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), but these sports, especially basketball, mainly demonstrate omnidirectional swarming by dispersed forces (which is just now emerging as a fourth major approach to military organization and doctrine).
By comparison, baseball is not at all militaristic. There is an offense and a defense. But there are no deployed forces mashing into each other. And the fabled batter-pitcher duel is more meditative than military. Indeed, baseball's slow-paced, pastoral, nonmilitary nature is partly why it appeals to so many intellectuals and why an occasion like the Subway Series prompts so many nostalgia-laden analyses by East Coast writers.
Yet baseball manifests one of the most interesting situations for strategy and tactics in 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 he can be marched around. It's also not when the offense has the 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 strong situation, threatening to load the bases and/or score a run or two or three. 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 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, to score the runner from third. Indeed, "let's first and third 'em to death" is a common saying among managers. As play pauses between pitches, both teams' managers come heavily into play as strategists, and covert communications via hand signals intensify all around the diamond.
No other sport commonly manifests such a 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 (as in Yemen)—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.
David Ronfeldt, a senior social scientist at RAND, is co-author of "Swarming and the Future of Conflict" (RAND, 2000).
This commentary originally appeared in Los Angeles Times on October 27, 2000. Commentary gives RAND researchers a platform to convey insights based on their professional expertise and often on their peer-reviewed research and analysis.