The crack of leather-bound cork on wood. The soft thud of ball in glove. The smells of summer: of hot dogs and beer and freshly cut grass. Baseball season is truly here!
Well, it’s been here for a while now, and we’re not even half way through yet. At the time of writing my team, the Milwaukee Brewers, have just completed a closely fought four game sweep of the Florida Marlins, immediately followed by a fairly disappointing series at home to the New York Mets.
The long painstaking draft was completed earlier this week and the All Star Game, marking the spiritual if not physical half-way point in the baseball season, is still a way away.
If I were to start at the start, which by all accounts would be the logical thing to do, I should let you know just how a young Briton from the rural county of Dorset came to be such a fan of this most American of pastimes.
When I started studying at the University of Winchester here in the UK I had no idea that any of this would happen. I had little interest in sport at all. I would watch the FIFA World Cup and international rugby matches with a passing interest; I was more concerned with whether the team representing my country would win rather than any actual team coherence or playing skills. None of my family or close friends supported a domestic football team so I wasn’t attracted to that either.
During my childhood I enjoyed playing sport in PE as much as any other young male but my vision of football as entertainment was blurred by hooliganism in the news and bulling on the school field. Naturally, being associated with the geek crowd, I saw the sporty kids as jocks – the enemy!
This view dimmed over the years. By the time I was at university I wasn’t opposed to sports or those who played them. I and those around me had grown out of the cliques that defined our childhoods and new friends were being made across previous social boundaries.
It was in my first year at Winchester that I met and befriended Americans for the first time. Winchester has a great exchange program with the University of Wisconsin – Eau Claire, among others. At the time I had never actually sat down and had a conversation with an American in my life. My view of America was warped by the media representation of the Bush administration, selfish celebrities and ignorant hicks.
To find out that the vast majority of Americans are just normal people of average intelligence, with standard political views and of regular wealth woke me up. Of course I always knew this in theory, but to actually meet these people was something else entirely.
Before this point I had never considered visiting America in my life. I always wanted to explore the world but America just didn’t appeal to me as being much different than a bigger version of the UK with funny accents and taller buildings. Not to mention that I’ve been in houses which are older than the constitution millions of Americans seemed to worship to the letter.
So, it was as much a shock to me as it was to anyone who knew me that I almost impulsively signed up for the exchange program which was due to happen the next year.
It turned out that I had one of the best times of my life during that semester abroad. I met many of my closest friends and even began a long-term long-distance relationship.
The local team at UW-EC is the Eau Claire Express of the independent Northwoods League. The young lady I was seeing worked part time at a local paper and could get free or heavily discounted tickets, so half a dozen or so of us went to see them play about once a week that whole first American summer of mine. This was my first introduction to baseball.
As with most Englishmen I know, I had heard of baseball but knew almost nothing of it beyond the slightly incorrect assumption that it’s just a more complicated version of the school game rounders (which now seems like saying that cricket is just hitting a ball with a stick and that a house is just a pile of bricks.)
Even then I was only a casual fan of the game. I loved the atmosphere, something I had never experienced before and haven’t since. I loved the food and drink, the summer breeze, the little games the fans get to play between innings, ‘Take me out to the ballgame’, and all the other awesome things at the ballpark. I just wasn’t quite up to speed with all the rules of the game, which meant that I wasn’t going to go out of my way to support a Major League team.
It wasn’t until two visits later that I got round to going to the Bigs. I loved it all. Being Miller Park with the tailgating tradition and sausage racing it was just like the fun ‘little’ games I went to back in Eau Claire but on a grander scale. After that I started following the Brewers on the internet back home and then discovered the Sunday evening broadcast on BBC Radio 5 live sports extra, which I would recommend to any British baseball fan. As I followed the team, bought the merchandise and got myself up to speed on even the more obscure rules, I knew that this was the sport for me.
I ordered a bat and glove and bought half a dozen Rawlings balls the next time I was in the States and started teaching the game to some of my friends in the local park. We’d get a couple of kids watching what we were doing every now and then but a lot of people just weren’t interested. Each to their own I suppose, which is what they must have been thinking of us too. We had fun, but it wasn’t anything beyond something to do on a summer afternoon for any of my friends.
Winter came and went and only one of my friends was still interested in hitting the ball around, which quite frankly meant no more than pitching and hitting practice in turns, which grew old pretty fast. It was then that I was driven to find out if anyone actually played seriously on the South Coast of England. Lo and behold, the British Baseball Federation! And there was a team only ten minutes down the road from me! My live-action baseball fix was assured!
It turns out that the nearest team isn’t exactly the best and they’re only in AA. Also, almost all of them are foreign (Spanish? Portuguese? Mexican?) so I can’t really understand anything they’re shouting to each other across the field. Which I guess is the point as it means the other team can’t either. I do go to watch them whenever they play at home on a Sunday afternoon. Last time I was there an ambulance was called because one of them did something to his leg while sliding in to third, it was all very exciting!
My next nearest team, which is still a way out from me, is the Southampton Mustangs. Now that’s a team! They started about a decade ago as a university beer team but have advanced to the top tier of domestic baseball – the National Baseball League, have had media coverage on the local BBC news station, and are currently tied with the Richmond Flames at 9 wins against just 2 losses for the season.
In the space of about five years I’ve gone from knowing nothing of baseball and being generally ambivalent about sport or America at all, to being in love with the game and the places it is played across the world.
Now I’m just waiting for the next game to start. Bring on watching your team until the early hours of the morning with work the next day, noticing when anyone is wearing baseball apparel (and laughing to yourself when you realise that they have no idea about the game or team they are wearing), getting that feeling that the commentators are old friends, and everything else which comes with being a fan of America’s pastime on this side of the pond!