It’s time for a change, a major change. No other professional sport could attempt this kind of change. Why, because most major sports are confined to a specific playing area, or boundaries. Games of basketball, football and hockey are played in areas with identical dimensions. That means the individual playing areas used by each separate sport are the same width, height and length. The surface of these areas may be different, as in grass vs. turf in football, hardwood vs. parquet floors in basketball, or soft vs. hard ice in hockey rinks, but they offer no advantage when it comes to dimensions. Baseball does not follow suit. Not only do most parks differ in dimensions, but also in the height and distance of their outfield fences. Today’s baseball parks, old or new, offer many nooks and crannies. Sharp angles, high or low outfield fences, catwalks, dugouts and even bullpens within foul territory, all help each park take on its own personality. Oops, I gave it away! That’s right, foul territory and fences are the key words. You see, baseball is the only game where you can play outside the lines, or in foul territory. In other words, the game of baseball is not confined to the playing surface. In no other sport do we go over the ground rules with the opposition before playing the game.
Here’s how this evolution occurred: Before parks were built to seat fans who wished to see the game, there were natural boundaries such as hills, rivers, trees and even train tracks. The so-called home runs were few, and seats were eventually added, when too many fans showed up to simply stand and watch. World Series games were actually played at the turn of the century, where fans formed a semi-circle in the outfield or perhaps a human fence to create boundaries. As the popularity of the game increased with more home runs, so did the number of seats in the park. Each park was built within the space available, in cities or neighborhoods, and, therefore, different dimensions were created. Eventually, seats were also added in most outfields, creating a permanent barrier between a ball in play and a home run. The playing area made up of three bases and home plate are the same dimensions in every ballpark, but the area of foul territory and distance to the outfield fences were determined by the space left over inside the park, after seating had been added. The results can easily be seen. Fenway Park and Wrigley field have virtually no foul territory down the left-field lines, while Camden Yards and Globe Life Park have very little space down the right-field lines.
The height of the fences also differs in each park, with the 37-foot high “Green Monster” in Boston being the highest, to the five-foot leftfield fence at Tropicana Field in Tampa. It’s the amount of foul territory, the home run, and the fact that the game can be decided by plays made outside the field of play, that make baseball unique and different from other professional sports.
So why call it baseball? The game started as a stick and ball contest where the pitcher actually allowed the batter to put the ball in play, in order to move players from one base to another, to score runs. With no fences, there was no such thing as a home run. It was simply called a four-base hit. That’s how the name of the game evolved from a game of bases to being called baseball. Shouldn’t we now change the name of this game? Home runs used to be reserved for sluggers. Every year, more home runs are hit; and every year, they become cheaper and cheaper.
Ty Cobb said it best in 1919 and was perhaps way ahead of his time. The “Georgia Peach” said, “The home run could wreck baseball. It throws out a lot of strategy and makes it fenceball.” Fenceball, there’s the change. Change the name of this game to fenceball. That’s really what the game has come to. The bases seem to get in the way of today’s game. No doubt, Cobb was not ready for “The Babe” and the “Big Bang” approach to the game. In Cobb’s time the game had been described as “little ball,” where the ability to manufacture runs separated the great teams from the rest of the pack. It went against everything Ty practiced and believed about team offense. In the many games that Cobb and Ruth played against each other, Cobb continued to out-hit, out-score and out-play Ruth, only to have “The Bambino” cheered by fans all day. Fenceball. That kind of grows on me and describes the game today so much better. The focus is now on power, distance, fences and scoring, not bases. The bases are simply out there to provide the hitter with directions to home plate.
Andy Purvis is a local author. His books "In the Company of Greatness" and "Remembered Greatness" are on the shelves at the local Barnes and Noble, at Beamer's Sports Grill 5922 S Staples, and online at many different sites including Amazon, bn.com, booksamillion, Google Books, etc. They are also available in e-reader format. Contact him at www.purvisbooks.com, or email@example.com.