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Baseball has been labeled "America's Pastime" because during the late 19th and early 20th century it was the most widely played sport in the country.  Baseball was to that time period as video games and television are to today.  Before television, Ipods, cell phones, video games, etc., baseball was what kids played during their free time after school and on the weekends and during the summer...etc.  It was literally how America "passed the time."   Major League Baseball is as American as apple pie, riding in a Chevrolet, or firing up a barbeque on a warm summer day. 

Baseball is a statistics crazy game—true fans will quote batting averages, fielding percentages, slugging percentages, and just about any stat that you could think of for their favorite teams or players.  We’ll explain the ones that you need to know throughout the season.

How the Game is Played

There are two opposing teams which can field nine players at any given time.  One team is on offense, or “bats,” while another team plays defense, or is “in the field.”  The baseball field is called a diamond because of the shape of the basepaths.  There are four bases—first, second, third, and home plate, and the object of the game is to score more runs than the other team by batting in as many runners across home plate as possible.

A team scores a run when they can successfully advance a runner around all four bases safely.  A runner can get on base by any number of means—a hit, walk, hit by pitch, or error by the fielding team.  Once on base, a runner can steal a base to advance to the next base or advance by another hitter making contact with the baseball, drawing a walk, or getting hit by a pitch.  The runner must cross home plate safely to count as a run.

While there are no penalties in baseball like most professional sports, there are a myriad of rules which keep the game moving in a predictable fashion.  A batter has three chances to hit a pitched ball that is in the strike zone before striking out.  The hitter can also walk if he does not swing at four pitches that are outside the strike zone.  If a player makes contact with a pitched ball, it must travel within the field of play as defined by foul lines which mark the field.  Strangely enough, if a ball hits the foul line, it is considered fair or within play.  If the ball is foul, it results in a strike against that player in his at-bat unless he already has 2 strikes—a player can never have a strikeout on a foul ball unless it is caught in the air by an opposing player.

A baseball game is marked by 9 innings which consist of two half-innings in which one team fields and the other team hits.  At each half-inning the teams switch roles and the team that was in the field comes in to hit and vice-versa.   The hitting team is allowed three outs per half inning to try and score as many runs as possible.  An out can occur on a strikeout, a fielder catching the ball in the air before it touches the ground, a fielder catching the ball in the air and then throwing the ball to the fielder at first base before the runner crosses the first base bag, or catching the ball on the ground and physically tagging the runner with the ball in his hand.  Runners on second and third are said to be in scoring position—this is because they can typically advance to third base and home plate on a ball that is a base hit. 

Regular season

Major League Baseball (MLB) is divided into two leagues, the American League (AL) and the National League (NL).  Each league is further divided into three divisions, west, central, and east.  The regular season lasts from early April through early October.  While NL teams mostly play other NL teams and vice versa with the AL, there are occasional times in the regular season that NL teams will play AL teams.  During the regular season, each team plays 162 games.   These games determine who will go to the playoffs—each division winner and one “wild card” team from each league.     

National League
West Central East
Arizona Diamondbacks Chicago Cubs Atlanta Braves
Colorado Rockies Cincinnati Reds Florida Marlins
Los Angeles Dodgers Houston Astros New York Mets
San Diego Padres Milwaukee Brewers Philadelphia Phillies
San Francisco Giants Pittsburgh Pirates Washington Nationals
  St Louis Cardinals  

American League
West Central East
Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim Chicago White Sox Baltimore Orioles
Oakland Athletics Cleveland Indians Boston Red Sox
Seattle Mariners Detroit Tigers New York Yankees
Texas Rangers Kansas City Royals Tampa Bay Rays
  Minnesota Twins Toronto Blue Jays

Playoffs

The first round, or wildcard round, of the playoffs pits the team with the best record in each league against the wild card team from that league and the team with the second best record against the team with the third best record.  This first round is a best of five series.

The second round of the playoffs, or league championship series (LCS) is for the pennant, or league championship, which consists of the winners from the first round playing each other in a best of seven series.  The last round of the playoffs is the World Series.  The pennant winners from the National and American league play each other in a best of seven series.  Apparently the baseball world only consists of teams in Canada and the United States since only MLB teams are invited to play in the “World” Series.

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Terminology:

 Batting Average: How often a player gets a hit.  Batting average is calculated by dividing the number of hits by total chances to hit.   If a player walks or is hit by a pitch, such actions are not counted as a chance to hit in calculating the batting average.  A .300 batting average (getting a hit 30% of the time) is considered to be above average for a MLB player.

Double play: When a fielding team is able to get two outs during one at bat.  Typically this occurs when a runner is on first base and a ground ball is hit to a player in the infield which throws a ball to get the runner out trying to advance to second base, then throws the ball to first base to get the hitter out as well.  Double plays can come in multiple combinations, however (see strike’em out, throw’em out double play).

Perfect Game – when a pitcher goes a minimum of 9 innings (the length of a normal baseball game) without allowing a single runner to get on base.  This includes not allowing a single walk or hitting a batter (gives the batter an automatic walk to first base).
 
No Hitter (also called a no-no) – when a pitcher goes a minimum of 9 innings without allowing a single hit.  As opposed to a perfect game, a pitcher can still be credited with a no hitter if a batter gets on base through a walk or by an error.
 
Error – when a runner advances a base because of a physical mistake in fielding the ball when perfect execution in the field would have not resulted in the advance.
 
Fielding – As in fielding the ball – the action of collecting the ball by any player on the baseball field.
 
Walk (also called a “base on balls”) – When a batter is pitched 4 balls (as opposed to 3 strikes) he automatically advances to first base.  When a batter is hit by the pitcher, he also advances to first, but it is not statistically counted as a walk.

Mendoza Line: A euphemism for a .200 batting average.  The term came from a reference to Mario Mendoza, a light hitting infielder in the 1970s that usually batted around .200.  A player that is hitting around the Mendoza Line is lucky to still have a job in the Major Leagues.

Pinch Hit: When a player that did not start the game comes in to bat for a player that did start the game. 
Pitcher’s duel: A low scoring baseball game in which very few runs are scored—typically 2 or less per team. 

Rally caps: An expression meaning that the team needs to score some runs in order to win the game typically because the game is getting into the final innings, so the team does not have many more opportunities to score.  The term comes from the habit of baseball players turning their hats inside out or wearing them backwards in order to change their luck for the better.

Strike’em out, throw’em out double play: A double play that results from the fielding team striking the batter out on a third strike call and then throwing a runner out that was trying to steal a base during the same pitch.

People

The Major League Baseball Hall of Fame is located in Cooperstown, New York.  Baseball fans love to debate who are the greatest players of all time and compare them to current stars.  Great baseball players from the past include Babe Ruth, Lou Gehrig, Mickey Mantle, Joe Dimaggio, Hank Aaron, Cal Ripken, and so on.  The all time home run leader, Barry Bonds, recently retired and has not reached eligibility yet to enter the Hall of Fame (a player must be retired for a certain number of years before he is granted eligibility).  It is debatable whether Bonds will be invited into the Hall of Fame because his records are tainted by allegations of steroid use.  Interestingly, the all time leader in base hits, Pete Rose, is also not in the Hall of Fame because of a lifetime ban imposed on him due to betting on games when he was a player and manager.

Current Stars

Alex Rodriguez: Yankees third baseman who is probably the biggest and most controversial star.  He has admitted to steroid use in the past and has a very surly attitude that Yankee haters love to boo him for.

Derek Jeter: Yankees shortstop and team captain.  He is a quiet professional who has won five World Series Championships during his career with the Yankees.

Alex Pujols: Cardinals first baseman.  One of baseball’s true power hitters who has thus far avoided any allegations of steroid use.

Tim Lincecum: Giants pitcher.  Nicknamed “the freak” because of his small frame (5’11” and 172 lbs), high velocity on his fastballs, and quirky delivery, Lincecum is one of baseball’s top young pitchers.  He also happens to be a bit of a hippie which helps to further endear him to San Francisco Giant fans.

Notable Teams and Rivalries

 The Yankees with their 27 World Series Championships are head and shoulders above the other MLB teams in terms of their championship prowess.  In the National League, the St Louis Cardinals have been a frequent playoff team and won the World Series in 2006.  The Los Angeles Dodgers are also a strong team in the National League and have the second most World Series titles of any MLB team with 10 compared to the Yankees 27. 

On the other end of the spectrum, you have to start with the Chicago Cubs who have not won the World Series since 1908, the longest drought in the MLB.  The Cleveland Indians are notoriously bad as well and were parodied in the late 1980’s cult classic “Major League” with Charlie Sheen.   It has been 62 years since the Indians won a World Series, but they did appear in the World Series two times in the 1990s.

The big rivalry in the MLB is the New York Yankees versus the Boston Red Sox.  The rivalry started way back in the early 1900s when the Boston Red Sox sold Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, allegedly so the new owner could finance plays he was producing on Broadway.  Of course Ruth went on to become one of the game’s all time greats, giving rise to the “curse of the Bambino” (Ruth’s nickname was the Bambino) and an 86 year drought of no championships for the Red Sox which finally ended in 2004.  The Yankees lead the Red Sox in wins for both regular season and playoff meetings, but the game is always a big draw anytime the two teams meet.