The Logic of Sports, or Understanding Phenomenology via Baseball

I'm watching the baseball game the other night when there's a double play ball hit to first. The first baseman fields the ball, steps on first, throws to second. The shortstop, covering second, catches the ball then concertedly leans in to tag the doomed, sliding runner making his way from first.

It took me a second to understand why the shortstop was applying a tag rather than just touching the bag as in most double plays. But I quickly realized it's because the first baseman touched first first — that is, before throwing to second —, thereby eliminating the force applied to the runner now sliding into second. Because first base was free — the hitter was out when the first baseman tipped the bag with his foot, ball in hand — the runner running to second was no longer forced to go to second. First base, which was "closed" when the ball was hit, was now "open" because the hitter was out, thereby eliminating that initial force — and obliging the shortstop to tag the runner rather than just touching second base.

Yes, I realize that to many of you, this is nonsense, impenetrable and utterly boring. But this is precisely what I love so much about it — about sports, about watching sports: they enjoy an elaborate internal logic, ripe with mechanical laws that are distinct from, say, the natural laws of physics. These are the laws of baseball; these are the terms for how bodies interact in this space, under these conditions.

In this sense, sports are like any theory or philosophy or work of art: they proffer their way of going. They have a logic and way of operating that is distinct to them, that is immanent. These terms and rules are what differentiate this way of going from other ways of going. Each sport is an entire cosmos, with galaxies and solar systems and laws that rule the terms of interaction between bodies.

But what makes the logic of sports different than, say, the logic of a Matthew Ritchie painting is that it is a logic born of the experience of playing the game. Sure, there are sources beyond the game itself — notions of fair, force, foul, out — that determine how terms can even be construed. But then there is the experience of playing the game and the particular ways the notions of "fair" and "foul" are worked out. Why, when a hitter tips a foul ball into the catcher's glove with only one strike that hitter is not out, but if the exact same thing happens when the hitter has two strikes, well, in that case the hitter is out? The answer is complex and only makes sense if you've played, or watched a lot, of baseball.

Sure, I could explain it to you. It's not that the rule is sublime, immanent to the experience and nothing else, denying words. No, there is a conceptual logic that comes from the experience. But to explain it you only builds the gap between the one who knows the rules of baseball and the one who doesn't.

Here it goes: A hitter is allowed three strikes; foul balls are considered strikes. But foul balls the hitter hits after the second strike, while counting as a strike, don't count as the final strike. Why? Because that hitter is still in it, not out of it. He's still not being totally fooled by the pitch. He can only be called out if he can't even make contact — either by not swinging (due to cowardice, ignorance, or being duped) or swinging and missing. Except if, on that third strike, the hitter just tips it and the catcher catches it, then the hitter is out. Why? Because he's allowed only three strikes; if, by his third chance, he can only just tip it into the hands of the defense, then those are all of his chances to evade the defense.

All of this is to say that while you may have no idea what I'm saying, there is nevertheless a logic. It's neither arbitrary nor so tied to experience that its logic is ineffable. The reality is even stranger: the logic can be explained to, but not understood by, those who don't know baseball.

This is of course true of all sports. Try explaining the rules of tennis, football, soccer, rugby, cricket to someone who's never played. It's a peculiar challenge that will finally fail until that person plays, or studies, the game for a while.

This can be intimidating, for sure. My son has avoided joining a baseball team, despite his interest and ability, because he doesn't understand the freakin' rules and doesn't want to be embarrassed. I tell him that no one actually understands the rules until playing. But he doesn't believe me. Why? Because, in our culture, we tend to believe that there should be a clear,  set of rules that determine behavior — not the other way around.

But the relationship between rules and behavior, like the relationship between idea and form, is not one way as, say, Plato might argue. The two are intertwined, as Merleau-Ponty would say, neither the rule nor the act coming first. They go together, making life complex and often difficult to understand — until you actually live it. And then it's still complex and difficult to understand.


davidly said...

Still in it. I like that. I am reminded of a time as a child when my brother and I were playing baseball with a neighbor friend (as much as one can play baseball with three people). When the friend was batting we called a strike on his first foul. He protested. It was not a strike. We explained that it was. His second foul was met with a strike call and his annoyed acceptance.

When my turn at bat came, my friend pitching, I fouled with two strikes, to which he triumphantly declared he'd struck me out. My brother and I explained, albeit with the unavoidable grins at the irony of it all, that the third strike can't be a foul (though I believe I had only understood it as being that every foul after two was not a strike). He was incredulous. We were making it up as we went along! Our grins couldn't help but turn to laughter. Again, the irony. At that point, how could we not have been making it up?

I still don't get phenomenology, though.

Daniel Coffeen said...

That's a fantastic story — perfect, really. It IS confusing. And yet it makes sense, it all makes sense, once you play, once you've played for a while. The rules come from experience; understanding comes from experience. And phenomenology is the logic and philosophy of what happens, what is happening: it is the logic and philosophy of experience.

Which is not to say that all there is is experience, no concepts, ideas, rules, principles. It's to say that concepts etc don't come first. And that those concepts etc are an experience, as well.

How's that?

davidly said...

Excellent, yes. And thanks for the reply. Though guess I should have figured that much already.

The spirit of the staircase told me that the point might have been that one had to have played philosophy to really understand what phenomenology was. And come to think of it, I'll bet that's probably the case, and that the baseball analogy is instructive on both levels of discourse.

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