Spring Quarter 2020
Cleveland. Golfbaseball, the nation's newest professional sport, began here in '04 and has since spread to teams in seven other cities. Amid controversy, the sport is catching on with fans who can relate to the vagaries of golf and the strategy of baseball. Ironically, one aspect about the sport is not controversial: golfbaseball is neither baseball nor golf, but a strange hybrid. Because it is played on a baseball field it resembles that sport far more than golf, but its detractors -- including many officials in major league baseball who fear fan erosion -- freely use the terms "bastard child" and "gimmick" to describe the game.
But there is no mistaking that the fans love it. For whatever reasons, golfbaseball has caught on with a public hungry for a new spectator sport. Four more cities will join the National Golfbaseball League this year.
National Golfbaseball League Teams
Planned (team names not yet determined)
So what is golfbaseball? Like baseball, there are two teams, each with eight instead of nine players (see box); one team is 'up' or 'at bat' while the other team takes the field. It is played in baseball stadiums - for now all minor league parks - with the same infield and outfield layout as baseball games. An exception is that immediately in front of home plate is a specially-designed green hitting mat (more about which later).
Players in Golfbaseball
Equipment in Golfbaseball
From here the similarities between golf and baseball diverge. Instead of wooden bats the players use -- yes, of course -- a golf club. And not just any golf club, but one specially made for the game. It is a 50 degree pitching wedge whose head is twice the normal golf club's size, and whose toe end is flat so it can be used as a putter. Why a head twice as big? Well, to hit a bigger ball, that's why. All heads are made of titanium and the shafts of graphite, to keep the weight as low as possible. Because there are right- and left-handed players, and varying player heights, each team must carry a sizable selection of these specially-made pitching wedges.
The two-piece balata golfbaseball is double the diameter of a regular golf ball, and slightly smaller and lighter than a baseball. Although it looks like a golf ball (dimples and all), it is thrown (yes, thrown) just like a baseball. The combination of a large-headed club and a large golfbaseball means that a full swing with the wedge club will carry the ball a maximum of about 150 yards, or 450 feet. Baseball fans will recognize this distance - enough for an out-of-the park home run. Surely every player will be able to hit a home run, right?
If an over-the-fence shot was that simple golfbaseball wouldn't be the fastest growing pro sport in America; every player would hit a 'home run' and the game would soon grow boring. But the creators of golfbaseball injected more than a modicum of skill and strategy, which keeps the fans returning.
Each player 'at bat' places the golfbaseball anywhere on a 2 x 2-foot artificial grass mat, located just ahead of home plate; no tees are used. The grass nicely simulates a 1/4 inch cut, with one major exception; there are no divots. From the mat the player can use his club in numerous ways, depending on the situation, his skill, and the infield/outfield makeup.
He can use the flat toe end of the wedge to direct a sharp putt anywhere in the infield. If his putt bypasses the two infielders he makes it to base and advances any runners. To prevent unfieldable dribble putts the ball must travel 12 feet from the hitting green; anything less and the player is OUT. And if the putt goes fouls he is also OUT. Thus, there are three ways to get out with a putt: foul ball, hitting a less-than-12-foot putt, and being thrown out at the plate. Not much room for error.
Now consider the 50-degree full wedge shot. A good player can make a short pitch to the outfield, like a baseball "blooper" and score a hit. Or he can pitch the ball over the fence, but in golf baseball that's not a guaranteed home run. (Note that here a pitch means something entirely different from the pitch thrown in baseball. In golf a pitch sends the ball a short distance in the air, using a lofted club like a pitching or sand wedge. There is no baseball-type pitch in golfbaseball because there is no pitcher.)
Home runs don't come easy. A home run requires placing the ball between upright goal posts, similar to the goal posts used in football. In golfbaseball there are three such goal posts, one each in right, center and left field. The distance between the uprights is a mere 10 yards - 30 feet! (Next time you play golf try hitting a 30-foot wide green from 150 yards out.) The right and left-field set of goal posts each has its outside post flush against the foul lines.
If a player attempts to pitch the ball between the uprights, and it goes over the fence any place else, he is OUT. The philosophy here is similar to golf. Every stroke counts. Except that, instead of adding to your score, an errant stroke in this game can easily lead to an OUT. The ball strays outside the foul lines? OUT. The ball is putted less than 12 feet? OUT. The player whiffs the ball? OUT.
Of course a top professional golfer hits a high percentage of shots correctly; for the pros, something like 75% of all drives stay on a narrow fairway, thus avoiding the rough. And these pros can easily hit a normal-sized green from 150 yards out. But remember, a home run has to travel 150 or so yards and fly between a pair of vertical uprights -- not the same thing as landing on a green from that distance. The latest statistics show that only 7% of home run attempts are successful - the rest are either short of the fence and hence fieldable, or else fly over the fence not between the uprights, in which case the player is OUT.
Furthermore, to play this game you need much more than golf-striking skills; you need running and fielding ability. You're not likely to find either skill in abundance in professional golf or major league baseball. Indeed, a whole new group of stars has emerged, almost none well known before they joined a golfbaseball team.
Like Sandy 'Bonito' Jones, currently the hottest player in the game. As centerfielder for the Cleveland Greens, Jones has racked up an amazing lifetime driving average of .457 (the next highest player, Mike Elgar of the Chicago Tees, has a .404). That means that 45.7% of every swing he takes lands him on base or is a home run. He had 18 home runs last season, and a total of 44 in his first three years on the team.
So in "hitting" the ball and running the bases, there are similarities to baseball. But the differences are (to use a pun) striking. Each player 'at bat' has one swing per inning only; if his golfbaseball is caught by an in- or out-fielder, or the ball goes over the fence but not between the uprights, or is fouled, he is out. If the ball is fielded he can also be thrown out at first base (or his teammates can be thrown out at any other base). And if he whiffs the ball, it's not a strike, it's an out. No whiffs in this game.
The defense is no walk in the park either. When a player comes to 'bat' the defense doesn't know if he is going to putt, hit a half pitch or attempt a home run. The batter will often toy with the outfield, twisting his club from putter face to pitching face, changing his stance, and so forth (he has one minute to make up his mind). At the last second, he makes his move, and the defense could find itself in the 'wrong' position for the type of shot hit.
Each side puts up its full complement of 8 men once per inning; thus there are only 8 swings per inning, and a total of seven innings. This keeps the action lively and relatively short. The typical game takes about two to two and a half hours (most baseball games now run over three hours).
To speed things up something else is added that doesn't exist in baseball - the clock. It works this way. The home plate umpire receives the golfbaseball after it has been caught or fielded by the defending team. If the ball is sent over the fence the umpire brings a new ball into play. He places the ball on the artificial mat, steps off and as soon as the player steps on the mat, the umpire starts the clock. From that moment the player up has one minute to make up his mind what kind of shot, and to strike the ball. If he goes over one minute he is OUT.
Unlike professional golf, there are no quiet signs while the golfer prepares his swing. Typically, the fans go wild. If they are on his side they are apt to yell "PUTT! PUTT!" or "HOME RUN! HOME RUN!" If on the other side they often yell "WHIFF! WHIFF!" (which almost never happens).
What began as a pro sport is now spreading to colleges. The Big Ten plans to start a golfbaseball league next year, and other colleges will surely follow. One thing lagging - at least for now - is the pay for professional golfbaseballers. The multi-year TV contracts and media tie-ins are not in place, and salaries are still relatively modest for a pro sport. The pro baseball player earns a minimum of $350,000 a year, and usually much more. For golfbaseball, starting salary is $85,000, with a maximum to date (Bonito) of $400,000. However, for any golfer who has struggled on the pro tour, and who has some running and fielding skills, this new sport offers the hope of lucrative career.