A Foreign Game

Why do fans get to keep foul balls at baseball games? Why would a pitcher intentionally walk a batter? Why is it called a foul pole, since a ball that hits it is ruled fair?

These are just a few of the questions I considered at a Mets game last weekend, thanks to the couple from Scotland sitting in front of me, my dad, and my friend Muñoz. The husband and wife (probably about 30 years old) were visiting New York for 10 days and, on their last night in town, decided to attend their first ever baseball game. The guy had some idea what was going because he had played baseball video games. He needed a refresher though—the first question he asked was how many players came to bat each inning.

Later he asked about an intentional walk—not likely he encountered one of those in a video game, I suppose—and we talked about whether it was really necessary to have the pitcher throw four balls as opposed to just ordering the batter to first. As for the reasoning behind the strategy, my dad explained that the Padres figured the next batter, Mets pitcher Dillon Gee, was far less likely to get a hit than Rob Johnson. To confirm this, we pointed to the Citi Field scoreboard and the batting averages for Johnson (.304 at the time) and Dillon Gee (.083).

As the game progressed and my dad continued to answer our Scottish friend’s questions, we joked that by the end of the night the guy would be familiar with the infield fly rule, the double switch, and sabermetrics.

When he asked my dad what happened if the ball landed inside the foul line but then bounced foul, it led to a discussion of the poorly-named foul poles. I butted in to tell him that the Citi Field foul poles are the only pair in Major League Baseball painted orange instead of yellow. He and his wife may have seen the Empire State Building and Central Park, but this fun fact is probably the first thing they told their friends when they got home.

After Lucas Duda smacked a home run, they asked if there was a home run every game. No, at Citi Field there’s certainly not, we told them, so be thankful you saw one, especially one by the home team.

After saying that, part of me expected several more home runs because of what happened when I took my girlfriend to her first baseball game a few years ago. The game featured an umpire’s replay of a home run and a baserunner getting hit by a foul ball. After both of these occurrences I remarked how rare they were. We attended another game that same weekend and, sure enough, both of these things happened again. “I thought you said that hardly every happens?” Megan said twice that night. I looked like a fool, which is common for me in most situations but not often at the ballpark.

What was reinforced for me last weekend was that you don’t realize how complicated a sport is until you have to explain things to someone who is unfamiliar with the game. Muñoz and I debated which of the major American sports was the toughest to understand. Football is extremely complex—even those following the game for years may not know all the rules. But, as Muñoz pointed out, football is still just one team trying to advance the ball down the field and cross a line to get points. A run-scoring play in baseball is far more complex.

Even so, by the 7th-inning stretch I was confident our Scottish visitors could manage in the American League. After an evening of baseball-related queries, they saved their most difficult question for last. Before heading for the exit they asked, “Is the 7 train safe?”

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