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SportsColumnistsMark Herrmann

Questions and arguments are fundamentals of baseball

Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Roger Clemens delivers

Boston Red Sox starting pitcher Roger Clemens delivers a pitch to the Baltimore Orioles. (June 22, 1995) Credit: AP

Baseball is peppered with fierce competitiveness, dramatic intensity and consistent buzz. Some of which actually happens on the field.

Much of it, though, occurs everywhere else. People take baseball home with them, and to work, to taverns, to the beach, on the train. The point is, baseball is not just seen. Probably more than any sport, it is talked about and argued over.

Safe or out. Yankees or Red Sox. Mets or Yankees. Willie, Mickey or the Duke. Steroids. The Hall of Fame. What the heck were they thinking?

Baseball is not the national pastime it once was, certainly not in comparison to the wildly popular NFL. But baseball can hold its own with any sport in terms of going the distance 12 months a year. It is arguably the best offseason sport because it is so arguable.

Who should sign whom? Who should be fired? Who should be hired? Is any of it a good idea? Those are just the sounds of winter in a sport that never runs out of questions.

In his book "Clearing the Bases: The Greatest Baseball Debates of the Last Century," sportswriter and columnist Allen Barra took on the notion that fans dream mostly of hitting the game-winning homer. He doesn't buy it. "I'm fairly certain," he wrote, "that most of us would have proved to have devoted more time and energy wondering and arguing about who was better than who than in fantasizing ourselves into games."

He added, in what was the first of his two books on baseball debates, that he receives "hundreds of letters and emails a year" on questions such as, "Who is the best hitter? Who's the best pitcher? What's the best team of all time?"

Baseball is ripe for examination and cross-examination because of its numbers. Just about every part of the game is quantifiable, and all of those statistics can either settle or fuel an argument. Barra uses data to assert that Pete Rose was overrated, that Lefty Grove was the best pitcher in the first half of the 20th century, that Roger Clemens was the best in the second half and that Mike Schmidt was greatly underappreciated. And yes, he adds, "Babe Ruth is an American creation myth."

You can argue with those ideas, and he would prefer you did. The back-and-forth is as much a part of baseball as peanuts and Cracker Jack.

Talking baseball is entwined with playing or watching it. These days there is such a bevy of new metrics that baseball followers can debate which statistic they can use as the basis for their debate. Does OPS (on-base plus slugging) weigh on-base percentage heavily enough? Should we give WAR (wins above replacement) a chance?

There are other reasons why baseball is such a talking game. The pace allows a person to digest what's going on and reflect on it. Plus, it is all out there in the open, without any intricate X's and O's.

Most important is that nobody ever really figures out baseball. How can whacking a round ball with a rounded bat be described as hitting it squarely? Seriously, who can explain how Rays pinch hitter Dan Johnson, batting against the Yankees with two outs in the ninth on the final night of last year's regular season, carrying a .108 average and one home run, hits a home run that affects the entire season?

Questions keep coming. No one has all the answers, not even the people you'd expect to say that they do. There is more humility than certainty. Red Sox manager Bobby Valentine, for instance, said during spring training, "The only thing that everyone does and that everything does, and they do it at the same time and do it forever, is change. Even dead people change." The Yankees' Alex Rodriguez said, "One thing about this game, it never stops for anybody." Just being able to play it, he said, means "we're the fortunate ones."

Here's a question: What other sport ever produced the likes of Casey Stengel? He testified before a U.S. Senate subcommittee on antitrust laws in 1958 and took the senators on a wild ride, dotting his testimony with ruminations on the weather, sportswriters, night games, Kankakee, Ill., and the fact that former Yankee Bob Cerv made the All-Star team.

Proving that baseball is interesting even when there isn't a game going on, he told the committee: "If I was a chamber of commerce member and I was in a city, I would not want a baseball team to leave the city as too much money is brought into your city even if you have a losing team and great if you have a winning ball team."

Who can argue with that?


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