One of the primary challenges of studying abroad is understanding the cultural norms of your host country. These may involve culture, history, food, or even common sayings and phrases. There are things that natives take for granted, but may be confusing and bizarre from the outside. This knowledge is rarely taught past a certain point, leaving international students behind in some ways. This series aims to help students understand things that many Americans take for granted.

A few weeks ago, we talked about the American obsession with March Madness, the annual college basketball championship. You may have noticed last weekend some of your classmates cloistering themselves in front of the television, switching between three or four different games as a time, and bemoaning their broken brackets. It’s an annual tradition.

But there is another sporting tradition that will become apparent this weekend. It is far older than college basketball, and its roots seem to be intertwined with the historical beginnings of this country. I’m talking about baseball, a game that inspires fervent devotion or absolute confusion and derision, with almost nothing in between. But even people who don’t care much for it regard it as a quintessential piece of Americana, up there with apple pie and the oddity of the electoral college. Here are some things you should know before the first pitch this weekend (and yes, there were regular-season games played in Australia last week- more on that later- but for most people, Opening Day is coming within the next few days).

A baseball diamond

The basic outline of a baseball field. Every infield is the same, every outfield is different. That either excites people or strikes them as nonsensical.
Image from wikimedia.com

The Rules

Baseball is both incredibly simple- hit the ball and run- and wildly complex. It is, more than most sports, a rule-based game. But essentially, the pitcher throws the ball toward the batter, who tries to hit it. If it is caught while in the air, it is an out. If it is hit on the ground and the fielder throws it to first base before the batter gets there, he is out. Once there are three outs in an inning, the other team goes to bat.

It seems easy enough, but there are a million different complications, depending on if there are already runners on base, how many outs there are, where the ball is hit, etc. What makes it different than most sports is that the defense is in charge. The play doesn’t start until the pitcher throws the ball. In every other sport, the offense provides the momentum. This is one of the quirks of baseball that makes it such an odd and fascinating game. There are a lot of the other quirks to be found in the rules.

Don’t all these rules make it boring? Are they even athletes?

This is one of the arguments among people who don’t enjoy baseball. It is a long, slow game. Not a lot happens. People seem to stand around a lot. There are only a few total minutes of action when the ball is hit. And there isn’t much running. The players can be, well, pretty heavyset guys. After all, Babe Ruth, the greatest hitter ever, was kind of pudgy.

Fans of baseball would argue that the athletic aspect is a bit overblown, and that these guys are pretty good athletes, though they don’t have to be in exquisite shape like in some other sports. But it is a skill game. It is, after all, extremely hard to hit a small round ball with a spherical bat, when the ball is moving over 90 miles an hour.  Below is a cut fastball, which looks like it is coming in straight and juts toward the hitter at the last possible moment (all at about 90mph). The hitter can’t do anything with it- they have a split second to react, and then the ball does something that seems physically impossible. For a good look at baseball geekery, here is the complicated science behind a curveball, a pitch that literally drops away and moves. It’s amazing anyone can hit that at all. 

Mariano Rivera

This “cut fastball” is one of the most devastating pitches in baseball.
Image from fangraphs.com

And to show how great hitters have to be,  here’s the best hitter over the last decade, Miguel Cabrera, hitting home runs on pitches covering nearly every part of the plate.

The amazing Miggy

This coverage shows the incredible hitting abilities of Miguel Cabrera.
Image from fangraphs.com

The major argument that baseball fans like to make it that Michael Jordan tried to play baseball, and failed.

As for whether or not it is boring- well, that is in the eye of the beholder. Baseball fans will tell you that there is strategy behind every pitch, every little movement of the fielder, that there are infinite possibilities for every pitch, and they only narrow as the play goes on. A millimeter on the bat makes the difference between a towering home run and a routine pop out.

International Appeal

Baseball started out in America, and for a long time was confined there, but in the last 50 years the game has exploded around the world. The official opening games this year were in Australia, and they took place in Japan in 2008. Japan, Korea, and Taiwan are now all major baseball nations, and Major League superstars have been coming from East Asia for over a decade. Other regions where baseball has gained considerable popularity is Latin America and the Caribbean, which have been developing some of the greatest players in baseball for decades now.

Why it sticks

There is a tendency among baseball fans to become mystical about the game- about how it can theoretically last forever, about how the endless possibilities mimic the idea of the multiverse, about the feelings it stirs in fathers and sons, and about its deep connection with its own history. This is all fun, even if overblown at times. It’s good to remember that it is just a game, and for its fans, a very enjoyable and meaningful one.

One theory about its popularity has to do with the length of the games and the seasons. It opens in spring, ends in fall, and paces through the summer. It serves as the backdrop for a lot of lives, year after year, with games playing on the garage radio of our lives. Probably no one said it better than former commissioner Bart Giamatti, and we’ll let him have the final word.

It breaks your heart. It is designed to break your heart. The game begins in the spring, when everything else begins again, and it blossoms in the summer, filling the afternoons and evenings, and then as soon as the chill rains come, it stops and leaves you to face the fall alone. You count on it, rely on it to buffer the passage of time, to keep the memory of sunshine and high skies alive, and then just when the days are all twilight, when you need it most, it stops.

 

The international student experience is both challenging and exciting. Whether you are a student considering studying in America, their parent, the host family, the Head of School, an international coordinator, or even a potential classmate, there are as many opportunities for confusion as there are to learn. The ISPA is here to help bridge that gap, to ensure that this opportunity and adventure is met with the highest level of success.