Baseball is unusual as team sports go. For example, the limit lines are in play, not out of bounds. The defense, not the offense, has the ball. Finally, and in my view, the most distinguishing feature is the lack of a clock. Some claim that baseball is freed from the tyranny of time, yet from the standpoint of physics, this is simply not the case.
Every physical system can be described by its natural “time scale.” The universe is about 13 billion years old, so all the stars, planets, asteroids — indeed, all the matter is also billions of years old. Everything on the universal scale such as the creation and destruction of stars or the formation of galaxies and solar systems happens in billions of years. So physicists say that the time scale for the universe is about a billion years.
Other systems have shorter time scales. Earth has its natural time scale set by the time it takes to orbit the sun – one year. The growth of plants, the erosion of beaches, the rise and fall of reservoirs occur in years. Mammals also have a natural time scale, their heart beat. All mammals have about the same life span when measured in heart beats. Elephants have a very slow heart rate and live much longer than mice with their rapid rhythms.
No question, baseball is freed from the tyranny of an arbitrary external clock. There are no 15-minute quarters or 20-minute periods. However, the timelessness of the National Pastime is associated with its lack of a single time scale. Baseball happens over times as long as a century to as short as a millisecond. To make my point, lets take a quick look across the time scales of baseball from the longest to the shortest.
When your great-grandfather took your grandfather to his first game, the action was much the same as when your mother took you. The game itself has been largely unchanged since it was formalized well over a century ago. So, we don’t actually know the largest time scale for the game, but it is safe to say it is at least a century. There are shorter cycles within the game.
Careers are usually measured in years or, on rare occasions, decades. The most common time scale is the season, from the beginning warmth of spring until the chill of autumn. However, baseball breaks this into smaller segments, describing feats as either pre- or post-All-Star break. The leagues bestow awards such as pitcher of the month or player of the week. The game day is yet another cycle. Players have rituals from meal and exercise regiments to warm-up routines, fielding drills, and batting practice all leading up to game time.
The game itself, measured in innings, is the clearest example of a lack of an external clock. The Baseball Almanac claims the longest game to be the 1984 marathon between Chicago and Milwaukee, taking over eight hours and going into 25 innings. The shortest game was between the New York Giants and the Philadelphia Phillies in 1919, completed in only 51 minutes. Don’t worry, the fans got their money’s worth. This was the first game of a double header.
Within the game itself, there are shorter time scales, like the at-bat. They can last many minutes, like the legendary 24 pitches fouled off by Luke Appling that eventually resulted in a walk. On the other extreme, an at-bat can be a short as the few seconds it takes to pop up the first pitch. Again, as with innings – no fixed time scale.
Shorter times are also vital to the game. For example, it is claimed that Mickey Mantle, when batting left handed, was able to reach first base in 3.1 xseconds. On the other extreme, we sometimes wonder if Prince Fielder will ever get there. The flight of the ball, whether a homer or a pop-up, also generally takes just a few seconds. A pitch covers the distance from the mound to the plate in just under half a second.
Believe it or not, there are vitally important events that occur at even shorter times. The collision between the ball and the bat lasts around one-thousandth of a second. Yet, within that incredibly short time, the flight of the ball is almost completely determined.
In summary, baseball happens over times that vary from centuries to milliseconds. Your local neighborhood physicist would say the time scales of baseball cover “10 orders of magnitude.” So, like everything in the universe, baseball is ruled by the constraints of time.
Nonetheless, baseball has two great temporal distinctions. There is no arbitrary external clock imposed on the game. And there is the great breadth of its time scales. It is not the lack of a clock, but the expansive range of time scales that make the National Pastime timeless in the deepest, most meaningful, sense of the word.