if the communication came after at least one of the transponders was
switched off, it would suggest that Hamid was most likely the hijacker. But there has been
confusion about the exact timing of the message, and it is not clear why officials at Malaysian
Airlines say they think the voice was Hamid’s. Even if one assumes they could distinguish
Hamid’s voice from Shah’s, it is not clear how they could confidently distinguish Hamid’s
voice from that of an unknown hijacker.
There was no known connection between Shah and Hamid, and apparently they were
randomly assigned to Flight 370. It is therefore extremely unlikely that both were involved in
the hijacking. If one of the pilots was the culprit, it appears that he would have had to
disable, in some way, the other pilot.
The case against the pilots, in short, is weak. But they will remain the prime suspects–really,
the only suspects–unless and until it comes to light that there was someone else on board
capable of flying the aircraft at a professional or near-professional level.
Meanwhile, the central mystery of Flight 370 remains: where is the airplane? Until we know
where the airplane was flown, we can only speculate about why it was hijacked. Until we
know why it was hijacked, we can only speculate about who did it. Finding the airplane may
or may not solve the puzzle of what happened to it, and why; but until the airplane is found,
any theory we can put forward will be speculative at best.

Where is Malaysian Flight 370, Updated Map Showing Airfields

James Fallows in the Atlantic has published a map of airfields where a 777 could land with safety.
Here or on the Atlantic website.
This is a color coded map showing runway length.
The news today that the plane flew under radar for the last segment of its flight makes this all the more probable.