There’s so much crazy going on in the USA recently that it’s been hard to decide what to write about. Fortunately, we’re just days away from something important, timeless, and (mostly) a-political: opening day for the 2017 Baseball season.
I’ve never been much of a sports fan. I really can’t get into American football (I tried; Spouse is a fanatic, the kids’ first words included “touchdown,” and one of their earliest maths skills was counting by seven). I went to one basketball game, admired the phenomenal athletes with their grace and power but, sorry to say, I quickly found it boring. I also went to one (ice) hockey game and quite liked it but somehow never went again.
But baseball is different — it’s the one sport I’ve ever encountered that I truly enjoy.
My First Game
It all started when I first came to the States and then-Boyfriend (now Spouse) dragged me to a game. He insisted that, without a basic grasp of baseball, I couldn’t truly understand popular American metaphors like “out of left field,” “throwing a curve ball,” and “three strikes.” “It’s quintessentially American,” he said, “you have to at least go to one game.”
This was back in the summer of 1986, when the Philadelphia Phillies played at the old Veterans Stadium (the Vet, a soulless chunk of a stadium dating from the early 1970s). It ended up being a case of love at first sight. To start with, I was mildly shocked that the seating was not divided into sections for ‘home’ and ‘away’ fans — we can just go in any entrance? No-one cares which team colors you’re wearing?? I couldn’t imagine how that would work out, but OK…
Then, I was astonished at the size of the stadium: you emerge from the concourse of fast-food outlets that encircles the stands, maybe hike up a few long ramps to get to a higher level, go down a short tunnel and … wow! It’s like walking out into a whole new world, ranks of fans in the stands, pennants fluttering, and that gleaming diamond of green in the middle. This is the Vet at the last game played there, on September 28, 2003.
The game started (as do all major events in America) with everyone standing up, facing the flag, and singing the national anthem. It was a surprisingly nice moment of unity. Spouse likes to joke that the anthem really ends “…and the home of the brave. Play ball!” He’s not far wrong.
And as the game got underway I had a moment of revelation: “This is rounders! I understand this!” For those who don’t know, rounders is an old English game, now mostly played by schoolgirls, that is basically the same as baseball but with posts for bases and slightly different rules for outs and innings.
And so my love affair with baseball began. The way Spouse remembers it, I dragged him to at least three more games that summer. The following year, for my birthday in August, a bunch of friends took me to the Vet for a game (against the San Francisco Giants — I still have he ticket stub). Spouse had bought me a birthday package, which meant that between innings a young man suddenly showed up carrying a top hat full of confetti; he made me stand up, tossed confetti over me, and lead the whole section of our seats in a rousing chorus of Happy Birthday. A friend produced cupcakes for everyone (that’s fairycakes if you’re a Brit) and someone yelled out “beer’s on Vicki!”
Best. Birthday. Ever.
Baseball as Poetry
So, what is it about baseball that got me hooked?
There’s the whole family-oriented atmosphere of (most of) the games: there are lots of kids around; there’s time to wander about between innings (important if you’re there with a restless four-year-old); and there’s less overt fan aggression than at many (American) football games. People work the stands selling hot dogs and beer, cotton candy (that’s candy floss in American), and popcorn. The season runs April through September, summer time here on the east coast, so the weather is usually warm. To really experience baseball, you should catch a few minor league games — the hierarchy of professional teams that rank below major league baseball and serve as farm systems for the big game, played in smaller venues and with a lovely, inclusive atmosphere.
But mostly, there’s an indefinable poetry about the game that is wonderful. It’s something to do with the combination of team dynamics and individual play; the way that a game can totally change with one hit or missed throw; the breathtaking intensity of a pitcher on top form, pitching a perfect game; the sheer athletic brilliance of a double- or triple-play (when the fielding team manages to get out two or three players in one play).
In the ‘90s we lived in Chicago, just a couple of blocks from Wrigley Field, home of the Chicago Cubs. It’s still my favorite stadium — relatively small for a major league venue, right in the heart of a vibrant neighborhood, with the skyscrapers of downtown Chicago in the background. On a warm afternoon, with our apartment window open, we could tell whether the Cubs had just hit a single, a double, or a home run, by how loud and how long the crowd would roar.
The outfield wall at Wrigley is covered in ivy. True story: the first game I saw there, the summer of 1990, I asked the Spouse, “But what if they lose the ball in the ivy?” “Oh I doubt that happens much,” he laughed. Very next play, line drive to the outfield, ball bounced and disappeared in the ivy. Turns out, they deem it a ground rule double (batter gets to go to second base) and play on.
Embodiment of America
Yes, there’s a lot of sentimental hyperbole about the game that gets annoying, but at the same time I still can’t watch the movie Field of Dreams without tearing up in the closing scenes. Yes, there was some nasty history involving racism (because, well, this is America), but also some moments of exceptional courage — exemplified in the movie 42 about the great Jackie Robinson. Baseball’s a game of fields and wide open spaces; of dusty sandlots (that’s another great baseball movie, The Sandlot!) and lazy summer afternoons. Spouse had it right: you can’t really understand America unless you understand baseball.
There’s also the wacky stats factor. The season is long, 162 games this year, which means a lot of plays and a lot of chances for players to rack up statistics about how they play in certain situations: “player Jon Doe is batting one-for-two against left-handed pitchers on Tuesdays when it rains.” The radio commentary from a good baseball announcer is second only to the cricket guys on BBC radio for inventive chatter.
And then there’s the players. There’s something about the game that attracts real characters. In the early 1990s John Kruk was first baseman for the Phillies. He came out with some memorable quotes during his career, one of which is my all time favorite. During spring training, a pretty overweight Kruk was drinking a beer and smoking a cigarette. A female fan criticized him, saying “You should be ashamed of yourself. You’re an athlete.” Kruk famously retorted: “I ain’t an athlete, lady. I’m a baseball player.”
Somewhere in the past twenty years I’ve fallen out of the habit of regularly watching — or listening to — the games (one of our neighbors can be relied on to spend summer weekend afternoons tinkering in his garage with the game on the radio). For the Phillies, opening day this year is April 3 (in Cincinnati). The regular season ends October 1, followed by the playoffs starting October 3 and culminating in the World Series (the 113th!) beginning October 24.
I think it’s time I started paying attention again. Baseball may be the only thing that helps to keep me sane this year.