We were up there, very near the top of the Tokyo Dome, when my friend turned and asked, "And he can just run... anywhere? Whenever?"
Well, on the bases.
"And if the guy--what if the guy just never pitches, does the game go on forever?"
Here I gave a very bad summary of W.P. Kinsella's The Iowa Baseball Confederacy, which I have never read, and then said that at some point the pitcher's manager would probably put the crowd out of its misery.
Then something happened in the game--I don't remember what--to put me out of my misery. I talked about the hidden ball trick a little later, and that landed well; my friends will now be looking out for it, if they are ever in some other country where they'll watch baseball with me. But it turns out I remember less than I'd thought of the article I read about The Iowa Baseball Confederacy sometime in 2001.
But I got something out of it, even if they didn't: A reminder that baseball is still going on during the parts I've stopped paying attention to, where almost nothing ever happens. If you don't watch baseball for six months a year, you can see right away that something at least might happen: The ball is lava and the bases are safe, and you're out whether your teammate hit the ball in the wrong place or a second baseman pranked you. You want to run some more? There isn't a rule keeping you from doing it, specifically; it's just that there are rules about what happens when somebody tags you with the ball, and the other guys have the ball.
My friends, who have no interest in or experience with baseball, who will die calling a run a point, and who were only there because everything is fun if you're in Japan for the first time and met all your friends playing Super Nintendo, knew intuitively that the game was going on between pitches in a way I was not really capable of thinking about.
I think it's because the "between" part of the baseball is governed by the same broad rules as the rest of the sport. Touch all the bases to score a run. Don't let him tag you with the ball. ("So he could just run home during the pitch?" Yes, exactly.)
So when you hit a home run, you run the bases. That's how you score a run, a point, yes, and the defense cannot tag you with the ball because the ball is in the stands. ("Could he just climb up and get it from somebody?" Well, OK, no.)
It would be faster, and probably more immediately entertaining for my friends, to let the guy who hit the home run strike a giant Papa-John's-branded gong. (Watch Albert Pujols run the bases after yesterday's home run and you will wish it just for his sake.) Home runs happen constantly, and the game is built to incentivize hitting more of them, so the seconds would add up fast.
But getting rid of the home run trot would be needless complexity: It would hide a simple, nearly universal fact of the rules of baseball behind the "simulate game" button. ("OK so he's bringing the gong out, and four times is a Papa Slam, but that's the same points as the other points." Yes. I am sorry for bringing you here.)
One time in a thousand, a baserunner overruns another baserunner and blows it, or almost blows it. This is completely immaterial to a good argument against the Papa John Dong Gong. The argument is on behalf of all the times it happens exactly as planned.
If you're a beginner, especially, a good rule is as broad as you can reasonably make it: You can generalize it and wield it over the rest of the game without running into edge cases that cause your tedious friend to talk with his mouth full of soft pretzel. A bad rule, and a bad rule change, carves out some non-obvious exception with no corresponding benefit.
You can get on base if you hit the ball and nobody catches it, tags you, beats you to the base with the ball. Sometimes it's because you got a hit, sometimes it's because the defense messed up, but it's the same base. Baseball does not care whether you're throwing four balls by mistake or on purpose; the batter is entitled to a base. The existing intentional walk conserves rules perfectly: It's not a rule at all, just the organic adaptation of a much broader one.
Baseball does care about whether you're throwing at a batter by mistake or on purpose, because all broad rules fall down at some point: It's more important to stop headhunting than it is to conserve on-base events, like keeping catchers healthy into their fifties is more important than keeping baserunning perfectly organic around home plate. The infield fly and the balk are confusing and totally opaque, but in the face of game-breaking bugs it's tough to resist a solution, even a messy, arbitrary one. (Even big chunks of the broadest rules are built on fear: We must protect baseball from the fair-foul bunt.)
Baseball is slow, but it's insane to cut into a live-ball situation, along one of the foundational rules of the sport, with the hope of fishing a couple of seconds out of the incision. (Know this: The powers that be are trying to distract you from their failure to bring Nomar Garciaparra and Skip Schumakerr to justice.) An intentional walk is far from the most boring thing that happens at a baseball stadium, even in America. ("Do all the teams also have marching bands in America?" I'm sorry, no, it wasn't my decision.)
More importantly, it's applied baseball. It is constantly being reivented, discovered independently, by people who are like my friends. The pitcher can't just stand there forever if he doesn't want to pitch to this batter ("This Canadian guy, Field of Dreams guy I think, wrote this book, actually--this other book--where, I think,") but couldn't he just throw the ball way outside, then?
I don't even like the intentional walk. Just pitch to the guy. But thousands of games in, hours and hours of intentional walk later, I still wait for the feeling I got the first time I saw a pitcher look overmatched, and the guy they were talking about on Sportscenter was up, and the coach-no-manager looked nervous, and I thought, hey, they don't want this guy, Rich Croushore Gene Stechschulte Luther Hackman Brad Thompson Kelvin Jimenez Dean Kiekhefer, pitching to this other guy, so could they, will they--Yes, exactly.
Most of my friends will never go to a sporting event in America either way, so as far as baseball was concerned I was playing with house money. (Working at a videogame merchandise company is great; nobody will ever ask or tell me what time the Super Bowl is.) There are lots of proposals for creating casual baseball fans, and God knows which ones will work. But here are two: Baseball can shave thirty seconds off the one or five or ten games casual fans will watch in a year, or it can keep giving them this slightly boring lottery-ticket chance at the thirty seconds right after the rules finally stick and the whole field comes into focus--you could see the whole field where we were, every bit of ratty astroturf, but only one of the marching bands--in which they not only understand the present but are suddenly capable of predicting the future.