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In praise of the ghost runner

(the real one)

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Girl Playing Sandlot Baseball with Boys
it’s a game about coming home, and you can play it wherever you are
Getty Images

Note: This is not commentary on the (dumb, poorly-monikered) extra-innings “ghost runner” rule that featured heavily in last night’s game. A Google search will turn up insightful and entertaining pieces on that topic; here instead is a brief contemplation of the actual “ghost runner” rule of sandlot baseball. Please also take this opportunity to view or re-view the classic celebration/roasting of the “ghost runner” from Calvin and Hobbes.

“Ready or not, here I come!”

“Tag, you’re it!”

“Ghost runner on third!”

The echoes of certain phrases linger in the corners of parks and schoolyards across the continent and beyond. These are spoken rituals required by the rules of the game. If you don’t say “ready or not,” you can’t seek; if you don’t say “you’re it,” they’re not; if you don’t say “ghost runner,” you can be tagged out as you leave the base.

Too, these phrases communicate values within a game. “Ready or not” implies that you deserve a warning, a last chance to hide before I come looking. “You’re it” claims my moment of celebration for catching you before the tables turn and I run the other way. And “ghost runner” means we trust each other enough to bend the rules of the game so we can play.

For those not familiar with the ghost runner rule, it’s used when playing a game of baseball without sufficient players to both bat and run the bases. Though the specific rules for a ghost runner vary and are often set right before the game starts, an example might be: you and five friends want to play ball at the park, so you’ve got three people to a side. For the defensive side, that’s either a pitcher, a catcher, and a fielder, or a pitcher and two fielders (with no catcher or the offensive team catching). On the offensive side, you’ve got three players taking turns batting. But after two singles and a walk, the bases are loaded and there’s no one left to come up to bat! At this point, the lead runner has to shout “ghost runner on third!” and run back to the plate to bat. The ghost runner then materializes in the shared imagination of all players– unable to steal or get picked off (depending on the pre-game negotiations), advancing the same number of bases as the runner behind them.

Though the term “ghost runner” first appears in Google Books’ catalogue in the 1970s, the rule and term long predate that. Growing up, I heard stories of the hijinks that ensued from games of baseball in my dad’s backyard in Connecticut with his schoolmates, many of them featuring a ghost runner or two, sometime in the 60s. And I’m confident the concept long predates my father as well, as the rule sprang not out of theory or design, but out of necessity and likely from the mind of a child. The ghost runner means the difference between playing baseball in the corner lot as the sun starts to set or trudging home because you couldn’t find quite enough kids to play.

Though, as adults, our attention is often mostly on Baseball, puppetted to our joy or frustration by those at the top (aka with the most money), the ghost runner reminds me that the game of baseball is also built from the bottom up; by children fashioning rules that make the game easier or harder, fairer or less.

There are many doors in this game still left to be opened, so many ways it’s made harder for people with different backgrounds and native languages and identities to play the game, from kids’ teams to MLB. And there are doors to fandom that sometimes seem only slightly ajar, as gatekeepers of the game denigrate certain types of fandom and prioritize certain types of fans. For those of us who have found or fought our way into a love of this game, we have the responsibility and the honor to open the doors to others, and demand that the barriers be lowered to being part of this thing we love.

If baseball is our “national pastime” it should be because it is a game with a way in for everybody, because you can love it for any reason you want, because you don’t need particular protective gear or expensive equipment or a specialized substrate to play, but just some space to run around, a stick, a ball, and a few friends with a will to play and enough imagination to say I know how we can make this work.

“Ghost runner on third!” In other words: no problem, we’ll play anyways.

What makes it baseball isn’t the trademark or the ballpark or even the rules, exactly, but somebody throwing and somebody swinging a stick, and somebody —even just in our minds— running to try to get home.