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Most team sports exhibit military dynamics. Rugby amounts to a melee (the first major form of military organization and doctrine to take hold, ages ago), with some elements of mass and maneuver (the second and third major military doctrines to be developed). Football, the most military of sports, is basically a game of mass and maneuver. Soccer, basketball, and hockey have elements of mass and maneuver (and melees in the case of hockey, and at moments in basketball), but these sports — especially basketball — also demonstrate omnidirectional swarming by dispersed forces (which is just now emerging as a fourth major approach to military organization and doctrine). [See end-note for source.]
By comparison, baseball is not at all military. There is an offense and a defense. But there are no deployed forces mashing into each other. There is no clock to define urgency. And the fabled batter-pitcher duel is more meditative than military. Indeed, baseball’s slow-paced, pastoral, non-military nature is partly why it appeals to so many intellectuals.
Yet baseball manifests one of the most interesting situations for strategy and tactics in all of sports. And that situation is two men on base, at first and third, with one out. It’s not one man on base, since that reduces to whether or not he can be marched around. It’s also not when the offense has three on base — bases loaded — since, though exciting, that starts to narrow everybody’s options.
What’s so interesting about two men on base, especially at first and third with one out, is that the offense looks to be in a very strong situation, threatening to load the bases and/or score a run or two, even more. But curiously, the defense is not equivalently weakened; in some ways, it is strengthened. Both the offense and the defense now have expanded options. Facing two on base and a batter who may hit a pop fly or a weak (or better yet, a sharp?) ground ball, the defense actually has increased odds of gaining an out, and better yet a double play to end the inning. Sometimes, depending on how well the pitcher is doing and who bats next, the defense may deliberately opt to walk the next batter and load the bases, precisely to increase the odds of a double play. Meanwhile, the offense may be plotting to have its next batter bunt and probably be thrown out at first, in order to score the runner from third. Indeed, “let’s first and third ‘em to death” has been a saying among managers. As play pauses between pitches, both team’s managers come heavily into play as strategists; and covert communications via hand signals intensify all around the diamond.
No other sport commonly manifests this situation, where the enhanced position of the offense simultaneously enhances the potential of the defense (though football comes close when the offense drives into the red zone near the goal line, limiting the area the defense must protect). It’s partly why the underdog often stands a fighting chance — and why baseball has such an American essence.
This situation also speaks to a classic dynamic of grand strategy: the so-called security dilemma. Here, the steps that a major power takes to improve its own strength and security — everything from acquiring new weapons systems, to establishing new bases for operations abroad — risks motivating others to pursue offensive and defensive countermoves that end up exposing one to new risks and vulnerabilities, fraying one’s original efforts to improve security. Baseball, the least military of team sports, is the most highly attuned to reflecting this classic dilemma of grand strategy.
[Text is mostly from draft of op-ed published in 2000. The opening, TIMN-derived distinction about four forms of military doctrine and organization — melee, mass, maneuver, and swarming — is from a 2000 study on Swarming and the Future of Conflict, though it first appeared in a 1998 journal article. My thanks to Bob Bridges and Kevin McCarthy for comments that led to edits. Last edited on April 21, 2009.]