At the Park

The first major-league parks, back in the nineteenth century, were little more than sandlots with rows of precarious wooden bleachers—one step up from those vacant, rock-strewn lots in Chelsea. Eventually they were ringed, frontier-style, with a stockade fence so the owners could monopolize what was going on inside—charge for admission and food sales; shake down or expel gamblers who dogged the game; expand the fan base to the growing middle class, to children, and even women. These changes were akin to Vegas going family—or to the incandescent cities of fire that rose along the sands of Coney Island during the same period, replacing the site of louche entertainments with the very first official amusement parks.

The crowds often broke the walls on the afternoons of big games. But like the cities in which they were contained, the parks were steadily improved by fire. Just as the city's wood shanties were replaced by ornate, block-long apartment buildings, by skyscrapers and bridges, and grand railroad stations and gorgeous, humming, electrical generators, the ballparks were replaced by concrete-and-steel structures that sprouted second tiers and outfield bleachers—everything getting bigger and better, all the time.

Just as the country seemed to stretch away forever before the first immigrants, so the ball field is theoretically infinite, the foul lines moving ever farther away from each other until they encompass all of existence. How to traverse this infinite landscape? Just as American industrialists, confronted with seemingly boundless plenty, invented time management, trying to convert all they saw before them into a rational system of production, so, too, have baseball's acolytes always tried to break the game into more and more precise statistics, some narrative that will allow us to measure every movement on the field.