Baseball for the Non-Enthusiast

Those of you who aren’t in tune with the sports world might not be aware that regular season baseball started earlier this week, with teams across the country celebrating their Opening Days on March 31 and April 1. But wait, you might say, aren’t there still basketball games going on? Isn’t hockey still in season? Yes, and yes. This is the time of year where several major sports seasons overlap, and if you happen to live with a sports fan you may want to plan on making good use of your DVR in the coming weeks. But whether you anticipate catching a few baseball games at the bar or just want to be able to follow the water cooler conversations, here are a few key concepts to help you understand the national pastime.

Major league vs. minor league

Chances are that if you’re watching a game on TV, it’s a major league baseball (MLB) game. This is the top tier of professional baseball, and this is the level to which most (if not all) professional baseball players aspire. MLB teams are split into two leagues, the National League (NL) and the American League (AL), which are in turn split into three divisions: East, Central, and West. So if you were to map it out, it would look like this:

MLB Structure

Teams usually play other teams within their league, but occasionally will face off with teams from the other league; this is called interleague play. Both leagues follow the same rules with one major exception: the designated hitter. More on that later.

Minor league baseball is the next step below MLB. The minor leagues are also broken down into various subcategories, including Triple-A and Double-A. Triple-A teams often consist of young players who are not quite ready for MLB, and veteran MLB players who are recovering from injury. You might hear of someone being “called up from the minors” to play in a major league game. Double-A is a step below Triple-A, though some players may be pulled from Double-A to play in an MLB game.  Triple-A and Double-A teams are affiliated with MLB teams. So, for example, the Boston Red Sox is an MLB team, the Pawtucket (R.I.) Red Sox – “Paw Sox” – is its Triple-A affiliate, and the Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs is its Double-A affiliate. There are also many independent leagues throughout the country, in addition to college, high school, and youth teams.

Terms to know

Inning – The period of play where each team gets a chance at bat and a chance to field. There are nine innings in a standard game, though if the teams are tied at the end of nine innings the game goes into extra innings.
Top of/bottom of the inning – At the top of the inning (first half), the home team is in the field and the visitor team is at bat. At the bottom of the inning (second half), the home team is at bat and the visiting team is in the field.
Infield/Outfield – The infield is usually the dirt portion of the field, where the bases, pitcher’s mound, and home plate are. The outfield is the grassy part beyond the infield.
Base – The white squares on the field; there are three (first, second and third base) plus home plate.
Run – A run is scored when a player has circled first, second, and third base and then makes it to home plate.
Out – A player is out if he gets three strikes, or if he hits the ball and it is caught before it hits the ground, or if the ball reaches the base before he does, or if he is tagged by another player who is holding the ball. Three outs end the half-inning, at which time the teams switch and the team that was fielding gets to bat.
Designated hitter – A player who is designated to hit in place of the pitcher in an American League game. The National League does not allow designated hitters, so pitchers are expected to bat.
Safe – The player is safe if he has managed to make it to a base without any of the above occurring.
Strike – The batter either swung and missed, or did not swing at a pitch that was in the strike zone. Three strikes constitute an out (called a strikeout).
Ball –Aside from the actual baseball, when a player is up to bat and the pitcher throws it outside of the established strike zone – and therefore outside of the batter’s reach – the pitch is called a ball. After four balls, a batter gets to go to first base (called a walk).
Foul – The batter hits the ball out of play (i.e., far left of the field, far right of the field, or backwards). A foul counts as a strike, unless the player already has two strikes – players cannot strikeout on a foul ball. However, if someone from the other team catches a foul ball before it hits the ground, the batter is out.
Full count – When a player has two strikes and three balls, it is considered a full count. On the next pitch the batter will either strikeout, walk, or hit a foul.
Home run – The batter hits the ball out of the park, allowing him to circle the bases and get back to home.
Pop-up/pop-fly – When a batter hits the ball high in the air, but not far enough to get it out of the infield, it’s a pop-up.
Umpire – An official who monitors the game, determines whether players are out or safe, judges balls versus strikes, and generally ends up pissing off at least half of the fans and several of the players in any given game.

Find additional terms and definitions here.

Jared Vincent / Foter.com / CC BY

Final tips

  • Baseball players score runs. Do not talk about goals, touchdowns, or points. Do ask what the score is or how many runs the team has scored.
  • Do not call umpires “referees” – they are umpires (or “umps”).
  • Do not ask how much time is left in the game, since innings are as long or as short as it takes for nine innings (or possibly more) to be played. You should ask which inning it is and whether it’s the bottom or the top of the inning.
  • Try not to yell “Home run!” every time a player hits it beyond the infield. There’s a good chance that balls hit within the ballpark will be caught by an outfielder.
  • Do ask questions when you don’t understand something – assuming the person you’re with is not so intense that they refuse to speak during the game – because that’s the best way to learn more about the sport!
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