Baseball and Heart Health

Engaging in a sport as a player or as a robust fan is surely good for your heart health.  My favorite way to blow stress away and soar on summertime cottony cloud puffs of happiness is to watch a baseball game.

I share my passion for baseball in this Guest Blog post at PLoS Blogs. An Open Letter to Bora Zivkovic on Baseball

Dear Bora,

You said on Twitter that you have lived in the United States for 20 years and have never seen a baseball game and don’t know what the point of the game is.  With the 2011 spring training games now underway, I must respond.

I love baseball.  It seems as natural a part of my life as eating and writing.  Baseball makes me happy.  My team is the New York Yankees.  You notice I said, MY team.  That’s how baseball fans feel about their teams.  The relationship is very personal.  I love the glorious remarkable history of the Yankees.  Lou Gehrig, Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Whitey Ford, Casey Stengel, Catfish Hunter, Reggie Jackson, Thurman Munson.  I wish those names meant something to you.  Each player was a legend and together with the owner, managers, trainers, and coaches, they built a legacy. The Yankees have had streaks of carrying on that legacy with modern players, winning championships and world series.  Baseball needs new heroes now who do amazing things, not for the huge salaries, but out of hard work for the love of the game.

Fans respect the giants of baseball for what they gave to the game and some of them we love for who they were as men.  On the wall of my exercise room is a large reproduction of a famous photograph of Lou Gehrig making his last appearance in Yankee Stadium after he learned he had the fatal paralyzing disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (ALS) that would later bear his name.  In his famous short speech to his fans who had packed the stadium, with his teammates lined up nearby on the field, knowing his fate, he still said: “Fans, for the past two weeks you have been reading about the bad break  I got. Yet today I consider myself the luckiest man on the face of this earth.”

Baseball
Tokyo 2020 Olympics – Baseball – Men – Gold Medal Match – United States v Japan – Yokohama Baseball Stadium, Yokohama, Japan – August 7, 2021. Munetaka Murakami of Japan in action hits a home run. REUTERS/Issei Kato

Gehrig was the first “iron man”, playing 2,130 consecutive games over a span of 15 seasons between 1925 and 1939.  How many people go to work every work day over 15 years, never staying home sick?  During that time Gehrig had 17 hand fractures, back pain, and several different illnesses, but he played through it all.  His streak ended only because he developed ALS.  But his record was so strong it lasted 56 years before 

Cal Ripken, Jr., shortstop and third baseman for the Baltimore Orioles, another true “iron man” with an unyielding work ethic, broke it in 1995. Cal Ripken brought a special joy not just to Baltimore, but to all baseball fans, and won back their respect for baseball after the bitter 1994 strike.  I will always remember the standing ovations fans gave him in city after city his final year as a player, 2001. These were cities that belonged to the opposing teams the Orioles had come to play.  But the other teams’ fans showed their respect for Cal.

You never know when you watch a baseball game if you will be witnessing history.  Lou Gehrig was one of 15 players who have hit four home runs in one game!  Can you imagine the thrill of watching that happen? A home run comes when a batter lays the bat just right on the ball, just right, on the “sweet spot” of the bat, sending the ball rocketing out of the ballpark.  What ecstasy to watch in disbelief the fourth time a batter does that in the same game! How can you have any stresses in your own life on a day that happens?  Bobby Lowe of the Boston Beaneaters was the first to do it in 1894 and Carlos Delgado of the Toronto Blue Jays the last on September 25, 2003. Maybe it will happen again this year. You always hope to see something great in each game you watch.

Gehrig still holds the record for the most grand slams: 23.  A grand slam is a fan favorite.  Especially when it wins a game.  One by one your team’s players hit the ball without it being caught by the other team and they get on base.  In a grand slam the batter stands in the batter’s box (it’s not really a box, Bora) and his teammates are out there on all three of the bases: first base, second base, third base.  If the batter hits a home run, he and all three of his teammates get to run home for a grand slam, a total of 4 runs.  Pretty spectacular to hear the crack of the bat, see the ball ascend over the heads of the outfielders, you suck in your breath, praying please, please, and then shriek as the ball sails out of the ballpark.  “See ya!”, one announcer always punctuates a homer.  Lots of high fives at home plate and in the dugout.  If you’re at home watching, you’re on your feet whooping and hollering, doing high fives with your dog.  You don’t hold back.  There is no holding back in baseball.  Not for fans.  How good you feel, Bora!  This is real happiness.

The point of the game?  The point of the game is to win.  To get more runs than the other team.  To do that your pitcher needs to be better than the other team’s pitcher so that the other team doesn’t hit balls that turn into runs.  A pitcher can be so skilled and so powerful in the way he unleashes the ball, sending it hurtling sometimes 94, 95, 97 mph at the batter as a fastball, a slider, a curveball, a cutter, a changeup, that batter after batter can not get his bat on the ball.  And in some types of pitches it’s more the finesse with which the ball leaves the pitcher’s fingers than the speed that matters.  A battle of wits goes on between the pitcher and the batter, as the pitcher tries to stare down the batter and the catcher crouches behind the batter trying to influence what kind of pitch the pitcher throws. You’ll see the pitcher shake his head back and forth if a pitch the catcher is signaling is not what he wants to throw or nod yes if he agrees with it. The pitch is everything.  A team wins if its batters find a way to hit what the pitcher throws.

And those men in the infield and outfield who chase balls and lurch and dive for them are very important.  Some of the spectacular plays of baseball come from outfielders who leap higher than you think possible and snare a ball about to fly out of the ballpark or throw themselves horizontally after a ball, clutching it in one glove as their body slams bruisingly to the ground.  Derek Jeter, Yankees shortstop and captain, has a signature twisting leap that always astonishes when he catches and then wheels in mid air and throws to first or second base for an out. Infielders often try for a double play, forcing runners out at both first and second base.

One of the grandest events in baseball is when a pitcher pitches a no-hitter.  Through nine innings, not a single man on the opposing team can get a hit. Either the batters are unable to connect the bat to ball or, if they do hit the ball, someone on the other team catches it.  No hits throughout an entire game of some three hours.  An amazing feat! If you are lucky enough to see one, Bora, it is an experience of a lifetime. It is the glory of baseball.

Fans feel baseball.  We are part of the game.  And we like to help manage the team.  In this pre-season time of year we worry about whether our team will be ready for the season.  I worry about what the starting lineup of pitchers will be for the Yankees who will add some new faces this year from youngsters coming up from the minor leagues.  I hope so much that A.J. Burnett who had a terrible season last year will make us proud as a starting pitcher.  I want to get to know the new pitching coach Larry Rothschild and feel content that I agree with his plan of action.  I feel the pain of distinguished veteran catcher Jorge Posada who will be 40 in August and learned that, barring some emergency, he will never again catch for the Yankees.  “I think I can still catch,” I heard him say in an interview.  He instead will be their designated hitter, a less involved role.  For all the emphasis on team and winning, a team nevertheless is made up of individual men who have feelings and pride, and it is hard to get older in baseball and relinquish leading roles.  A catcher helps direct a pitcher’s throws.  A DH just goes out and takes his turn at bat.

The Yankees will face outstanding competition in the American League East this season.  The Boston Red Sox who were held to low expectations by injuries last year could be a dangerous opponent this spring and the Phillies who snared Cliff Lee, a star pitcher the Yankees badly wanted, now have a starting lineup of pitchers that may be the best in baseball.  The Baltimore Orioles, under new leadership, were showing big improvement the end of last season and might surprise everybody.  There are great expectations for an exciting, suspenseful competitive season.

A baseball game squeezes many intense, anxious moments out of us.  You experience the game individually, willingly allowing what you see and hear and hope for to penetrate your senses and govern your soul.  Watching baseball is a take-no-prisoners commitment.  And yet it is also a spring and summertime and fall layback, informal, take-the-family group event where you eat and chat and join with thousands of others as you root for your team.  You can also enjoy baseball about as much by watching a good game on TV.  In fact, @Hudsonette recommends doing that before you go to your first game in person because you learn a lot by listening to savvy announcers call the game and explain what’s happening.

Some cool people on Twitter love baseball and send you some sage reasons why, if you give it a try, Bora, you will love it, too:

If you’re unfamiliar with baseball, it helps to watch a game while listening to great announcers, such as Vin Scully of the L.A. Dodgers, or Ken Singleton with the Yankees.  They will not only explain what just happened, which can be baffling because often several things are happening at once, but also the strategic choices and the moment to moment tension of competing interests involved in each pitch and each play.  It’s intricate, complex, dependent on individual skill choreographed with other teammates while battling the sun, wind, physical injuries, mental lapses, and the opponents’ own hidden stratagems.  It’s a game of statistics coupled with human grace.  

There’s not much more beautiful than watching the great relief pitcher Mariano Rivera strike out a batter with his cut fastball, or the sound of a ball hit perfectly on the sweet spot of the wood, or the shortstop Derek Jeter appearing out of nowhere to make an intricate play that saves the game.  There’s no greater anguish than being a Cubs fan.  But above all, it’s fun to go to a game, even a minor league game, sit in the sunshine, eat what you want, say what you want very loudly, and get away completely from the troubles of the world.

I don’t watch other sports. Baseball is different. No sport is as literary as baseball is. It’s a slow, evolving story that takes place over nine innings–no timers, no buzzers, no masks. The game begins with two protagonists, two pitchers, and goes from there.