Sunday, 27 June 2010

#20 The national pastime.

On paper, it sounds like a terrible sport. There are generally around five 'scores' a game. A three-hour-plus game yields six minutes of play. A tiny handful of countries play it, so there are no real international championships. There is a very real danger of suffering serious injury as a spectator. It is unusually dominated by a small group of franchises (the New York Yankees have won the World Series 27 times - that's a quarter of all championships since their 1903 beginnings).

So, I stepped into Citifields, the home of the New York Mets (New York's slightly-less-successful-but-still-pretty-good franchise) today with some reservation. I expected boredom, poverty (as is de rigeur in professional sports spectation, refreshments are seen as an opportunity to lavishly rape fans with 1,000%-plus mark ups on soda, beer, etc.), and lots of obnoxious loudmouths.

I wasn't disappointed. There were lots of obnoxious loudmouths. Food and soda was exorbitantly-priced. There is, shall we say, a lot of downtime. Nevertheless, baseball has more to recommend it than you may at first imagine.

Firstly, just like cricket in England, it serves a crucial social role - a place where men can go and get royally plastered over several hours and excuse it as a cultural experience. Other sports - a soccer game, for instance, or rugby - are just too brief. There's too much going on. You are forced to chug beer demonically, or watch the game seriously, but never both. What do you say to the wife when you get home? 'Did you see the goal Barry?' 'No, I was having a downing competition with Eric'.

Baseball has so little going on that you could cook several courses of classic French table d'hôte and still keep up. A mishit ball whacked a girl a few rows in front of me in the head in the first innings, seemingly knocking her unconscious, and I think she still managed to keep track of what was happening.

Secondly, it is a cast-iron opportunity to feel sartorially superior to almost everybody. I went in a filthy beer T-shirt and some threadbare canvas shoes, and I felt a bit overdressed. I wasn't even wearing any trousers. I was really. I made that up. But still, everybody looks like knobs. Especially the players.

I sat there being grumpy, quiet and not-too-gently wilted (New York is currently breaking 90 degrees daily) for three hours, refusing to stand for national anthems and generally being a dick. They play the national anthem AND 'God Bless America' at every league game, incidentally. Isn't that hilarious? Everyone takes their hats off and stays silent, too. Like, for real. And they know the words.

The most irritating thing of all for curmudgeons like yours truly - even more irritating, if you can fathom it, than people who say 'yours truly' - is the Organised Fun. Now last time I was at a European sports event (rugby, if memory serves), chants, Mexican waves and other crowd revelries arose spontaneously. Not so at a baseball game. The event managers in charge have clearly determined that baseball fans are so monumentally cretinous as not to be trusted with the responsibility of having their own fun. Chants are initiated by a pre-recorded obnoxious loudmouth over the PA system.. The crowd are frequently called upon to be as loud as possible, encouraged by a clearly-faked decibel meter. Every little tiny bit of entertainment is sponsored by some company with no discernable link to baseball ('Lincoln, The Official Town Car of the New York Mets!' 'Bridgestone, The Official Tyre of the MLB!'), and features one of a cast of thousands of cretins smiling dumbly and clutching a McDonald's alarm clock.

© Howard Schatz

Really, I quite like the game. As cycnical as I am, they are amazing athletes. I throw like a girl with rickets, so I find their 100mph, 50-yard gunshots to be rather impressive. You can almost hear humeri shattering as hits are made. The wounded in the crowd (another plus, incidentally - I expected fear of litigation to have long taken any risk out of being in the left field bleachers, but apparently not) are testament to how fast the ball moves. And there is a familial, playful atmosphere which I grudgingly admit to being Quite Nice. The open, daggers-drawn hostility of the football (soccer) field was nowhere to be found. Maybe people were just too full of hotdogs and pretzels to move.

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