TWO STRIKES . . . YOU’RE IN
People ask me all the time why I love baseball so much. And to that question, I have a very simple answer.
It’s not the beauty of 60 feet + 6 inches, and the fact that those additional 6 inches make all the difference in the world. It’s not that each ballpark is different, and the various dimensions play a role in the game – often serving as a tenth player. It’s not that the defense starts each play and is the only side allowed to touch the ball. It’s not that each campaign stretches over three calendar seasons, which allows the season to unfold in a languorous manner, wherein no one game is dispositive, and yet every game counts.
No, the number one reason why I love baseball so much is the two-strike pitch.
I love the build-up, the excitement, the payoff, the let-down, and the repetition of the moment. I find nothing more exciting, and nothing that takes more time off my life, than the two-strike pitch. And, for maximum agita, there is nothing better than the 3-2 pitch. No other sport has a similar moment.
Sure, in basketball you have last second shots (see Sampson, Ralph or Fisher, Derek). But once that ball has been in-bounded and the shot released, the moment either happens or it doesn’t. Either way, the moment is gone. There are no do-overs.
Football has the two-minute drill and the Hail Mary Pass (see Flutie, Doug). And again, save for a penalty calling the play back, once the play is done, it’s done. I will grant you that football may be the closest facsimile, as a team can repeatedly stare down its fate and continue its march to eventual pay-off or heartbreak. But again, each moment is slightly different (different down, different field position, different personnel, different amount of time on the clock, etc.).
Hockey, golf, tennis, soccer? None of them have “it”.
But in baseball, you can – and often do – relive the same moment over and over again. A virtual Groundhog Day (Moment?) that can happen on what seems to be a perpetual loop, and you never quite know when it will end.
The two-strike pitch provides that anticipation. The 3-2 pitch is great because there is no room for error; the pitcher has to come in or the batter will stroll to first base. On a 3-2 count, the batter is especially attuned to the pitcher, knowing the small margin, and is fighting for his (or her, hello Mo’ne Davis) proverbial life.
If you are an active viewer of the game, you see this coming. The batter either takes a first pitch strike our “just misses” one. The cat and mouse game has begun. Maybe the pitcher gets ahead and now the batter is in a defensive posture; or maybe the pitcher starts behind and the batter has the upper hand. But, some how, some way, we end up at a two-strike count. And we, as fans, try to guess who will outsmart whom; or, as they say on MLB Network, “who kept their cool?”
This is where the lack of a clock (game, pitch, shot, or otherwise) makes baseball beautiful. The batter keeps one foot in the box (per the new rules) and readjusts his helmet and batting gloves; he smacks some dirt off his spikes; digs in and waggles his bat. Meanwhile, the pitcher goes behind the mound and picks up the rosin bag; steps to the rubber and takes a deep breath; he checks the sign from the catcher, and either shakes him off, in which event the excruciating delay is further prolonged, or he nods in assent. With his glove poised in front of his face, the pitcher begins what seems to be an interminable windup, and then lets the horsehide fly. We watch this with agonized anticipation; and time seems to slow to a stop. Our hearts find their way into our throats, while our stomachs somehow move southward. The tension could not be any greater.
And then, in the blink of an eye, the batter breaks the air with his massive swing. And we, with breath bated, watch as . . .
He fouls the pitch back to the screen; or down the line; or just off the catcher’s glove.
And we still have a two-strike count. Rinse and repeat. And then deduct another 10-15 minutes from the back end of your life.
In no other sport can you get this type of anticipation, build-up, release, and, ultimately, failure to produce an outcome. And, in baseball, you cannot run out of time. Time is both your best friend and your worst enemy.
In football, you know that one way or another, this pain will end in 30 seconds; 24 seconds (or less) in basketball (of course, a team could always call a timeout, but that is a red herring). In baseball, this moment of stress can last for what seems like forever.
And as desperately as you want it to end, some part of you wants it to last evermore. Can you imagine any other moment in your life where you are on the brink of exultation, but it is staved off over and over again, being postponed indefinitely? People would (and do) pay good money for that kind of thrill. And yet, you can get is for free on television every night for nearly seven months. You can get it for free at your local Little League ballpark nearly every afternoon every spring.
The letdown we all experience when the season ends is partly attributable to this feeling. Rock stars rely on drugs to approximate what they feel on stage. Athletes refer to the camaraderie of the clubhouse, hanging on for a season or two too long, not wanting to lose that feeling.
For us, the fans, it is the two-strike pitch that forces us to dedicate way too much of our free (and not so free) time watching a languid game played in a park where players in their home whites go to battle using pearls and maple wood and fine leather. It is the anticipation of the moment, the prolonged absence of action followed by a glimmer of hope, culminating in the lack of culmination. Let’s face facts, we are flat out junkies.
Baseball will never be football, nor basketball, nor soccer, nor tennis; and for that, we are grateful.
In case you have forgotten, in case you haven’t had a hit for some time, below are – for my money – the two best two-strike moments in baseball history (added bonus for occurring in the World Series).
(This is simply the best when you add up foul balls + power + youth vs. experience + the situation):
(A razor-close second best when you add up foul balls + injury + experience vs. experience + the situation):