I say ‘I think I do’, because it’s early days yet. There’s still a long way to go. But it’s looking good so far. In fact, I’ve become a little bit obsessed. It all started back in June, when I spent two weeks on holiday in California. Now, I knew baseball was America’s national summer sport. What I wasn’t prepared for was quite how much baseball there was – how incredibly ever-present it is over there. I mean, cricket is England’s national summer sport, but, finding a pub that shows the test match is usually a quest of Odyssean proportions.
In America, baseball is literally everywhere. It’s on in every bar, often multiple games at once. Games follow on fast from one another. When games aren’t on, there are incessant replays of the plays of the day and endless reports of yesterday’s games. Now, you’d be quite right to point out that, in summer, there is no basketball, football (of the American kind) or hockey (of the ice-bound kind) to detract the sporting attention away from baseball. As baseball has the full attention of the American sporting public, you would expect to hear a lot about it. But, bear in mind that the two weeks I was there were the two weeks immediately following Michael Jackson’s death and also happened to coincide with Andy Roddick’s incredible run to the Wimbledon final. Yet these two events barely seemed to make a dent in Baseball’s dominance.
Being a cricket fan, I’ve always had a fairly one-eyed view of baseball. I sort of thought of it as cricket’s uncouth and unsophisticated cousin. I’d always found it mildly interesting, although whenever I did watch snippets of it, I generally did so as a comparative exercise, and never really got into is as a sport in its own right. However, after two weeks of enforced exposure, baseball had won me over.
Of course, it’s perfectly possible that, had I been exposed to basketball or American football in the same way, a similar conversion may have occurred. To be honest, such is my addiction to watching pretty much any sporting activity, two weeks of total immersion in water polo could have had a similar effect. If I accidently turn over to the darts for more than three throws I’ll end up watching it for hours, unable to change the channel until the match has finished.
However, I’d like to think that another sport wouldn’t have won me over quite so easily. I think I’ve been hardwired to like baseball. It appeals to my nerdish nature. Baseball, like cricket, has an array of rules, and exceptions to rules, and exceptions to exceptions to rules that make it almost incomprehensible to the uninitiated. For example, if a batter ‘fouls it back’ – i.e. hits a ball behind the foul ball line – it counts as a strike against the batter, except if this occurs after the batter has already had two strikes in his at bat, in which case, it does not count as a strike, except if they are attempting to bunt the ball rather than hit the ball. Now, I’ve watched quite a lot of baseball games by this point, and I only finally managed to decipher the intricacies of this rule about a week ago. I love that! Give me a sport that is overly complex and has rules that people don’t understand and can’t explain the reasons for and I’m hooked.
One thing I always resented when speaking to Americans about cricket was that they, without any knowledge or experience of the game, labelled cricket as ‘slow’, ‘boring’ and ‘too complicated’. Well, the words ‘pot’, ‘kettle’ and ‘black’ spring to mind. To be fair, cricket can be slow, boring and complicated, but only when you don’t understand the game – and specifically the context of what is happening in the game. In the past few weeks, while trying to convert my flatmates to the game, I’ve been on the other end of some equally impartial comments from cricket fans towards baseball – ‘nothing’s happening’ being the most common one. And, to be fair, I can see their point.
The very first game of baseball I paid attention to while in California, was a game in which nothing really did happen. Or if something did happen, I didn’t see it. When we first tuned in during the second inning, the score was 1-0. By the time we had watched about half an hour, had showers, got dressed, gone out for a meal and a drink, returned to the hotel room in time to watch the end, the score was 2-0, with the second run coming courtesy of a walked base. Essentially, to a cricket fan, nothing happened.
Similarly, having forced my housemates to watch large portions of the American League Championship Series between the LA Angels and the New York Yankees, one of them said ‘You know, I’ve watched a hell of a lot of baseball this week and I don’t think I’ve seen anyone hit the ball’. And, to be fair to him, he hadn’t. There is a hell of a lot of time in a baseball game where not a lot actually happens.
While the cricket fan in me wants to use this to fact as ammunition in the fight against American anti-cricket hypocrisy, the baseball fan in me wants to defend it. Baseball, in many ways, is more similar to cricket than it appears. Context is everything. When people say that ‘nothing happens’ about either sport, the truth is that they just don’t quite understand what is happening, or why it is significant. In both baseball and cricket, it is the build up to, and anticipation of, significant events that make them all the more satisfying when they do come. Good things come to those who wait.
Moreover, the more you watch both sports, the more you get to appreciate the ‘nothing’ happening. To many people, watching Paul Collingwood grind his way to 74 off 245 balls would be boring. To a baseball fan, watching Collingwood leave and defend ball after ball, only breaking from this pattern to nurdle the odd ball to mid-wicket for a single, would seem like ‘nothing’. In the same way, to a cricket fan, watching CC Sabathia concede just four hits in seven innings would seem like nothing. Yet, while they may be less exciting than watching balls fly out of the park, or stumps being sent flying, they are admirable and intriguing in their own right. Once you understand the importance of these acts, the pressure each of these performers are under and the consequences of their potential failure, they are no longer nothing – in fact they are incredibly important, and real fans can appreciate them for what they are.
Perhaps more importantly, these passages of play create the context in which the more spectacular performances take on increased significance. No-one can deny the significance of Paul Collingwood’s almost super-human innings in Cardiff in this year’s first Ashes test. His 245 ball innings contained exactly 201 nothings. But that didn’t mean it wasn’t important. In fact, in its own way, it was as important as Andrew Flintoff’s barnstorming five-wicket haul at Lord’s or his breathtaking run-out of Ricky Ponting at the Oval. Collingwood’s limpet-like dourness allowed England to snatch a draw from the jaws of an almost inevitable defeat, and created the backdrop for Flintoff’s heroics. He made them mean something.
My conversion to baseball was finally completed when, after two weeks of watching baseball in bars, restaurants and hotel rooms, my final evening in California was spent at Angel Stadium, watching the Los Angeles Angels of Anaheim entertain the New York Yankees. I could finally put my hastily acquired and somewhat patchy knowledge to the test at a live ball game, and I wasn’t to be disappointed.
Up until this point, I had found baseball interesting, intriguing and certainly impressive. But I can’t say that I’d found much of it all that exciting. This was all about to change. The Angels, after giving the Yankees a four run head start, eventually prevailed 10-6. The noise made by the 44,000 fans in Angel Stadium when Kendry Morales thumped a fifth inning home run over the wall, earning the Angels three runs and squaring the score at 5-5, was as loud and enduring as any I’ve heard at a sporting event. And, more significantly, I was excited as everyone else and delighted when I saw the ball fly over the wall. At last I understood.
It had taken a while to get going. The first few Angels innings had indeed contained a fair amount of nothing. In the meantime, people ate their hot dogs, drank their beer and chatted to their friends, almost as if the baseball was a mere backdrop to an overly-subscribed picnic, but suddenly, and without quite understanding why, a sense of anticipation had started to grow throughout the fifth inning. A single by Bobby Abreu at the start of it had pulled the Angels back to within three runs. Then a combination of scrambled hits and fielding errors allowed the Angels to get two men on base. Suddenly, the atmosphere was very different. Everyone seemed to sense that something was going to happen. Then, right on cue, Morales belted one out of the park. A whole lot of not very much suddenly seemed to be something after all. The crowd went mad, and the game had turned on its head.
I think this is why I like baseball. Watching and sensing the pressure build on a pitcher as a situation develops is very much like watching a batsman in cricket struggle to find his timing, or play and miss a few times. The pressure mounts and you can sense something will have to give to relieve the pressure. The pitcher may throw that final strike with bases loaded on a full count and end the inning, or they may leave one hanging over the plate, get hammered out of the park and get taken out of the game. The batsman may finally middle one through the covers to ease the tension and take control of their innings, or they might edge that very same shot to the keeper and trudge back to the pavilion knowing they’ve just handed the initiative over to the opposition.
In baseball, as in cricket, even when not much appears to be happening, it nearly is, or is just about to. That’s why I love cricket, and that’s why I think I might love baseball.
Unfortunately, for me at least, the Angels fine season ended this weekend, as they lost the sixth game of their Championship Series to the very same Yankees I saw them beat back in July, going down 4-2 in the series. With this loss went their chance to compete in baseball’s flagship event, the World Series. The Yankees will be there instead, taking on last year’s champions, the Philadelphia Phillies. While the Angels might not be there this year, I’ll still be tuning in to watch it when I can. Game 1 starts at 11.30pm this Thursday on ESPN America. I’d highly recommend it. It might take a while, but it’ll get you in the end.