This week we discuss sports with a guest post from John at Codswallop and Fries. John is a British expat living in sunny Florida in the US. He is a freelance journalist and now writes about whatever pleases him. Welcome, John!
The boys of summer are again trundling around the bases and I have to admit that after 20 plus years in America I have grown to really enjoy baseball.
I, like most Brits, started off snubbing the sport as it reminded me of a girls’ game called rounders. Boys didn’t play rounders, which has similar rules to baseball but is played with a tennis ball, so what sort of men would play baseball? The answer is all sorts of men … and that for me is one of the entertaining aspects of the game.
Baseball players don’t have to be 7ft tall like basketball players, or 300lbs like gridiron players; baseball players come in all shapes and sizes and just need either great hand-eye coordination or an ability to throw a ball faster than 90mph to make a very good living.
Just the other night I watched a thrilling game where my local team, the Tampa Bay Rays, incredibly turned a 10-0 lead in to an 11-10 defeat. The Cleveland Indians scored seven runs in the last innings and the Cleveland crowd – the few hardy souls who remained – was in ecstasy.
It was great television. I, though, was taken by the last two or three pitchers Tampa Bay used to try and end the game. They just didn’t look like athletes at all. They each had their shirts loosely pulled out around the waist to try and disguise their paunches—a trick I have used for years myself.
Yet there they were, trying their best to hurl the ball at 90mph at an imaginary rectangle running from the batter’s knees to his waist and across the 17inch base in front of the catcher. Sadly on that occasion they didn’t do it very well but they’ll get plenty more chances, as the baseball season seems to last forever even though it is only March (spring training) to October.
For people who didn’t grow up loving baseball from childhood the sport has, in my time in America, done its best to deter us from becoming fans. First there were terrible labor relations, which led to a strike in 1994, and then there is the ongoing controversy over players taking steroids to boost their performance.
Probably the game’s best batter, Manny Ramirez, who is being paid $45 million for two years, was recently suspended for 50 games for testing positive for a banned substance. He said he took it accidentally.
Ummmm. Whatever. The bottom line is that drugs besmirch baseball and no one can really take batting and probably some pitching records seriously, which is a shame because statistics are a wonderful part of baseball. Fans love questions like, “Which left handed, lead-off hitter stole more bases in the first two weeks of May 2005 than he did the rest of that season?”
If that was a legitimate question there would be baseball fans who would know the answer. Personally I wouldn’t want to sit next to them at dinner but I’d be happy to share a beer with them at a ball game.
Like a lot of Americans, I assumed a similarity between cricket and baseball because they both involve a ball, bat and running, but that's like saying water skiing is the same as high diving because they both involve water.
Cricket is a strange game, indeed, but so woven into the fabric of British life that I maintain, if you really want to feel what it's like to be British, you need to get the game somewhere on your radar. You don't necessarily need to become a full-fledged fan, but you have to some to some sort of terms with it.
While soccer is also undeniably British, that's an easy game to get into. The rules are relatively simple, there's lots of action and, even if you're not a fan, you will generally find yourself, caught up in the energy of the crowd, shouting encouragements to the home team and speculations about various acts of self-abuse or cross-breed intimacies to the opposition and/or the referees.
But cricket is a game shrouded in lore and ritual, that simultaneously encompasses unimaginable boredom coupled with a complexity that makes me long for the clarity of the offside rule. Although many countries play cricket, it is undeniably a British game, just like baseball is undeniably American. And best of all, the British are so woefully bad at it. Just recently, in a qualifying game for the Twenty20 World Cup, Holland--where cricket, far from being the national pastime, is ranked as the 25th most popular sport--beat the British by 4 wickets.
So I rest my case: an idiosyncratic, esoteric, arguably anachronistic sport that they invented, exported and are now secretly proud of being so bad at. That's about as British can you get.
Also, because it doesn't enjoy the same fan-base (read: advertising revenue) as soccer, baseball or American football, there isn't the same degree of backroom machinations, performance enchantment scandals and gob-smacking salaries, which in my view, keeps the game relatively pure.
Besides, if you're talking about cricket as part of the British Experience, it has very little to do with the game. As my boss, who is a cricket aficionado, explained it to me once, cricket is about picnics on the green on a sunny June afternoon, drinking Pimms, reading the The Telegraph and chatting with your friends while the game goes on pointlessly in the background.
I can't claim I was a baseball fan in the States, just as I can't claim to be a cricket fan now, either, but I can say I know as much about cricket as I do about baseball. And I am getting into cricket, in my own way. Our office has a team, and I am the designated spectator; it's my job to sit on the sidelines, drink beer and cheer if they manage to get a run.
And that's about as British as I can hope to come where cricket is concerned.
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