Category Archives: baseball rules

Baseball 101: A Primer for New Fans and Foreigners


I get to go to a game at Wrigley in the next week or so, thus fulfilling a bucket list item.  Accompanying me and Roy to that game is an assorted bunch of friends, including some people who are far more familiar with cricket than with baseball.  We have, in fact, a Baseball Virgin.  I took it upon myself to provide her with an orientation to baseball, enough to follow the game without confusing it with cricket, and have some fun.  When Roy, who has been a baseball fan since the day he became more than a gleam in his daddy’s eye, heard this Orientation, he felt that I should make it more generally available. So here it is.

1. Two teams.  They trade off taking offensive and defensive roles.  Unlike cricket, the pitcher is a defensive role, while the batter is an offensive role.  The catcher is also an defensive role.  So the pitcher stands on the “mound” in the middle of the diamond, and he throws the ball in the direction of the batter (who stands on “home plate”), with the hopes that the batter will not hit the ball, and the catcher – who is a teammate of the pitcher – will catch it.

2. The batter can choose to swing or not.  There is a defined zone (roughly between the batter’s shoulder and hips, and within an established horizontal range) where if the batter does not swing at the ball at all, he gets a “strike”.  If the batter swings at the ball and misses, no matter where the ball is, he gets a “strike”.  If the thrown ball is not within the pre-defined zone of acceptability when it crosses “home plate” and the batter declines to swing, it is a “ball”.

3. The catcher, who is on the same team as the pitcher, is expected to develop a robust and complete information basis about the players on the other team.  While all players on each team are expected to be Informed about all players on the other team, the catcher bears an extra burden of research and informed-ness.  The catcher will thus make suggestions to the pitcher about desirable pitches, given his understanding of the abilities and preferences of the batter.  These suggestions are conveyed through a very complicated series of secret hand and finger movements that are delivered from the area of the catcher’s crotch (no, really).  The pitcher is not obliged to accept the suggestions, but “shakes them off” at his risk, since the catcher often knows more about the batter than the pitcher.  It looks like the catcher just stands there the whole game, but this is one of the more intellectually-demanding roles within the game, and the catcher is often responsible for conveying the Strategic Plan to the the pitcher, and by extension, the rest of the team.  You can see this signalling process if you watch televised games closely, but you will not be able to see it when you attend the game.

3. If the batter does not hit the pitched ball into the field, and the catcher fails to catch it, it is what is known as a “wild pitch”.  The pitcher gets blamed for this, and it potentially confers a short-term strategic advantage on the offensive team, as the ball is considered to be in-play while the catcher fumbles around to retrieve it.  “Fastballs” can achieve speeds in excess of 100 mpg (160 km), so bumbling the ball is not a small thing.

4. The pitching to a given batter will continue until the batter 1) makes contact with the ball and sends it into the field, 2) the batter accumulates three strikes (in which case he must retire from the field), or 3) the batter accumulates four “balls”, in which case he advances to first base; this is called a “walk”.  It is possible for a pitcher who does not wish to risk having the batter connect with the ball to throw four pitches that are effectively impossible to hit due to aberrant location; this is called an “intentional walk” and is, in my opinion, the strategic recourse of the Incompetent and Cowards.  Roy has a different perspective on this, but I will not be swayed. I regard the Intentional Walk as a deeply unsportsmanlike maneuver. A batter that retires from the field due to accumulating three strikes is “out”.  A batter that earns two strikes and three balls is regarded as having a “full count”.

5. Assuming the batter connects with the ball, the batter will run towards “first base”.  If you are standing/sitting behind the batter, “first base” is the corner of the diamond to your right.  If the ball is caught by a defensive player without touching the ground, the batter is “out” and must retire from the field without achieving a base.  If the ball flies outside of predetermined boundaries (the “foul poles”, positioned at the edge of the field in a line with first and third base) it is called a “foul” and the batter will have another chance to hit the ball.  These are considered to be “strikes” unless regarding them as such would create the third strike (which forces the batter to retire); in this case, it is simply disregarded.  A batter cannot be forced to retire from the field for hitting foul balls.  A batter that is forced to retire from the field due to making it to the base after the ball arrives there is “out”.  Each offensive team must retire from the field after accumulating three “outs”.

6. Assuming that the batter connects with the ball and that the ball contacts the ground before it is caught and is not a foul ball, the batter races to first base, second base, third base, and home plate in that order.  If a defensive player picks up the ball (“fields the ball”) and tosses it to the defensive player that is located at one of the bases before the runner can achieve that base, the runner is “out”.  So if batter hits the ball and starts running to first, but the ball is thrown to the “first baseman” (a defensive player) before the batter can make it to the base, the batter is “out” and must retire from the field. If the batter makes it there before the ball does, he is “safe”.  There are umpires (neutral officials) stationed by each base who make the call as to whether the runner or the ball arrived first.  These calls are a major source of controversy, and will be the primary reason that you hear the crowd booing after some action on the field.

7. The batter – now the runner – has discretion over whether to choose to advance to the next base or not when running.  Offensive coaches are stationed at various points on the field to provide information and suggestions to the runner.  If, however, a runner is located on a base that another runner is trying to achieve, the first runner has no discretion about advancing, and must do so regardless of the consequences.  For example, Batter 1 makes contact with the ball and advances to first base uneventfully and is safe.  Batter 2 now makes contact with the ball and must advance to first base.  Any base can be occupied by no more than one offensive player, so Batter 1 is now forced to attempt to run to second base, even if it is obvious that the ball will be thrown to second base before he arrives there and thus force him to retire from the field.  Alternatively, we have another scenario:  Batter 1 has advanced successfully to first base.  When Batter 2 is “up” (receiving pitches), the catcher fails to catch a pitch, and Batter 1 seizes the opportunity of the ensuing confusion to advance himself to second base (this is called “stealing a base”).  Now, assuming that Batter 2 connects with the ball successfully, first base is now “open”, and Batter 1 can decide to attempt to advance or not, depending on the assessment of the situation.  Batter 2 has to run to first, but Batter 1 may or may not try to run to third.

8.  Scoring happens if, and only if, an offensive player succeeds in running to first, then second, then third bases, and then on to “home plate”.  This may happen with one hit ball, or there may be a number of batters attempting to hit the ball in turn.  If a batter hits the ball in such a way that it carries out over the field between the foul poles (it is “fair”) but lands behind the wall separating the playing field from the stands, it is a “home run” and anyone currently on base, plus that batter, runs around the three bases and on to home plate, and each of them score.  When a runner achieve home plate it is called a “run”, and this is the only way a team can score. This is a very big deal and will disrupt the progress of the game briefly while the announcers rehash it, the organist plays celebratory music, the fans of the team that scored stand up and cheer, etc.  If there are runners on first, second, and third bases when this occurs (having runners on all bases is referred to as the bases being “loaded”), it is called a Grand Slam and is a VERY special thing.  I have only seen one Grand Slam in my life while attending a ball game, and it will disrupt the progress of the game for several while the fans celebrate.

9. The pitchers for each team have a special warm-up zone for their team, which is referred to as the “bullpen”.  The backup pitchers, as a group, may also be referred to as “the bullpen”.  When a team decides that they need to replace a pitcher (because the current pitcher is experiencing a crisis of confidence, or is inadequate to the task, or has racked up too many pitches during the course of the game) they will make a “call to the bullpen”.  This brings the game to a halt while the new pitcher runs out, the preceding pitcher retires “to the showers”, and the new pitcher warms up with the catcher.  This can delay the game for up to five minutes, depending.

10. There are nine innings in a game.  One inning consists of one team assuming the offensive role while the other assumes the defensive role (the “top of the inning”) and then once the offensive team has earned three outs, they switch places so that the previously defensive team is now the offensive team, and vice-versa.  If the game is tied at the end of nine innings, it continues on with “extra innings” until a full inning is completed with one team accumulating more runs than the other.  So if at the end of 9 innings, Team A has a score of 6 runs, and Team B has a score of 6 runs, the game goes into extra innings.  In the first extra inning (the 10th inning), if Team A scores a run at the top, and Team B does not score a run at the bottom, the final score is Team A: 7 runs and Team B: 6 runs, and Team A wins.  If, however, Team A scores a run at the top, and Team B scores a run at the bottom (or if neither team scores a run), then the game goes into the 11th inning.  This continues until one team finishes the inning with more runs than the other team.  I have been to games that ran into 15 innings.  Exhausting, IMO.

11. The typical experience at a ball game involves eating a hot dog and drinking a beer.  It may also involve eating some Cracker Jack, a boxed treat made of popcorn with caramel coating and peanuts.  Between the top of the 7th inning and the bottom of the 7th inning comes the “seventh inning stretch” at which time everyone stands up and sings “God Bless America” and “Take Me Out To the Ballgame”.  Singing “Take Me Out To the Ballgame” is not an optional exercise.  You will draw strange looks if you do not engage in this practice.  Fortunately, it is an easy tune to master, and usually, the words will be broadcast on a large screen so that everyone can take part.  This is arguably the Central Experience of a baseball game.  All Americans, even if they don’t like baseball, know how to sing Take Me Out To the Ballgame. They may not admit to knowing it, but they do.  You can have no idea what the heck is going on for most of the game, but you still stand up and sing Take Me Out To The Ballgame at the seventh inning stretch.  To fail to do so is unthinkable.

You will want to get some practice on this.  Here is a fairly typical rendition of it, including the bouncing baseball to remind you when to sing which syllable:

Here is a version of it actually being sung at Wrigley Field, by Harry Carey, a significant character in the context of the sport.  You will see bars, restaurants, souveniers, and streets in Chicago that are named after Harry Carey.  You can see that everyone stands and participation is universal.

It is considered Good Form to “root” (cheer) for the home team, unless you have some particular stake in the outcome of the game (in which case root for whichever team you have the stake on).  Typically, you will substitute the name of the team into Take Me Out To The Ballgame, replacing “home team” with the name of your team.  You sing “Let me root, root, root for the [YANKEES/RED SOX/CUBBIES/ASTROS/GIANTS/BREWERS/etc.] if they don’t win it’s a shame”.  Deploying your preferred team’s name into this context may generate frictions with other fans if you are not supporting the home team; you should exercise judgment about whether you prefer to substitute in your team’s name, or to simply go with the generic “home team” or simply drop out on that phrase entirely.
It is not appropriate to substitute in the name of a team that is not playing at the game you are currently attending.  That is, if you are a Yankees fan attending a Chicago White Sox/Houston Astros game, you would not sing “root, root, root for the YANKEES”.  Actually, if you’re Yankees fan you might, and doing so will merely reinforce the pre-existing unfavorable beliefs that everyone else holds about Yankees fans.  The correct approach is in this case would be to sing “root, root, root for the WHITE SOX” or “root, root, root for the ASTROS” or “root, root, root for the home team!”  Enthusiastic fans accompany the “root, root, root” with a series of aerial fist-pumps.  This term and/or gesture does not have any sort of vulgar or sexual content, as it would in other English-speaking jurisdictions.
12. Expect to dine at the game.  There will be booths selling burgers, pizza, chicken tenders, hot dogs, pretzels, parmesan fries, ice cream, hoagies, beers, and possibly cocktails.  You will probably be able to obtain vegetarian options, if that’s how you roll. Even if this is not your usual fare, I highly recommend it as an intrinsic part of the experience.
Welcome to America’s Pasttime!