[2 October 2007]
The French historian Jacques Barzun famously wrote that to understand America, one must understand baseball. He wrote that a long time ago. For a better sporting metaphor of the modern American psyche you’re better off looking to the me me me star culture of NBA basketball, the non-stop brutality of pro football, the cartoon violence of the WWE, or the visceral energy consumption of NASCAR. All seem far more appropriate sporting fare for 21st-Century America than the eternal struggle between bat and ball.
Yet still the mythology of America’s self-proclaimed ‘National Pastime’ remains. Don DeLillo started his magnum opus, Underworld at the legendary 1951 National League playoff between the New York Giants and the Brooklyn Dodgers; a sporting microcosm of the country’s greatest city at the dawn of the American age.
DeLillo, of course, knew that by the end of the millennium the game, and the people that play it, had changed. DeLillo’s Giants and Dodgers left New York and the All-American heroes of the day (even though eventual game-winner Bobby Thomson was born in Scotland) have been replaced by players from across the world. Every Major League team’s roster is now peppered with players from Japan, Korea, Canada, Venezuela, Puerto Rica, the Dominican Republic and even Cuba. Even those pesky Australians, the world’s greatest cricket nation, are making inroads into baseball.
The USA’s humiliating performance in last year’s inaugural World Baseball Classic, failing to even advance to the semi-final stage, wasn’t wholly unexpected. The sport’s insiders continually bemoan the dwindling TV ratings and the dearth of young players at grass root level, especially among the African-American community. Insiders can’t see the wood for the trees. Take a step back and it’s easy to see how baseball’s gentle pace and continual sense of tactical anticipation make it an unsuitable sport of choice for modern America.
And yet, overlooking the racism and the corruption, the game remains an icon for some mythological golden age. Maybe it’s the telephone directories that are full of statistics stretching back to the 1880s, but for some reason, maintaining baseball’s alleged integrity has become an important factor in American political life. Congressional committees are formed to determine which of baseball’s recent crop of record breakers were artificially enhanced, while in the NFL certified steroid-takers are slapped on the wrist, benched for a few weeks, and welcomed back to tear apart hapless quarterbacks in front of colossal TV audiences.
America needs to calm its ass down. Because although home run records and the World Series are all essential to the structure of the game in the USA, they’re not what make baseball special. I live in a country that’s finest baseball facility is a mound and a fence in a park in a South London suburb. I live in a country completely unaffected by Major League Baseball’s unique combination of history and mythology. So do the majority of players flooding into the Majors from outside the US. And yet even I can tell why the game’s followers, once hooked, are there for life.
Baseball has a beauty and a symmetry all its own. And, as befits a game awash with numbers, the game itself exists in the heads of people watching it. For that reason, baseball highlights (with the exception of the occasional spectacular catch or relay) are meaningless. Every strikeout and home run looks like every other. The excitement comes from their relation to the game situation. Innings, outs, men on bases, balls and strikes. It depends on the viewer’s concentration to ensure that he or she is aware of what’s going on.
You get out of the game what you put in. Even the icons in the corner of the TV screen don’t tell the full story. Watching a game, on TV or in the flesh, demands a strange kind of relaxed concentration. You can’t expect everyone to share that mindset. Although, in the event of the pair of them ever settling down over a cigar for a friendly tête-à-tête, what else apart from their love of baseball could Fidel Castro and George Bush ever talk about in civil tones? (The answer, incidentally, is how much they both hate homosexuals.)
But even insiders rarely comment on baseball’s greatest asset. It takes an outsider, someone used to the bluster of English football stadiums and their unspoken rituals, to point it out. Because better than the hits, the outs and the endless statistics, is the unique experience of going to a baseball game. There’s no substitute. I can vouch for this. I’ve been to NFL games, NCAA basketball games, Test Matches at Lords, horse races, fight nights, Grand Prix and more English soccer matches than was ever necessary or enjoyable. Almost all of them generate more moments of sporting excitement in 30 minutes than occur over an entire baseball game. OK, probably not the cricket. That’s not the point. None have that combination of relaxation and entertainment produced over three hours of molasses slow baseball non-action.
This is where America and its obsession with its one-time most popular sport has got it wrong. Barry Bonds’ alleged chemical intake doesn’t really matter. No one is settling down with a beer and a hot dog to study the MLB record book. What matters is getting out to the diamond and root, root, rooting for the home team. And it really isn’t important where you do it.
Nestling in a park in a residential corner of Vancouver is Nat Bailey Stadium, home to the Vancouver Canadians. Now the Ottawa Lynx franchise has moved to Pennsylvania the Canadians are the only MLB-affiliated Minor League team in their country. There are The Toronto Blue Jays of course. But that’s it. The Canadians are the Single-A affiliate of the Oakland Athletics. Meaning they’re playing at the lowest level of baseball still considered to be truly professional. But still, in this land where ice hockey comes first, second and third, you can sense that for a small tribe of Canadians, a trip to Nat Bailey is a tradition that’s worth celebrating.
Unlike a technologically advanced Major League arena where screens flashing statistics and advertisements keep the brain occupied, there’s little to do at Nat Bailey apart from drift into the culture of the game and its self-evident charms. And although this culture is rooted in Americana, it’s important to recognise that this culture is not exclusively American. The Star-Spangled Banner (performed for the benefit of the visiting team) is dispensed with minimal fuss. O Canada is a better tune, anyway. As soon as you pick up that it’s three strikes and you’re oot, it’s clear that baseball is alive and well in the true north.
The result itself seems to be of passing concern. Maybe three people in the stadium are filling in their scorecards. The priorities are hanging with friends, ingesting foodstuffs loaded with saturated fat and grabbing beer from passing vendors. These aren’t inherently American concerns. They’re global requirements for low-impact hedonists. And although the Vancouverites’ true passions are revealed when the biggest roar of the day greets Fin, mascot of the NHL’s Canucks, when he makes a surprise appearance, they still appreciate what the being there is really about.
It takes a special type of obsessive, bordering on the anally retentive, to really watch baseball, studying the nuances, making notes on every ball and strike. Phil Rizzuto, the Hall of Fame shortstop and late broadcaster for the New York Yankees understood. It was his job to relate to an audience of millions the events unfurling in front of him. But he knew the real meaning of baseball. His scorecard would frequently bear the legend WW. It’s meaning? Wasn’t watching. Chat and snacks take priority. That’s what the game is about.
A big clue, as you’ve may have guessed already, comes in the song traditionally performed by the crowd during the seventh-inning stretch. “It’s root, root, root for the home team. If they don’t win it’s a shame”.
That’s right. It’s a shame. It’s not a disaster, a travesty or a tragedy. Just a shame. I don’t doubt that every baseball team has fans that live and die with each pitch. It’s just that even the most successful Major League team will lose around 60 games every year. Vince Lombardi’s credo that winning isn’t everything, it’s the only thing, doesn’t apply here. The fans understand. Recognising winning and losing as Rudyard Kipling’s two impostors, enjoyment of the occasion takes precedent.
The true tragedy of modern baseball isn’t Barry Bonds surpassing Hank Aaron. It’s that its uniquely relaxing vibe cannot be replicated. Nat Bailey is a tiny stadium. And despite what the official box score said, the end of season game I attended in late August couldn’t have had more than 1,500 spectators present. But coming from a country without a single baseball facility with fixed seating, it’s still special. Sadly, any country that hasn’t been converted yet isn’t likely to be won over any time soon. Playing the bloody thing is just too complicated. You need a ball and a pair of sweaters for goalposts to play soccer. Without bats, plenty of balls, helmets, gloves, and at least two incorruptible umpires, you’ll have a hard time starting a baseball game.
So billions of us around the world have never had the opportunity to swing at a split-fingered fastball or slide into second on a steal. Maybe that’s why it maintains an air of mystery for, well, dozens of Englishmen like me. That’s why anytime we’re in America (or Vancouver or Toronto), we dash to the baseball stadium. It’s not for the love of the game. It’s for the love of the night out. Hot dogs, crackerjack and people bringing ice-cold beer brought to your seat. Damn the mythology. That’s sports culture at its finest.