RtO: Keep the Line Moving

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Each week, author and poet Y.S. Fing looks at the state of baseball, the movements of the game, the ebb and flow and soul of America’s pastime in Roaming the Outfield. This week: “Keep the Line Moving”

One of the foundational texts in my life is ‘The Myth of Sisyphus” by Albert Camus. In only a few pages, the essay says more about existential philosophy than any other work I’ve ever seen. It speaks to something so elemental it’s difficult to perceive it: human beings do and feel best when they focus their attention on the task at hand. Sure, Sisyphus would have wanted some other eternal torment, but pushing a rock up the hill was his fate. No need to fuss about it. No need to resist. Doing the work gave him the opportunity to know happiness.

Albert Camus' "The Death of Sisyphus" locates happiness as, in part, a focus on the task at hand.

Albert Camus’ “The Death of Sisyphus” locates happiness as, in part, a focus on the task at hand.

Baseball helps us to perceive this as well, in its way. The game reminds us that when we attend to the details of the work before us, we can attain fulfillment. In particular, and because I’ve been noticing the way the Nationals offense functioned in last Monday-Thursday series at home against the White Sox, let’s highlight a ‘Keep the Line Moving’ philosophy.

Unlike basketball, or hockey, or soccer, or football, no one offensive player in baseball can carry a team. Everybody has to take a chance at bat. So teams build their lineup around the 3-4-5 hitters and hope everybody else can contribute. But with a keep the line moving approach contributions come more fluidly, more organically, and more consistently. Everybody is on the same page of the book–no matter how you do it: walk, hit-by-pitch, broken bat blooper–get on base. There is no need to drive every runner in. There is only the need to give the next guy the chance to get on base himself.

The best teams are those on which everyone in the lineup is working to keep the line moving. Teams built so that two or three players are RBI-producers are existentially out of whack. Big guns carry a heavier psychological burden and thus fail with greater frequency than batters on a team where run-distribution is set by a different, and more egalitarian, standard. By keeping the line moving, eight or nine players capable of walking and hitting singles is a ferocious run-generating animal.

The Texas Rangers in recent World Series incarnations were that kind of team. Pitchers loathe these kinds of teams where no one is a pushover and every player is capable and driven to the man. Thursday night, the Nats had this look.

White Sox pitcher Dylan Axelrod was made to throw 40 pitches in the first inning, a psychological and physical blow for an opposing pitcher to sustain at the very opening of a long game. How do you recover from throwing nearly half a game in one inning? What other pitches do you have left to show the opposing team? Washington scored one run, but the Nationals intend on wearing down opponents’ pitching staffs. This is by design.

When the players are less concerned with what they produce (home runs or doubles), they are more concerned with plate discipline, taking what is given and setting up the next in the line. In the fourth, the White Sox chose to walk left-fielder Bryce Harper (whose box score line read 3 at-bats, 2 hits, 2 RBIs, 2 runs, and 2 walks) and pitch to third baseman Ryan Zimmerman. Anybody who has watched Washington baseball over the last 6 years knows Zimmerman is a prototypical ‘Keep the Line Moving’ guy. He has the mettle to withstand pressure because he knows putting the ball in play creates positive outcomes.


Veteran Ryan Zimmerman knows well his role in the Nationals’ lineup. (AP)

Zimmerman is even-keel because he knows he doesn’t have to rip the ball over the wall for his team to win. He just has to get the barrel on the ball, and he can do that. He hit an opposite-field double on a full-count pitch, Axelrod’s 103rd and last of the game. By the time the game was over the Nationals had collected 10 hits, 6 walks and 7 runs. By design.

However, the next series, vs. the Braves, showed why it’s never easy to maintain a steady moving down the line. Sometimes good pitching challenges patient batters to swing at that curveball dropping in front of your knees. The line doesn’t move so well anymore. But it’s a long season. The key will be each player finding a rhythm and doing what he can to grind out base after base after base.

In this case, despite futility and frustration, despite being swept at home by a division competitor, like Sisyphus, the Nats’ conditioning is such that, as Camus said, “The struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.”


Y.S. Fing is an author and poet working out of Washington, DC. He roots for the Nationals when he isn’t composing beauty.