A Multiverse Theory Of Baseball
Every ball everywhere.
Sometime next year, I estimate, I’ll see my 500,000th major league pitch. Of all the things that one might describe as “one in a million,” I’ve seen about half. The half that I still haven’t seen I’ll see soon enough. Assuming baseball and I both survive, I should see my millionth pitch around my 70th birthday, perhaps even on my 70th birthday, which I’ll spend watching baseball.
Here’s the latest one-in-a-million thing I’ve seen: It’s Cubs catcher Tucker Barnhart catching a foul pop that had bounced off the protective netting behind home plate, while he is simultaneously receiving a new ball from the home plate umpire:
The umpire and batter and two of the Cubs broadcasters, Joe Girardi and Ryan Dempster, missed it. (So did Barnhart’s manager, the ex-catcher David Ross, a mid-game interview would later reveal.) There’s a fan in the front row wearing sunglasses who tracks the ball the whole way, both directions, and yet doesn’t react at all. The Cubs pitcher Justin Steele gives one clap of approval.
But the Cubs’ play-by-play announcer, Jon Sciambi, lets out a huge yOOOOOH! when Barnhart makes this catch. That’s a man who appreciates the spirit of what we’re all doing out here. A few pitches later, the broadcast replays the catch from two different angles. Sciambi’s joy is unrestrained as he gets to describe it:
There’s a foul ball
off the screen,
watch Tucker Barnhart—
off the SCREEN and—
he makes the catch!
Girardi, joking mildly: [The batter] should be out.
Change the RULE.
/laughing as the catch is replayed again
We got a ball *there*
and a ball >there<
Making a PLAY
I was on Hang Up And Listen this week talking about unfortunate birds getting hit by thrown baseballs. The news peg was Zac Gallen hitting a bird with a curveball while throwing in the outfield before a game; the subject was, mostly, Randy Johnson smoking the bird; the tangent was the baseball fan’s relationship to astounding coincidence. I got to tell the Richie Ashburn story: Fouled a ball off a woman in the crowd, and as she was being carried out on a stretcher, fouled another ball off her.
You gotta stop sometimes and think about how much baseball there is. In the majors alone, there are roughly 48 hours of new baseball produced in every 24-hour period from spring into fall. This daily routine has been going for 150 years, and the majors are just one skinny sheet of it. Baseball-Reference lists, in its historical index, more than 500 professional minor leagues. Not 500 minor league teams, but 500 professional leagues. There are 1,700 colleges with active baseball programs. (You don’t even want to fathom what’s happening in high school ball.)
Everything that can happen will happen. There are only so many ways for atoms to be arranged; there are only so many ways for baseballs to interact with all of those atoms.
Hours after we recorded that episode of Hang Up And Listen—an episode, remember, on the extreme rarity of birds being hit by baseballs—Will Brennan, a second-year player for the Cleveland Guardians, hit a groundball to left field that hit a bird standing a few feet in front of the infield dirt. The bird went down like a bowling pin. Here’s a video, if you want to see that.
The Associated Press wrote it up, with a notable emphasis—in the headline, in the lede, and in several additional paragraphs—on the fact that Brennan hadn’t done it on purpose. Well, yeah, we know! It’s very clear that Will Brennan hadn’t intentionally hit a little bird standing 100 feet away with a batted ball in the middle of his 52nd big league game.
The intention of every baseball play is essentially the same: The pitcher wants to throw a pitch that the batter can’t hit, or at the very least can’t hit very hard. The batter wants to wait for a good pitch to hit, and if he gets one then to hit it hard. If the hitter succeeds at hitting it, the fielders just want to bring order back to the game by stopping the ball and ending the play. There’s practically no way to plan anything other than this. The motives are all prescribed and the paths are restricted.
So a lot of the variety comes by accident. Hard hit balls become line drive outs; perfect pitches become broken-bat singles; stuff hits other stuff. Accident is really at the core of baseball, no matter how controlled everybody’s intentions.
José Caballero was facing Andrew Heaney recently. Runner on second, nobody out. Caballero squared to bunt the runner over. This is as under control as baseball gets; Heaney just wants to throw a strike, while Caballero aspires to merely redirect it a few feet, setting up the defense for an easy play while the runner on second moves ahead one station. Heaney throws a fastball perhaps two inches off the inside corner and Caballero decides not to bunt at it; the controlled, predictable baseball scenario gets even more controlled and even more predictable, a straight pitch flying unobstructed into a padded mitt. And, yet, something you’ve never seen in your life happens:
Right off the last two inches of the bat. “Foul Bunt” is how that play gets logged. There have been, by my rough estimate, 200,000 foul bunts in major league history, but I’m not sure there have been two of what José Caballero did.
It can be stifling to think too much about multiverse theories. What is anything if everything is just one coin flip in a limitless expanse of infinite coin flips, all of it mathematically inevitable?
Ah, but freeing, too. To know that everything will happen frees you to imagine it happening. Speak it into the realm of the possible, and then be patient, and you will be rewarded.
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