Sunday, June 14, 2009

Steroids and Sterling / Drugs and Dollars

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!

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.


Mike:

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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16 comments:

  1. The only way I learnt to appreciate cricket was by marrying a committed fan, and then the learning process took several years. Yes, it is quintessentially English.

    It is a shame that the BBC reporting has done so much to knock the sport over years and years. Watch out, and you'll see that if England win, it's hardly reported at all. If England lose, it's right up there in the headlines. The commentators love to do down the English team. They recently had a guest Australian commentator (can't remember the name), and it was noticeable how much more upbeat about the English side the whole tone of the commentary became. Even that is pretty English, though. We love to do ourselves down.

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  2. And I came to love baseball because I married a diehard baseball fan. My first two summers here were spent in the Thousand Islands, flying into Syracuse, which just happens to be within distance of the Baseball Hall of Fame at Cooperstown. Funny that!
    Unfortunately, we are Cubs fans, and although that means we go to beautiful Wrigley field a lot, we also have our hearts broken at the end of the season on a regular basis!
    Great post guys!

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  3. Over a billion people live in the countries where cricket is king, so its hard to understand why a sport of such 'unimaginable boredom' is so overwhelmingly popular. And far from being anacronistic, it becomes more popular every year. Cricket is the fastest growing game in the US, with leagues springing up wherever people from the sub-continent settle. I understand how difficult it must be for americans, brought up on instant gratification and the 'biff it and run' ethos of baseball, to appreciate the beauty, sublety and skill of cricket, but if you should try. You would get such pleasure from it - cricket is an intellectual as well as a physical sport. And if you want an electric atmosphere in sport, try a Test Match involving the West Indies, or India v Australia. It makes baseball matches look like afternoon tea at the vicarage.

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  4. Baseball might be fun to play, but when it comes to its merits as a spectator sport, baseball is America’s drawn-out answer to watching paint dry. Played over several hours, the game sees players hitting less often than they miss, running around in circles and eating tobacco.Conspiracy theorists believe that baseball was invented in the 1800s purely to boost hot dog and beer sales. Actually, that’s not true, but it’s difficult to figure out why millions of Americans are prepared to spend a day watching men in tights running around a stadium.They also seem to wear nappies under their tights, though I cant think why!

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  5. My british husband is a big sports nut and loves watching most if not all sports. He has pointed out to me several times how strange he finds the American attitude to sport: 'World Series?' he says with dismay, 'but it's not the world the Americans play against!' He was immensely entertained when we visited rellies in Dallas and they took him to a Dallas soccer game--seats wide enough to be lounge chairs and with drinks holders, and fans that sat through the whole game. Compare this to his West Ham experience -- lots of standing and jumping and shouting and singing songs my rellies might not want to hear and seats built for durability not comfort.

    My one and only experience going to a cricket game with a friend. You've heard the phrase, 'its just not cricket'? Meaning 'its just not done' or 'thats not the way one should do it.' Sitting with my friend and watching this game, I finally caught on to some of what was going on then I realised that we were clapping for something the opposing team did. I leaned over to my friend and asked 'why are we clapping for the other teams success?' He replied, 'thats just cricket.' How wonderfully British!! And thats why I like cricket.

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  6. Cricket is thrilling and absorbing, attritional and brilliant, intriguing and brutal, and always filled with the possibility of moments of great beauty and power. Baseball is some men in funny kit whacking a ball.

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  7. > just like baseball is undeniably American

    It may now be undeniably American, Mike, but "It is truth uniiversally acknowledged ..."
    ... that Jane Austen refers to the game in 'Northanger Abbey' some forty years before General Abner Graves is supposed to have invented it America, and there is plenty of other reasonable evidence that the game was invented in England. See http://tinyurl.com/l7jcsr .

    The Wikipedia article gives lots of detail, too: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Baseball .

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  8. To be fair, Howard, I never claimed it was invented in America, just that it is associated with America, as cricket is with Britain. The longstanding myth that Abner Doubleday invented baseball was openly debunked when I was in high school, but that hasn't stopped it from being the national pastime. Although I think they might find a better use for their time. ;)

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  9. Just don't call it rounders! :-)

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  10. > just that it is associated with America

    I freely acknowledge that, Mike!

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  11. As an American who has just recently moved to England I can say with certainty that Cricket baffles me.

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  12. It isnt impossible for an american to really understand cricket, but is certainly rare. One outstanding example was Sir John Paul Getty.
    Paul Getty loved England and English things, but most of all he loved English cricket.
    During the season, he could spend all day watching it on television in the elegant drawing room of his London flat in St James's Place. When he renovated his beautiful Berkshire estate, Wormsley, Getty also built a a private cricket ground, the first country-house cricket pitch to be built since the Second World War.However, he did live here for 40 years.............you've got a few to go, Kat!

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  13. I grew up round the corner from a cricket field and still never 'got' the rules. However, having been to many, many baseball games, I now see that it's a real game of strategy.
    When to bunt, when to walk the batter who's up, what it means when the bases are loaded. It might go on and on, and it might look like nothing's happening, but let me tell you, when you're rooting for the Cubs, every second is tense and usually tearful too!

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  14. What's hard to understand about cricket? You take baseball, get rid of second and third base, let the batters on the field cut in ahead of those waiting to play whenever they reach home plate, put some sticks in the imaginary box behind the batter, add a few extra players and make the pitcher bounce the ball.

    Tomorrow, why basketball is just netball with running.

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  15. >why basketball is just netball with running.
    Why american football is rugby played by big girlies in full kevlar body armour who stop every few yards for a quick chat about tactics - 'ok boys, we run thata way".

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  16. Oh I'm so mad I lost my great big long comment!! I'll try again tomorrow as I have MUCH to say!

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