October 6, 2016
Imagining a Position-Less Baseball
There is little nuance in the names we use for baseball’s positions—they describe, simply and directly, either what you do or where you stand. The pitcher pitches; the right fielder is in right field; the shortstop stretches this characterization by being a 19th century adaptation of the cricket term “long stop,” but whatever. The logic is, on the whole, satisfyingly and explicitly clear, and it gives us a language that is specific and deliberate.
But sometimes the circumstances of the game force us to question the foundations of that language’s specificity. To wit—the first baseman covers first base. And yet:
That is one moment of extreme caring in a late-September affair that was full of not caring. The bottom of the fourth inning in last Wednesday’s Cubs-Pirates game, the outcome of which meant nothing to two teams with futures already decided. It was Anthony Rizzo (first baseman playing in to defend against a bunt) and Ben Zobrist (second baseman covering first base for this one play) and Clint Hurdle (maybe a fierce defendant of the rules, maybe a frustrating pedant, definitely someone who cared very much about this play in this moment).
Rizzo and Zobrist had switched positions, Hurdle told the umpiring crew, and so they would need to change gloves―a first baseman’s mitt, after all, is different from the gloves of other infielders. The umpires agreed; Joe Maddon briefly cared and then cared not so much; Rizzo and Zobrist changed gloves as they were asked; the bunt advanced the runner; the unimportant baseball went on.
Hurdle, to reporters after the game: “It’s in the rulebook.”
Maddon, to reporters after the game: “There’s no actual rule that says you can’t do that. ... It’s all semantics.”
Different. Yet both right! Also both wrong! Hurdle is correct in that the Official Baseball Rules specify the size of a first baseman’s mitt compared to that of other fielders’ gloves. Maddon is correct in that the rules say nothing about who a first baseman is or what distinguishes him from a second baseman. Maddon is also correct in that, really, what isn’t all semantics? (This, though, is beside the point.)
The Official Baseball Rules—real name, same subtlety we get in the names of the positions themselves—tells us exactly what a first baseman’s glove must be. But in so doing, they rely on a presumed collective understanding of who and what a first baseman is. There’s no official definition of a first baseman; there’s not even any official requirement that there be a first baseman. There’s only the mandate that “when the ball is put in play at the start of, or during a game, all fielders other than the catcher shall be on fair territory” (Rule 5.02).
“What is a first baseman?” then, is not so much the weird existential question it might seem. For Joe Maddon on Wednesday, the first baseman was the guy who had been written on the lineup card as such, his relative distance from first base notwithstanding. The first baseman is the first baseman because he’s the first baseman, or something along those lines. For Clint Hurdle, the first baseman was the guy covering first base, even if only for one play. And so this can be a question of identity or proximity or semiotics or Anthony Rizzo’s feelings about who and what he is—it’s just not a question with a satisfying answer in the Official Baseball Rules.
These written rules only address positioning to say that there are no rules, but the rulebook itself is built on a shared and unspoken understanding regarding these positions that it does not identify. We are expected to recognize meaning as use here, to understand that the first baseman exists and that he must wear the glove that is explicitly described in Rule 3.05, but we are given no definition of what he is or description of who he might be.
This open-endedness is not a bad thing. But in situations like these—places where the rules demand precision on one count and remain deliberately ambiguous on all others—it is a confusing thing. This is where our shared and unspoken understanding of positions begins to fall apart, because the rulebook demands that we speak something without giving us any guidelines on what to say. Does the position exist as something tied to the fielder himself or as something tied to the specific space on the field? Neither? Both? An umpire’s judgment, a player’s intent, a reflection caught between the fielder and how we perceive him—a matter of perspective, or an absolute state?
This is where we have the shift, where we can begin to conceive of defense as something built on fielders rather than positions. And this is also where we have pushback on the shift as something that might be legislated against, as a compromise of some supposedly implicit moral component of defensive positioning.
It is not so much a gray area as it is a blank space. This is where we might imagine some future version of baseball as more or less position-less, where we can peel back the century of convention that weighs on the names of these positions and question what gives them their meaning in the first place. It’s a weird intersection of rules written and unwritten, pressing us to decide which one is laid atop the other.
It’s all semantics, basically. But maybe it doesn’t have to be.