Baseball is a sport that we often see starring in American movies or TV series. In our country – as more generally in Europe – however, it is not widely practiced, except in small (but beautiful, and important) realities. Probably also, for this reason, we often have a bit of confusion in our heads about its rules. We know that attack and defense alternate on the pitch, but for many of us, it is difficult to say how many defenders there are and where they are placed. Just as we know that outs are counted, we don’t always remember how many strikes it takes to make an out.
THE 9 DEFENDERS
Today we try to sort out one of the most important elements to understanding the game: the roles. What does the pitcher do? What is the receiver? And where does the shortstop fit in? In short, we will present to you all the main positions and the tasks that the defense players (there are 9 in all, as you will see) must perform.
We won’t talk about the hitter though. In the game of baseball, in fact, all the players – when the team is in attack – must go to bat. Depending on the league rules, an exception may be the pitcher, who is replaced by what is called the “designated hitter”.
For this reason, when it comes to roles, the hitter is not considered too much, because it is in a certain sense the role of everyone and nobody. And the players are divided according to their defensive specialization. Let’s find out the five fundamentals.
A delicate role
Let’s start with what is certainly one of the most important players on a baseball team: the pitcher. Called a pitcher in America and English-speaking countries, it is the player who stands on the pitcher’s mound and throws the ball at the catcher, trying to prevent the opposing batter from hitting it.
The mound is 60 feet 6 inches from home plate, just under 18 and a half meters. Not an impossible distance, but the pitcher’s job is still one of the hardest and most tiring, both physically and mentally. He is a constant challenge to the opposing hitter. And while the hitter changes with every out (or every hit that leads the opposing team to base bases), the pitcher is always there. Normally he can make about a hundred throws before going down, and therefore face at least 20-25 opponents.
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The pitcher must be able to make very different throws. The “basic throw” is the so-called “fastball”, powerful and lightning fast. But this must be alternated with throws such as the curveball, the ball with speed change, the slider, and so on. Usually, the pitcher who starts the game, however, also fails to finish it and is replaced by the so-called “Relief pitcher”, who has the task of closing the game in the last innings. Often the latter is a pitcher with less resistance but is more effective in the final exchange.
THE GREAT CY YOUNG
Among the great pitchers in the history of baseball, we must start with Cy Young, perhaps the most famous of all. He played from 1890 to 1911, setting a lot of records that, in some cases, would have lasted more than a century. He got his only title in 1903 with the Boston Americans, who became the Red Sox a few years later. But he became so popular that upon his death it was decided to institute an award for the best pitcher of the year. An award that still bears his name today.
After he came other myths such as Walter Johnson, the historic pitcher of the Washington Senators, Christy Mathewson of the New York Giants of the 1910s, and the southpaw Warren Spahn. In more recent times we must mention Greg Maddux, the great champion of the 90s, and Roger Clemens, twice winner of the World Series with the Giants.
The defense coordinator
If you’ve seen movies like Bull Durham – A Three-Hand Game, you know that a pitcher doesn’t act alone. He is only the most visible player in a complex defense, and he is not necessarily the coordinator of that phase of the game. The real defensive leader is often the catcher, who in English is called the catcher. The word that you may already know even if you don’t know baseball: The Catcher in the Rye is in fact the original title of The Young Holden.
The catcher is positioned behind the home plate, face towards the pitcher, and behind the batter. He often gives his teammate directions on which throws to make, while at the same time keeping an eye on the entire pitch, trying to catch a glimpse of the opponents’ movements. His duties, on the other hand, are among the most varied: he must be able to catch the pitcher’s balls when they are oversized; he must throw immediately after a strike if the opponents try to “steal a base”; he has to protect his plate.
WHEN IT GOES TO SERVE
Like the other players, when the team is attacking it takes its turn to serve. Generally, the greatest defenders are perhaps a little less good with the bat, but the coaches, of course, do their math. A common flaw with the role, however, is a sub-extraordinary sprint when running for the basics. This is due to the particular position of the catcher – always bent at the knees – which is particularly stressful on the joints.
Among the greatest receivers in history, we must mention Johnny Bench of the Cincinnati Reds, perhaps the strongest ever. Furthermore, Yogi Berra (the author of the phrase “It’s not over until it’s over” and winner of ten World Series) and the Puerto Rican Iván Rodríguez, recently inducted into the Hall of Fame, also belong to the category of the greatest.
First base (first baseman)
And the other interiors
Who plays first base? I’m not asking you, I’m telling you. Who plays at first base ». Remember this seemingly meaningless sentence? It is repeated by Dustin Hoffman in Rain Man, the famous 1988 film. When we Italians hear it, we don’t really understand what it refers to. We consider it the delusion of an autistic and nothing more. In reality, however, it has a completely different effect on the American public.
The one that mentions the character of Dustin Hoffman is in fact a famous gag by Gianni and Pinotto, or Abbott and Costello. The two American comedians, very popular in the 40s and 50s, used to stage a quick exchange of words on a baseball team. The comic element arose from the fact that athletes with very strange nicknames played on first, second, and third bases. In the first he played Who (Who), in the second What (What), and in the third I-don’t-know (Not-so). Hence a series of hilarious quid-pro-quo: “Who’s on first?” “Who.” “I said: Who’s on first?” “Who.”
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Beyond the gag, first, second, and third bases are important positions in baseball. The first baseman occupies the position to the right of the batter, in the first place that the batter runs to after batting. For this, in addition to defending his area, he must receive the balls thrown by his teammates and coming from all over the field.
SECOND AND THIRD BASE
The second base covers the top of the diamond and is mainly called upon to carry out a double play, a defensive action in which you try to eliminate two opposing players. Finally, the third base occupies the area most “hit” by the balls hit. For this he must also have a powerful army, to direct the collected ball towards first base, on the other side of the diamond.
The greatest first baseman in history was probably Lou Gehrig, a historical athlete of the pre-war Yankees. In more recent times Albert Pujols has particularly distinguished himself, first with the Cardinals and then with the Angeles. Among the second bases, Rogers Hornsby and the legend Jackie Robinson must be pointed out. Finally, among the third bases, the 80s champions Mike Schmidt and George Brett.
Speed and accuracy
We have mentioned three interns, which occupy the first, second, and third bases. However, the package has yet to be completed. In addition to them, in fact, every baseball formation exhibits a shortstop. This player usually places himself between second and third bases, in a very sensitive area of the court. In fact, given that most of the batters are right-handed, here it is natural that a lot of balls end up and you need a particularly dynamic player to recover them.
The shortstop must be efficient in throwing and skilled in the double play, of which he is usually the first advocate. To fill the role you have to be quick and usually, players who are a bit small but fast are chosen for this. Among the greatest performers, we must remember, from the dawn of the game to today, Honus Wagner of the Pittsburgh Pirates, Ernie Banks of the Chicago Cubs, Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees, and his heir Alex Rodriguez.
We conclude with the outsiders, the players who close the defensive formation by placing the farthest from the batter. There are three players, called left fielder, center fielder, and right fielder. Their main task is to grab the fly balls on the fly, but also to retrieve the stray balls that escaped the insiders. Obviously, they have to cover a large portion of the pitch, and for this, they have to be fast and responsive.
Also, you need to have two specific qualities that aren’t necessarily required in other players. First of all, you need to have the ability to read the trajectory of the ball. When this is in flight, in fact, it is necessary to be able to move quickly in the landing area, without losing sight of it and studying its fall line. Also, you need to have big arms to be able to throw the ball very far, even from one end of the court to the other.
Among the three, the most committed is usually the central winger, also because the portion of the field assigned to him goes deeper. The right-winger and left-winger, on the other hand, are called into question less often. Ty Cobb, Willie Mays, Joe DiMaggio, and Mickey Mantle should be mentioned among the strongest center-outs in history.
As for the left-wingers, we remember Ted Williams, Pete Ross, Rickey Henderson, and Barry Bonds. Finally, in the role of right-winger, we must mention the legendary Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, and Roberto Clemente.