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Baseball

From Academic Kids

A view of the playing field at  in .
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A view of the playing field at Busch Stadium in St. Louis, Missouri.

Baseball is a team sport, in which a fist-sized ball is thrown by a defensive player called a pitcher and hit by an offensive player called a batter with a round, smooth stick called a bat. The ball itself is also called a baseball. Scoring is accomplished by the batter running and touching a series of four markers on the ground called bases. Baseball is sometimes called hardball to differentiate it from the closely related sport of softball and other similar games.

Baseball is popular in the Americas and East Asia. In Japan, Puerto Rico, the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Panama, South Korea, Taiwan and some other countries/areas, it is one of the most popular sports by any measurement. In the United States, baseball has often been called the national pastime; the total attendance for Major League games is roughly equal to that of all other American professional team sports combined. Among American television viewers, however, baseball has been surpassed in popularity (in terms of television ratings) by American football and auto racing. Although the three most popular team sports in North America are ball games (baseball, basketball and American football), baseball's popularity grew so great that the word "ballgame" in the United States almost always refers to a game of baseball, and "ballpark" to a baseball field.

Contents

Gameplay

General structure

Diagram of a .
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Diagram of a baseball diamond.

Baseball is played between two teams of nine players each on a baseball field, usually under the authority of one or more officials, called umpires. There are usually four umpires in major league games; up to six (and as few as one) may officiate depending on the league and the importance of the game. There are four bases. Numbered counter-clockwise, first, second and third bases are cushions (sometimes informally referred to as bags) shaped as 38 cm (15 in) squares which are raised a short distance above the ground; together with home plate, the fourth "base," they form a square with sides of 27.4 m (90 ft) called the diamond. Home base is a pentagonal rubber slab known as home plate. The field is divided into two main sections: the infield contains the four bases, and beyond two adjacent sides of the diamond there is an outfield. The other two sides of the diamond form the start of the foul lines, which extend straight, and form the boundary in the outfield as well.

The game is played in nine innings in which each team gets one turn to bat and try to score runs while the other pitches and defends in the field. In baseball, the defense always has the ball -- a fact that differentiates it from most other team sports. The teams switch every time the defending team gets three players of the batting team out. The winner is the team with the most runs after nine innings. In the case of a tie, additional innings are played until one team comes out ahead. At the start of the game, all nine players of the home team play the field, while players on the visiting team come to bat one at a time.

A batter follows through after swinging at a pitched ball.
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A batter follows through after swinging at a pitched ball.

The basic contest is always between the pitcher for the fielding team, and a batter. The pitcher throws—pitches—the ball towards home plate, where the catcher for the fielding team waits to receive it. The batter stands in one of the batter's boxes and tries to hit the ball with a bat. The catcher's job is to catch any ball that the batter misses or does not swing at, and, most importantly, to "call" the game by a series of hand signals to the pitcher what pitch to throw and where. If the pitcher disagrees with the call, he will "shake off" the catcher by shaking his head no; he accepts the sign by nodding. The catcher's role becomes more crucial depending on how the game is going, and how the pitcher responds to a given situation. Each pitch begins a new play, which might consist of nothing more than the pitch itself.

Each half-inning, the goal of the defending team is to get three members of the other team out. A player who is out must leave the field and wait for his next turn at bat. There are many ways to get batters and baserunners out; some of the most common are catching a batted ball in the air, tag outs, force outs, and strikeouts. After the fielding team has put out three batters, that half of the inning is over and the team in the field and the team at bat switch places. Thus, a complete inning consists of each opposing side having a turn on offense.

The goal of the team at bat is to score runs; a player may do so only by batting, then becoming a base runner, touching all the bases in order (via one or more plays), and finally touching home plate. To that end, the goal of each batter is to enable baserunners to score or become a baserunner himself. The batter attempts to hit the ball into fair territory—between the foul lines—in such a way that the defending players cannot get them or the baserunners out. In general, the pitcher attempts to prevent this by pitching the ball in such a way that the batter cannot hit it cleanly.

A baserunner who successfully touches home plate after touching all previous bases in order scores a run. In an enclosed field, a fair ball hit over the fence on the fly is normally an automatic home run, which entitles the batter and all runners to touch all the bases and score. A home run hit with all bases occupied is called a grand slam.

Fielding team

See also: Baseball positions | Baseball positioning

The team in the field is the defensive team; they attempt to prevent the team at bat from scoring. The fielding team has a pitcher, who stands on the mound, and a catcher, who squats behind home plate. This pair is often called the battery. The remaining seven fielders may be positioned anywhere in fair territory, but the standard defensive alignment places four infielders at the edge of the infield and three outfielders in the outfield.

The pitcher's main role is to pitch the ball toward home plate with the goal of getting the batter out. Pitchers also play defense by fielding batted balls, covering bases (for a potential tag out or force out on an approaching runner), or backing up throws. The catcher's main role is to receive the pitch if the batter does not hit it. Together with the pitcher and coaches, the catcher plots game strategy by suggesting different pitches and by shifting the starting positions of the other fielders. Catchers are also responsible for defense in the area near home plate.

The four infielders are the first baseman, second baseman, shortstop, and third baseman. The first and third basemen play near their respective bases. The second baseman and the shortstop position themselves in the gaps on either side of second base, toward first and third base, respectively. Originally, the second baseman played very close to second base; this positioning shifted when teams found it necessary to have four infielders, rather than four outfielders.

The first baseman's job consists largely of making force plays at first base on ground balls hit to the other infielders. The first baseman also fields balls hit near first base, but because the position is less demanding than the others, the team's strongest hitter is often also their first baseman. The second baseman covers the area to the right of second base and provides backup for the first baseman. The shortstop fills the critical gap between second and third bases—where right-handed batters generally hit ground balls—and also covers second or third base and the near part of left field. This position is the most demanding defensively, so a good shortstop need not necessarily be a good batter. The third baseman's primary requirement is a strong throwing arm, in order to make the long throw across the infield to the first baseman. Quick reaction time is also important for third basemen, as they tend to see more sharply hit balls than the other infielders.

The three outfielders are called the left fielder, the center fielder, and the right fielder, the positions being named from the catcher's perspective. The right fielder generally has the strongest arm of all the outfielders due to the need to make throws on runners attempting to take third base. The center fielder has more territory to cover than the corner outfielders, so this player must be quick and agile with a strong arm to throw balls in to the infield; as with the shortstop, teams tend to emphasize defense at this position. Also, the center fielder is considered the outfield leader, and left- and right-fielders should cede to his direction when fielding fly balls.

The locations of the fielders are not specified by the rules. Players often shift their positioning in response to specific batters or game situations, and they may exchange positions with one another at any time.

Pitching

The typical motion of a pitcher
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The typical motion of a pitcher

Main article: Pitching

Effective pitching is vitally important to a baseball team, as pitching is the key for the defensive team to retiring batters and runners to hold the other team at bat. A full game usually involves over one hundred pitches thrown by each team, and most pitchers begin to tire before they reach this point. In previous eras, pitchers would often throw up to four complete games (all nine innings) in a week. With new advances in medical research and thus a better understanding of how the human body functions and tires out, however, pitchers tend to throw only one game every five days. Multiple pitchers are often needed in a single game, including the starting pitcher and members of the bullpen (an area where pitchers warm up before they play). Pitchers are substituted for one another like any other player (see below), and the rules do not limit the number of pitchers that can be used in a game. The record for the most pitcher used in a single nine-inning game for both teams is held between Houston and San Francisco with 16 pitchers. The pitcher's main weapon is the variation of his pitches, the three variables being accuracy, velocity, and movement. Most pitchers attempt to master two or more pitches. Common pitches include a fastball, which is the ball thrown at a maximum velocity, a curveball, which is made to curve by rotation imparted by the pitcher, and a change up, which is a slower version of a fastball.

The pitcher must keep one foot in contact with the top or side of the pitcher's rubber—a 24" x 6" (~ 61 cm x 15 cm) plate located atop the pitcher's mound—during the entire pitch, so he cannot take more than one step forward in delivering the ball. Nevertheless, the average major-league pitcher can throw the ball up to ninety miles per hour (145 km/h), and a few pitchers have even exceeded 100 miles per hour (161 km/h). The act of throwing a baseball overhand at high speed is unnatural to the body and somewhat damaging to human muscles—pitchers are very susceptible to injuries and soreness, so baseball teams always have several pitchers. Some pitchers choose to throw the 'submarine style,' which is a very efficient sidearm way of pitching. Pitchers with a sidearm delivery are often some of the best in the game.

Team at bat

The ultimate goal of the team at bat is to score runs. The team at bat sends its nine players up to home plate as batters in an order called a lineup. Each team sets its batting lineup at the beginning of the game and may not change the order. Once a runner reaches home plate, they score a run and are no longer a base runner. They must leave the playing area until their spot in the order comes up again. A runner may only circle the bases once per plate appearance and thus can score no more than a single run.

Each player's turn at the plate is a plate appearance. When the batter hits a fair ball, he must run to first base, and may continue or stop at any base unless he is put out. A successful hit where the batter reaches only first base is a single; if he reaches second base, a double; or third base, a triple. A hit that allows the batter to touch all bases in order on the same play is a home run, whether or not the ball is hit over the fence. If a player has hit all four types of base hits in a single game, he is said to have "hit for the cycle." Once a runner is held to a base, he may attempt to advance at any time, but is not required to do so unless the batter or another runner displaces him.

Depending on the way the ball comes off the bat, the play has different names. A batted ball is called a fly ball if it was hit in the air in a way causing the fielder to catch it on its descent, or a line drive if it is hit in the air, but almost level to the ground. A batted ball which is not hit into the air, and which touches the ground within the infield before it can be caught, is called a ground ball.

Once the batter and any existing runners have all stopped at a base or been put out, the ball is returned to the pitcher, and the next batter comes to the plate. After the opposing team bats in its own order and three more outs are recorded, the first team's batting order will continue again from where it left off.

Batting

Main article: Batting (baseball)

Seven time   just after swinging at a pitch (photo: Agꮣia Brasil)
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Seven time MVP Barry Bonds just after swinging at a pitch (photo: Agꮣia Brasil)

Each plate appearance consists of a series of pitches, in which the pitcher throws the ball towards home plate while a batter is standing in the batter's box. With each pitch, the batter must decide whether or not to swing the bat at the ball in an attempt to hit it. The pitches arrive fast, so the decision must be made in less than a second. This decision is largely based on whether or not the ball is in the strike zone, a region defined by the area directly above home plate and between the batter's knees and underarms. In addition to swinging at the ball, a batter who wishes to put the ball in play may hold his bat over home plate and attempt to tap a pitch very lightly; this is called a bunt.

On any pitch, if the batter swings at the ball and misses, he is charged with a strike. If the batter does not swing, the home plate umpire judges whether or not the ball passed through the strike zone. If the ball passes through the zone, it is ruled a strike; otherwise, it is declared to be a ball. The number of balls and strikes thrown to the current batter is known as the count.

If the batter swings and makes contact with the ball, but does not put it in play in fair territory—a foul ball—he is charged with a strike, except when there are already two strikes. Thus, a foul ball with two strikes leaves the count unchanged, though a ball that is bunted foul with two strikes always counts as a third strike. If a pitch is batted foul and a member of the defensive team is able to catch it, before the ball strikes the ground, the batter is declared out. In the event that a batter makes contact with the ball, but the ball continues directly into the catchers mitt without striking the ground a foul tip is called and the batter is charged with a strike. If the batter has two strikes already, the batter is now out, charged with a strikeout.

On the third strike the batter is declared out, a strikeout; on the fourth ball the batter is entitled to advance to first base without risk of being put out. This is called a base on balls or walk. If the batter puts the ball in play in fair territory, he becomes a baserunner, and must get to first base safely. A batter always drops his bat when running to first base—the bat otherwise would slow him down and also be a danger to fielders.

If the pitcher, either intentionally or unintentionally, hits the batter, the umpire will declare a hit by pitch and the batter is awarded first base.

Running the bases

Main article: Baserunning

The goal of each batter is to become a baserunner himself (usually by a safe hit or a base on balls), or to help move other baserunners along. Once a batter gets a hit, a base on balls, or otherwise reaches base, he is said to be "on" that base until he attempts to advance to the next base, until he is put out, or until the half-inning ends. Runners on second or third base are considered to be in scoring position since ordinary hits, even singles, will often score them.

A runner who is touching a base which he is entitled to occupy is "safe"—he may not be tagged out. Runners may attempt to advance from base to base on any fair ball that touches the ground. When a ball is hit in the air, a fly ball, and caught by the defending team, runners must return and touch the base they occupied at the time of the pitch—called tagging up—after the ball is caught. Once they do this, they may attempt to advance at their own risk.

Pick-off attempt on runner (in red) at first base
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Pick-off attempt on runner (in red) at first base

Baserunners may attempt to advance, or steal a base, while the pitcher is throwing a pitch. The pitcher, in lieu of delivering the pitch, may try to prevent this by throwing the ball to one of the infielders in order to tag the runner; if successful, it is called a pick-off. If the runner attempts to steal the next base but is tagged out before reaching it safely, he is caught stealing.

The standard dimensions of a baseball field, with 90 feet (27.4 m) between bases, generate many close baserunning plays. In tag plays, a good slide can affect the outcome of the play; even routine ground ball outs are recorded by a margin of less than a second. In general, baserunning is a tactical part of the game requiring good judgment by runners (and their coaches) to assess the risk in attempting to advance.

Innings and determining a winner

An inning consists of each team having one turn in the field and one turn to hit, with the visiting team batting before the home team. A standard game lasts nine innings, although some leagues (such as minor leagues and high school baseball) use seven-inning games. The team with the most runs at the end of the game wins. If the home team is ahead after eight-and-a-half innings have been played, it is declared the winner, and the last half-inning is not played. If the home team is trailing or tied in the last inning and they score to take the lead, the game ends as soon as the winning run touches home plate; however, if the last batter hits a home run to win the game, he and any runners on base are all permitted to score.

If both teams have scored the same number of runs at the end of a regular-length game, a tie is avoided by the addition of extra innings. As many innings as necessary are played until one team has the lead at the end of an inning. Thus, the home team always has a chance to respond if the visiting team scores in the top half of the inning; this gives the home team a small tactical advantage. In theory, a baseball game could go on forever; in practice, however, they eventually end. In Major League Baseball the longest game played was a 26-inning affair between the Brooklyn Robins and Boston Braves on May 1, 1920. The game ended in a 1-1 tie called on account of darkness.

In Major League Baseball, games end with tie scores only because conditions have made it impossible to continue play. A tie game does not count as an official game in the standings unless it is finished later or replayed; however, individual player statistics from tie games are counted. Inclement weather may also shorten games, but at least five innings must be played for the game to be considered official; four-and-a-half innings are enough if the home team is ahead. Previously, curfews and the absence of adequate lighting caused more ties and shortened games.

In Japanese baseball, if the score remains tied after nine innings, up to three extra innings may be played before the game is called a tie. Some youth or amateur leagues will end a game early if one team is ahead by ten or more runs, a practice known as the "mercy rule" or "slaughter rule". Rarely, a game can also be won or lost by forfeit.

There is a short break between each half-inning during which the new defensive team takes the field and the pitcher warms up. Traditionally, the break between the top half and the bottom half of the seventh inning is known as the seventh-inning stretch. During the "stretch," fans often sing the chorus of "Take Me Out to the Ball Game."

Substitutions

Each team is allowed to substitute for any player at any time, but no player, once removed from the game, may return. A batter who replaces another batter is referred to as a pinch hitter; similarly, a pinch runner may be used as a replacement for a baserunner. Any replacement is a permanent substitution; the replaced player may not return to the game.

It is common for a pitcher to pitch for several innings and then be removed in favor of a relief pitcher. Because pitching is a specialized skill, most pitchers are relatively poor hitters; it is common to substitute for a pitcher when he is due to bat. This pinch hitter is typically then replaced by a relief pitcher when the team returns to the field on defense, but more complicated substitutions are possible, most notably the double switch.

Many amateur leagues allow a starting player who was removed to return to the game in the same position in the batting order under a re-entry rule. Youth leagues often allow free and open substitution to encourage player participation.

Most leagues, notably Major League Baseball's American League, allow a designated hitter, a player whose sole purpose is to hit when it would normally be the pitcher's turn. This is not considered a substitution but rather a position, albeit a purely offensive one. A designated hitter does not play in the field on defense and may remain in the game regardless of changes in pitchers.

Other personnel

Each team is run by a manager, whose primary responsibility during the game is to assign players to fielding positions, determine the lineup, and decide how to substitute players. Managers are also assisted by coaches in helping players to develop their skills. When a team is at-bat, they will position a coach or manager in each coach's box referred to as the first and third base coaches. These coaches must help the players decide whether they should try to run to the next base; also, the coaches will signal plays to the batter and runners. Baseball is unique in that the manager and coaches all wear numbered uniforms similar to those of the players.

Any baseball game involves one or more umpires, who make rulings on the outcome of each play. At a minimum, one umpire will stand behind the catcher, to have a good view of the strike zone, and call each pitch a ball or a strike. Additional umpires may be stationed near the bases, thus making it easier to see plays in the field. In Major League Baseball, four umpires are used for each game, one near each base. In the all-star game and playoffs, six umpires are used: one at each base and two in the outfield along either foul line.

Another notable role in baseball is that of the official scorer. The results of baseball games are summarized in tables called box scores. The scorer is responsible for a number of judgments that go into the boxscore. For example, if a batted ball is misplayed by a fielder, the scorer may choose to charge the fielder with an error instead of crediting the batter with a hit. Within certain guidelines, the scorer also determines which pitchers are credited with winning and losing the game, and whether a relief pitcher will be awarded a hold or save, specific situations in which a relief pitcher keeps a lead intact for his team.

Baseball's unique style

Time element

American football, basketball, ice hockey and soccer all use a clock, and games often end by a team killing the clock rather than competing directly against the opposing team. In contrast, baseball has no clock; a team cannot win without getting the last batter out, and rallies are not constrained by time.

In recent decades, observers have criticized professional baseball for the length of its games, with some justification as the time required to play a baseball game has increased steadily through the years. One hundred years ago, games typically took an hour and a half to play; today, the average major league baseball game is finished in two and a half hours for the National League, and just under three hours for the American League. This is due to longer commercial breaks, increased offense, more pitching changes, and a slower pace of play.

In response, Major League Baseball has instructed umpires to be more strict in enforcing speed-up rules and the size of the strike zone. Although the official rules specify that when the bases are empty, the pitcher should deliver the ball within 20 seconds of receiving it (with the penalty of a ball called if he fails to do so), this rule is rarely, if ever, enforced.

Individual and team

Baseball is fundamentally a team sport—even two or three Hall of Fame-caliber players are no guarantee of a pennant—yet it places individual players under great pressure and scrutiny. The pitcher must make good pitches or risk losing the game; the hitter has a mere fraction of a second to decide what pitch has been thrown and whether or not to swing at it. While their respective managers and/or coaches can sometimes signal players regarding the strategies the manager wants to employ, no one can help the pitcher while he pitches or the hitter while he bats. If the batter hits a line drive, the outfielder, as the last line of defense, makes the lone decision to try to catch it or play it on the bounce. Baseball history is full of heroes and goats—men who in the heat of the moment distinguished themselves with a timely hit or catch, or an untimely strikeout or error.

Strategy and goals

Baseball requires skill and athleticism, but also has a depth of strategy and anticipation which often goes unrecognized by those less familiar with the sport. Pitchers develop strategies on how to pitch to the batter by studying the batter's previous plate appearances throughout the year. Pitchers will vary their approach with each time they see the same batter. Defensive players are positioned based on statistics about where the batter is likely to hit the ball and what specific type of pitches will be thrown. Hitters are given signals about coordinated plays the manager is calling (e.g. a hit and run or sacrifice bunt), and sometimes are explicitly instructed not to swing. Pitchers are sometimes given signals to throw a specific pitch, or even to avoid pitching to the batter at all (e.g. an intentional base on balls or a pitchout.)

The goals of a team vary across scope, from individual pitch to the season. Teams develop a strategy to match this varying scope. They have a broad set of goals for the season, but more specific strategies for the early part of the season, varying that by the team and even by home games vs. away games. Meanwhile, they have very specific strategies for a single game and even down to the inning, the players who are due to bat, including the next pitch.

The uniqueness of each baseball park

Main article: Baseball parks

Unlike the vast majority of sports (with the exception of cricket and a few others), baseball parks do not have to follow a strict set of guidelines. The official rules (http://mlb.mlb.com/NASApp/mlb/mlb/official_info/official_rules/foreword.jsp) simply state that fields built after 1958 must have a minimum distance of 325 feet from home plate to the fences in left and right field and 400 feet to center. Because of this, there are all sorts of variations in parks, from different lengths to the fences to uneven playing surfaces to massive amounts of foul territory to quirks such as trains in the outfield.

Statistics

Main article: Baseball statistics

As with many sports, and perhaps even more so, statistics are very important to baseball. Statistics have been kept for the Major Leagues since their creation, and presumably statistics were around even before that. General managers, baseball scouts, managers, and players alike study player statistics to help them decide from various strategies to best help their team.

Traditionally, statistics like batting average for batters—the number of hits divided by the number of at bats—and earned run average—approximately the number of runs given up by a pitcher per nine innings—have governed the statistical world of baseball. However, the advent of sabermetrics has brought an onslaught of new statistics that better gauge a player's performance and contributions to his team from year to year.

Some sabermetrics have entered the mainstream baseball statistic world. On-base plus slugging (OPS) is a somewhat complicated formula that gauges a hitter's performance better than batting average. It combines the hitter's on base percentage—hits plus walks plus hit by pitches divided by plate appearances—with their slugging percentagetotal bases divided by at bats. Walks plus hits per inning pitched (or WHIP) gives a good representation of a pitcher's abilities; it is calculated exactly as its name suggests.

Also important are more specific statistics for a certain situation. For example, a certain hitter's ability to hit left-handed pitchers might cause his manager to give him more chances to face lefties. Some hitters hit better with runners in scoring position, so an opposing manager, knowing this statistic, might elect to intentionally walk him in order to face a poorer hitter.

History

Main article: History of Baseball

Baseball is thought to be a direct descendant of cricket, rounders, and town ball, though the game's origins are uncertain. Alexander Cartwright published the first known list of rules in 1845 to meet the demands of the already popular sport, and today's rules of baseball have evolved from them.

Professional baseball began in the United States around 1865, and the National League was founded in 1876. Several other leagues formed and failed, but the American League, formed in 1893 as the Western League, did succeed. While rivals who fought for the best players, the two major leagues began playing a World Series in 1903.

Compared to modern times, games in the early part of the 20th century were lower scoring and pitchers more successful. This period, which has since become known as the "dead-ball era", ended in the 1920s with several rules changes that gave advantages to hitters and the rise of the legendary baseball player Babe Ruth, who showed the world what power hitting could produce.

During the first half of the 20th century, a "gentlemen's agreement" effectively barred non-white players from the major leagues, resulting in the formation of several Negro Leagues. Finally in 1947, Major League Baseball's color barrier was broken when Jackie Robinson was signed by the National League's Brooklyn Dodgers. Although it was not instantaneous, baseball has since become fully integrated.

The middle of the century led baseball to the West of the United States and also became a time when pitchers dominated. Scoring became so low in the American League, due to pitching dominance, that the designated hitter was introduced; this rule now constitutes the primary difference between the two leagues.

Despite the popularity of baseball, the players became unsatisfied, as they believed the owners had too much control—a stance that many baseball fans found objectionable. A series of strikes and lockouts began in baseball, affecting portions of the 1972 and 1981 seasons and culminating in the infamous strike of 1994 that led to the cancellation of the World Series. The popularity of baseball diminished greatly as a result, and fans were slow to return until the home run race of 1998 between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa. Since then, baseball has enjoyed another surge in popularity in America. The thrilling playoffs of 2004 were highlighted by the Red Sox's epic comeback against the Yankees and resulted in what some have called the "New Golden Age" for baseball.

Professional baseball leagues began to form in countries outside of America in the 1920s and 1930s, including the Netherlands (formed in 1922), Japan (1936), and Australia (1934). Today, the whole of Europe (1953), Italy (1948), Korea (1982), Taiwan (1990), and mainland China (2003) all have professional leagues as well. Competition between national teams, such as in the World Cup of Baseball and the Olympic baseball tournament, has been administered by the International Baseball Federation since its formation in 1938. As of 2004, this organization has 112 member countries.


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