Baseball As a Second Language

This story appeared in the September 2008 edition of Rockies Magazine.

Flo had never seen baseball. He had never been to the ballpark, had never seen one pitch when he left his home in Berlin to study in Denver. He had already learned a lot about the United States, but baseball was still a mystery to him. The Rockies had become the talk of the town, and Flo wanted to know what the buzz was all about. He knew I was a regular to Coors Field, so he asked if I would teach him about the game. “In Germany,” he said, “we have nothing the same as American baseball.”

As we walked down Blake Street that evening, I told him, “Baseball is simple, really. You hit the ball, run the bases, and try to score more times than the other team. That’s it.”

“Three strikes and you’re out,” he said.

“There you go,” I said. “Couldn’t be easier.”

We got to our seats and I started by explaining the layout of the field. “There are three bases, and the plate,” I said. “You’ve got first, second, third, and—”

“Fourth?” he said.

“No, home,” I said. “Home plate.”

“Right,” he said.

“Each of the bases is manned by a defensive player: first baseman, second baseman, third baseman—”

“Home plate baseman,” he said.

“Catcher,” I said.

“Oh,” he said. “I thought they all catch.”

“They all do. But only one of them is called the catcher.”

“Huh,” he said. “Confusing.”

“Well,” I said, “they all throw, too, but only one is called the pitcher.”

“So,” he said, “you get first, second, third players, and this guy is who? Is extra?”

“That’s the shortstop,” I said. “He covers second base.”

“This second baseman, he is lazy?”

“No. There are just some plays where it’s easier for the shortstop to cover. If a runner is trying to steal, for example, the shortstop might take the bag.”

There was a big biker sitting in the next row. He was looking over his shoulder at us. “Hey, listen,” he said. His zippers and chains jingled as he turned. “If the batter is showing bunt and the third baseman is charging, the shortstop could have to take third—depending on how many men are on base.”

Another neighbor, a businessman in a tie, put down his cell phone. He said, “If the first baseman charges, the second baseman will cover first. Unless the pitcher does. But the shortstop will probably take second in case the hitter lays down a bad bunt and they have a play on a lead runner going to second.”

“That’s true,” I said. “Got it, Flo?”

“Em, well—”

“Good,” I said. “Now, there are three outfielders. If the ball gets hit to them, they try to catch it.”

“Unless it’s foul and there’s a man on third—and fewer than two outs—in the late innings of a one-run game,” said the businessman.

“Well, of course,” I said. “Make sense?”

“Eh,” said Flo, “well, who plays the hitter?”

“The hitter is not a position, actually,” I said. “There’s no one who’s just a hitter because everybody bats.”

“Except in the American League,” said the biker. “They use a designated hitter.”

“Right,” I said. “In the National League the pitcher bats.”

Then the biker’s girlfriend leaned in. She said, “When the two leagues face each other, where they play determines whether the pitcher will bat.”

Flo scratched his head. “But who pitches when the pitcher bats?” he said.

“The other pitcher,” said the businessman.

“Each team has the pitcher?” said Flo.

“Each team has about twelve of them,” I said. “See, the team in the field plays defense. When they get three outs, it will be their turn to bat. Each batter starts with a clear count. The pitcher throws to him and tries to hit the strike zone.”

“Does this pitcher get in trouble for missing a strike zone?”

“It’s not against the rules, no,” I said. “But sometimes it does get him into trouble. Other times he does it on purpose, as part of his strategy.”

“So the batter’s job is just to hit the ball,” said Flo.

“Exactly,” said the biker’s girlfriend.

“Actually,” said the biker, “his job is just to reach base. He could do that by getting a hit, getting a walk, or getting hit by the pitch.”

“You can hit him with a pitch?” said Flo.

A nearby usher had taken interest in our conversation. He joined in. “Sure,” he said. “Sure, you can hit him, but you don’t want to do that. That is, except for the times that you do want to.”

“Once both teams have had a chance to bat,” I said, “that’s one inning. There are nine innings in a game.”

“Although an ‘official game’ only has to get through the top of the fifth,” said the usher.

“And, of course, if the home team is ahead in the ninth, they won’t take their last at-bat,” said the businessman.

“That’s true,” I said. “Want a Tornadough, Flo?”

“Em,” he said, “it appears to me that you are making this up as you go.”

In time Flo did come to understand baseball, no thanks to me. But I think I was the one who learned the most about the game. I learned that baseball is like a language. If you’ve grown up with it, you never think of it as difficult. It’s just a way of life. But if you’re new to it, there is structure to learn, vocabulary to study, and for every rule there is an exception. That’s the grammar of baseball. You learn to appreciate its simpler moments once you’ve seen just how complex the game can be.

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