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Original Issue

The DiMaggio Code

Aspiring taxi drivers in London learn the names and locations of 25,000 streets and 20,000 landmarks within a six-mile radius of Charing Cross train station, and the shortest routes between them, before they're awarded a Green Badge to operate a black cab in that ancient, fogbound city. This education—it takes about four years, like college—is called "doing the Knowledge," or simply "doing the K."

This summer, for the first time, my children are doing the K, only the ancient, fogbound city they're studying isn't London, it's Baseball, a mystifying metropolis of endless side streets and points of interest in which the K at the start of Knowledge gets turned around—like a switch-hitter or the bill of a catcher's helmet—whenever a batter strikes out looking.

Until you become an ancient wizard charged with passing on the game's knowledge to young apprentices, you don't realize how much of baseball custom is counterintuitive, and indeed counterclockwise, which is why so many rookie Little Leaguers instinctively run to third base after getting their first hit.

Little League is celebrating its 75th anniversary this month and is a powerful gateway drug to Major League Baseball fandom. And so my children, three of whom started playing Little League this spring, have become suddenly hooked on the big league game as well, falling headlong into its bottomless abyss of statistics, logos, customs, ballparks, mascots and secret handshakes. "Is corking a bat only illegal in baseball?" my nine-year-old asked during a recent conclave in front of the TV. "Or is it, like, against the law in the real world too?"

The kids have asked why innings start at the top and end at the bottom when all other things in their world—stairways and rock walls, Lego houses and bunk-bed ladders—start at the bottom and end at the top. By now they know how to decipher the default graphic overlay on most televised games: the series of dots signaling balls and strikes, the squares that show runners on base, the pitch count, the pitch speed and the pitch location. They announce the information with each new pitch, as if cracking the Enigma code during World War II. Which is what all of baseball is, really—encrypted information, like the signs flashed by the third base coach, often indecipherable even to its intended recipient.

Learning baseball is like learning Cyrillic: There's that specialized baseball-cap alphabet of linked NYs and TCs and STLs. But learning baseball is also like learning algebra, American history, geography, poetry and agronomy, all at the same time. And so we've discussed the science of mowing patterns, the tricks of light and shade that make the grass at Citi Field appear as beams of light emanating outward from home plate, a pattern we now call the Tejada Sunrise.

Every pitch brings a new conundrum. What gender is the pantsless Phillie Phanatic? (Its pink eye shadow hints at phemininity.) Why are umps so fond of pleated pants? (Flat fronts are never as roomy.) So many more of these questions are unanswerable, including "Why is the cartoon Oriole on the Orioles cap wearing an Orioles cap without the cartoon Oriole on it?" When the kids ask why the pitcher is the only position player entitled to his own cleat cleaner, it's clear that even if I live to 900, like Yoda, I'll expire before the questions do.

The difference between doing the Knowledge in London and doing the Knowledge in Baseball is the latter study never ends. Baseball is a test you cannot pass. In a quarter century of sportswriting I've learned 3% of its streets and cul-de-sacs and power alleys. And that's a good thing. Samuel Johnson wrote, "When a man is tired of London, he is tired of life," an assertion truer still of baseball.

In a recent conversation about the minimal acceptable batting average for a major league player, the children discovered the Mendoza Line, named for career .215 hitter Mario Mendoza. And so they crossed the Mendoza Line together, the way Lewis and Clark crossed the Continental Divide. Which is to say, on the other side, a little more of the world was revealed.

Until you're charged with passing on the game's knowledge, you don't realize how much of baseball custom is counter-intuitive.

What questions do you have about baseball arcana?

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