Baseball is as American as stars and stripes and an unhealthy dislike for the monarchy. There is hardly a person on the continent, at least in its north eastern parts, who do not support, watch or have played this quintessentially American sport. Whilst many of you will be familiar with the very basic principle of it, from innumerable episodes of the Simpsons etc., it is really impossible to appreciate the grandure and significance of the old ball game until you have lived it. To experience America at its greatest, almost before I would recommend the sight seeing tours of Washington DC and Boston, I would recommend watching one of the big baseball teams in game. For me, the pinstriped boys of the New York Yankees.
Whilst the game is of course at the centre of the whole experience, it is embedded within a myriad of traditions, sights, smells, tastes and sounds. Any (proper) sporting event is, at its heart, a family affair. Parents, brothers, sisters, aunties 43 times removed etc. mobilize in force for the games of their chosen teams. And with this many mouths ahead of, what can be, a four-hour game comes the first great tradition of the game. Tailgating. No, this does not mean hugging three inches away from the car in front on the congested George Washington Bridge, it is in essence an Americanized picnic. Americanized by two factors, the first being that it takes place in a parking lot in the dead centre of a train line and three bridges leading into the Bronx, not quite the New Forest, and secondly in the sheer volume of food. An, apparently, portable BBQ, several coolers, beer and a few hotdogs later, everyone starts to pack up in the lowering sun and dons their NYY emblazoned hats and pinstripe jerseys and prepares to head over to the stadium.
Figure 1 a pinstriped family affair
The stadium is truly phenomenal, a great, tall, circular, imposing building of off white limestone and granite columns. An ode to the coliseum of ancient Rome, perhaps befitting to a new world superpower. The roads and park around it, cordoned off by the NYPD throng with a sea of pinstripes and navy, moving slowly toward the stadium. A wait in a queue reminiscent of border control security (in all aspects but its efficient rapidity) brings you into the south end of the stadium and into the great hall. A long crescent shaped hall, permeating the southern arc of the stadium. Here you see the first glimpse of baseball paraphernalia, bars, hats, peanuts and hotdogs, all staples of the game, are set up like a market place in the immense concourse. Moving up an escalator and turning to the left, you come out in one of the long circular sections that loop around the entire stadium, behind the main stands. The space is lined by the entrances to the stands on the inside and by seemingly a hundred more hot dog joints, peanut bags, cotton candy, fried chicken, beer, fries, caps, jerseys, pizza and even freshly made mozzarella. Though as criminally priced as food is for captive audiences everywhere, it is an irresistible part of the game. Moving all the way round to the downfield part of the stadium, you finally reach the bleachers. Whereas the main stands consist of rows of plastic chairs, as steeply tiered as some of upper circles in the theatres of London, the bleachers consist of long metal benches without numbered seats, a necessity when you are coming with up to sixteen family members.
Figure 2 the impressive facade
Once you finally sit down you can take in the full immensity of the stadium, with a conservative occupancy of 47,000. A sea of fans, home and away mixed equally throughout the stadium in an indictment of the spirit of sportsmanship that can be so sadly lacking in European games that require legions of police to enforce. The flags of the major league baseball teams, the Yankees, the Red Sox, the Orioles just to name a pitiful few, top the colourful stadium. The grass, is impeccably manicured into a checkerboard pattern, and the sand lining the central portion of the field is obsessively flattened by a troop of men in shorts, dragging long boards behind them to ensure a level playing field (more on these seemingly innocuous little people later). The floor crunches with peanut shells discarded by the thousand underfoot.
Figure 3 the stadium
Screens ring the main stands, displaying at a glance the scores of the two teams over the nine innings, the number of strikes, balls and outs of each inning and a massive screen to the right of the east side bleachers displays great images of the players, along with every statistic under the sun (after the first few I assume they must be talking inside leg measurement). In the intervals between innings, the cameras drift over the stadiums, showing a hundred waving kids, the best dressed fans, and as always a marriage proposal of questionable taste, a kind of shotgun proposal where 40,000 random people are urging you to say ‘Yes’ with a tear in your eye, and a first kiss of your new engagement. The screens play trivia questions, have interviews with players on the deep questions in life (“Is a hotdog a sandwich” NYY, 2017.) The reedy voice of the electric organ is never silent for long, and leads the crowds in a plethora of clapping and shouting to unique tunes which probably haven’t changed for a good number of decades.
To me, the most remarkable thing about the experience doesn’t involve bat, ball or base, but rather the amazing amount of pageantry, pomp, circumstance and ceremony. At the start of the game, 47,000 people, not to mention the players, umpires, sand-flatteners and vendors remove caps, fall silent, or sing with reverence the American national anthem. Despite the fact that it is played on the stereotypical, comical, electric organ, one cannot help but be struck by the patriotism and dedication of the American people, all political differences aside.
With the conclusion of the necessary formalities, (and 980 words later) the game can begin. Now, those of you who know me, will know my aversion to taking part in and or watching activities that require more movements than are necessary for the preservation of life (not to mention the presence of sand in this game) will no doubt be surprised that I write so fondly of baseball. It is perhaps therefore a really good indicator of just how good a sport it is. Marrying the best parts of cricket, or more accurately, rounder’s with the speed of a game of football, one can perhaps gain an initial insight into the game. To me, the excitement comes from the number of variables. You can have up to three players on bases, and someone at bat. The bowler (excuse any English vocabulary) can target any of these. The bowler can throw a strike, or a (foul) ball, several of which can lead to the outing of the batsman or his progression to first base respectively. The distinction between balls and strikes is as hotly contested as many referee decisions in England, which I’m sure would warrant a few “ref’ are you blind?!” remarks. Bringing in other aspects of sports, it has the instant replay abilities of tennis. A batsman can strike a ball anywhere on the pitch and then run like his (and the other members of his team already on bases) lives depended upon it. The breadth of skills shown in a baseball team is amazing. Pitching a ball from a good distance to within the tiny space (torso) that constitutes a strike, the batting of a ball a good hundred feet, far into the crowds, the communication between fielders and basemen, and the unbelievable ability to catch a near invisible ball as it falls down through the sun’s glare. The speed, variability, and breadth of skill observed in this game really does earn it a place amongst the great sports in earth’s history. So, if you haven’t seen a game, then I would advise you go to one or better still, for those of you a few thousand miles away, pick one up on YouTube (with a quick discussion on the rules) and rely on the remaining passages in this blog to fill in the blanks on the atmosphere and location surrounding this great game.
Figure 4 see, I do enjoy it…
Nine innings in the baking sun can quite easily be considered one or two too many. Which brings us to the seventh inning stretch. Popularized by some president or other in the 20th century, at the time of the 7th inning, as the little sand flatteners trudge out to manicure their sand pitch, all gathered rise, as if for a second rendition of the national anthem, only to be greeted by a different, if equally familiar song. The tune of the YMCA song plays in earnest and a sense of excitement is really tangible in the air. As everyone limbers up for the coming chorus, the sand-flatteners drop their equipment and turn for their moment in the limelight. With the familiar words, the sand-flatteners lead 47,000 people through the actions in a beautifully goofy, but equally loveable Yankee tradition.
A more sombre 7th inning tradition is the singing of “God Save America”, dedicated to a veteran, either from the wars of the last few decades to the last surviving members of the WW2 era. The veteran stands, with their family, in centre field as 47,000 people celebrate their sacrifice in chorus. God save America is a song that we would perhaps more equate to our national anthem, it is an appeal to a force greater than ourselves to guide, strengthen, and protect our country and people. Possibly a better national anthem than one, which describes the inefficiencies in the targeting methods of the Royal Navy in 1812, but maybe I just hold a grudge…
The thrill of the crowd when there are men occupying all the bases, as their batsman hangs on a knife blade, one more strike he’s out, one home run and they score a grand slam, is palpable. Cheers of support, but rarely of anger, punctuate the tension. The stadium frequently erupts with joy when a home run, grand slam, or fourth foul ball is thrown, and the atmosphere is truly one of the best feelings I have ever encountered. An additional nuance that I quite agree with is the applauding and cheering whenever a cloud came over and temporarily blocked out the unremitting rays of the sun. A group rendition of the song “Take me out to the ball game” is another favorite of mine. And, as the game draws to a close, and the crowds rise to begin their communal pilgrimage back to their cars, Frank Sinatra’s familiar voice sings about the greatest city in the world, that the Yankees proudly represent, and is a perfect close to the perfect game.
Figure 5 why they so smol?
Baseball is more than a fast, attention grabbing, and enjoyable sport. It is where the spirit of fair play and sportsmanship are exemplified. It is where families and countrymen come together for a celebration, forever remembering the sacrifices and duty of men and women that allow them to live their lives and take part in this oh so American custom. I hope that I inspire at least some of you to delve into this wonderful sport.
‘Cause its one, two, three strikes you’re out at the old ball game.