“Baseball. Like cricket, but round and round instead of up and down.”
For context, I should state that cricket is one of very few sports I just can’t bring myself to watch, and my problems with it would not be resolved by simply changing the direction of travel. What baseball does remove however, is the FIVE DAYS a single game of cricket takes. That’s over four and a half days longer than any decent sport should require. Other than that, it’s similarly slow-paced and technical, so all the indications were that I would hate it. Nonetheless, I was looking forward to an evening at Fenway Park, legendary home of the Boston Red Sox. This was the American Cultural Experience that I had come to the US to seek, after all.
So how did I get on?
Baseball certainly pushes the end of my attention span and often exceeds it, but with one key difference which makes it tolerable and even enjoyable: Whilst in equally long sports like tennis you have to be silent and focused on the game, in baseball the sport seems to very much take second place to the social occasion. Like the music in a pub, the game seems to exist in the background, there to fill in lulls in the conversation. Except for when something particularly exciting happens, then suddenly everyone’s tuned in. To continue the pub music analogy; if, after five tracks by Norah Jones and Coldplay, the playlist shuffles to the Fresh Prince of Bel Air theme – you’re going to stop whatever conversation you were having and bellow it out or you’re not human.
Like the music in a pub, the game seems to exist in the background, there to fill in lulls in the conversation.
That casual approach summed up my entire impression of baseball, not just in the crowd, but down on the pitch too. Everything about the game maintained a sort of amateur feel, and I say that in an entirely positive way. It’s refreshing.
Take the dress code. For one thing, I’ve never seen a professional sport where players wear jewelry on the pitch. For another, if baseball were to be played in the UK, some coach would have already decided to make his players wear stretchy skin-tight fabrics instead of the loose-fitting baseball jersey, under the justification of making them more aerodynamic and therefore able to run a few nanoseconds faster over 10 metres. British cycling guru Dave Brailsford is the master of this pedantry, which he calls “the aggregation of marginal gains.”
If baseball were to be played in the UK, some coach would have already made his players wear stretchy skin-tight fabrics instead of the loose-fitting baseball jersey, under the justification of making them able to run a few nanoseconds faster over 10 metres
Another example, the length of the game. A game can last six or seven hours, or longer with a rain break. So at what point do they call it off? Basically never. They play even if the game ends at 3am and even if, as they often do, they have another game the next evening. In the UK, football players get abuse from the press if they’re caught taking the bins out at 22:01 the night before a game. And if the fans can’t stick around until the end? It’s no big deal, they just go home. The game I went to was rain-delayed by about an hour while an apocalyptic storm passed through the neighbourhood, and when it finally restarted only about a quarter of the crowd was left. The amount a ticket to a football match costs in the UK, you’re not leaving until security moves in, and even then you’re going to leave with as much free water from the drinking fountains as you can cup in your hands.
On the subject of the crowd, this was the first time I saw the boundless enthusiasm which I encountered so often among Americans abroad (and subsequently almost never in New York). They were cheering *everything*. Every ball someone in the crowd caught. Every ball someone in the crowd nearly caught. Every ball someone in the crowd got nowhere near catching. And those who survived the rain delay, in which the annual rainfall of Scotland dumped itself onto Fenway Park within the space of an hour, were even more enthusiastic than before. The cover-removing ground staff were cheered to the rafters. The random members of the crowd the cameras picked out moving to the DJ’s tunes were treated like Sean Paul’s backing dancers. The players coming back out onto the pitch were greeted like One Direction at a middle school.
We ended up leaving at 11pm, halfway through the seventh of the nine innings; not all the way to the end, but as one American friend put it, “better than most foreigners manage”. I believe the Red Sox won, so it was a successful night for all concerned.
I liked baseball because of its flaws, because it is the slowest, least-engaging sport I think I’ve ever seen. To make an animal analogy, baseball is like a cat. It doesn’t demand your constant attention, play carries on whether there are people around or not, and like cats, the players end up sleeping at all sorts of odd times. I like cats.
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– The Wandering Jew-
P.S There was no space for it in this post, but I need to mention that I saw David “Big Papi” Ortiz in action. He is apparently a Big Deal, and I will one day be able to tell my grandchildren that I saw him play, and be able to back it up with photographic evidence (below). As long as they don’t have any more specific follow-up questions.