Outside Baseball, Looking In

The thin line between living forever and just feeling like it
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In what may be a major turning point in my life, doubtless to be noted by as-yet-unborn historians and heresiarchs, I now have ESPN America. This is the European television station which shows, mainly through ESPN broadcasts, some of the finest United Statesian pro sports happenings of the day, as well as NASCAR. It's totally my new thing. The newness is making my usual sources of sports nourishment seem pallid and inadequate. I find myself entranced by trailers for something called College Gameday featuring the heads of animal costumes, a recurring pencil, and a catchphrase which was very memorable until I forgot it. It's such a good trailer, I presume I need never watch the show. There is also the advert for long-time favourite Four Shouty People (with Tony Reali, Who Actually Seems Quite Nice). I have actually seen 4SP(w/TR,WASQN) before, so here it's a case of forewarned is forearmed, with an end-of-days joke thrown in.

It's the little differences that are so engaging. I've been watching your American football for some years, but until recent weeks had never seen a college football game. My bucket list is now one item lighter. (Just joking—I don't have a bucket list. But if I did...) I'm au fait with the NFL, but college football is like a familiar landscape where all the bits that are usually green are pink. It's approximately the same sport as its professional counterpart, but played by teams that are essentially unknown to me, except from when the line-ups are given in the early plays of an NFL game ("Katharevous Washington, The University of Pawtucket"). I already knew enough to know that the whole scene means a hell of lot to a hell of a lot of people. But actually seeing it is a different matter. It can be weird watching a game not knowing how much is actually on the line: whether or not the NCAA supercomputer will allow either team to participate in a meaningful postseason game should they have a good year, or condemn them yet again to the All-U-Can-Haul Fried Chicken Presents The Bowl of Eternal Constancy. But I'm an outsider, and some of your customs are just beyond my reach, which is what makes them so interesting.

Speaking of which, there's baseball. Again, my knowledge of the game was at least a little above non-existent. I knew about Babe Ruth. Somewhere, I have an mp3 of a Ted Williams hitting-instruction record. I was dimly aware that there was once a time when pitchers spat on their balls, or something like that. I knew that Ichiro plays for the Mariners. I thought I knew Ichiro plays for the Mariners. I'd read Moneyball more than once and watched the softball episode of The Simpsons even more often. I once played a demo of Out of the Park Baseball. I knew the four-balls-three-strikes-type bare-bones rules. But I'd never properly seen a game. Now, it's become a favourite pastime. I'm still not an expert, you'll be shocked to learn. I don't stress over the details; I'm happy for now to let the game reach me in an impressionistic haze. I'm struck by the novelty of it all: the teams who were just names to me now in their uniforms and pleasingly idiosyncratic ballparks; the players who if they weren't in Moneyball ("oh, oh, Swisher! I've heard of him!") were probably not even names to me; the chawing, suspicious faces in the dugout, like a row of Alex Fergusons in a sandstorm. I'm delighted by aspects of the game that might be banal to seasoned fans for all I know: the tic-tac-style signals the coaches give; the different kinds of pitches; the infield fly rule and how it seems to exasperate people so. I love the fluency with which the announcers speak the language of baseball, how they instinctively deploy this just-about-foreign terminology. It reminds me of winter nights spent listening to Ashes series on BBC radio's Test Match Special, knowing the basics of what was going on but unable to quite follow the details of the commentators were saying. You can only presume that the language is full of meaning, but until you learn that meaning, it's okay to get pleasantly lost in the sound of it.

But you could easily reverse that: within that happy bewilderment is a kernel of familiarity. The charm is in the juxtaposition of the immediately knowable and the initiates' prerogative, and in how the two bleed into one another. The picture is easy to comprehend in the overall, but as you zoom in, all manner of quirks and details reveal themselves. I've heard people describe baseball in terms of the beauty of geometric precision, as if it were laid down according to a God-given template: reverent talk of right angles and ninety feet and sixty feet six inches and twenty-seven outs and whatnot. And fair enough. But it reminds me more of a children's game whose rules are made up as it goes along, to suit mood and environment. It's Calvinball writ large: go with what works. A perfectly ordered game wouldn't need ground rule doubles, or the warning track, or the foul poles and the thing that juts out from them, or the rule whereby a foul ball is a strike unless the batter is already on two strikes. And—look, I don't mean to embarrass you, I'm just telling you this as a friend—you do realise there are two major leagues, right? These kinks don't suggest a divine gift: they tell of something that's lived-in, messy, and human. It's not a city constructed according to a single over-arching vision, but one built piecemeal according to the vision of millions, which somehow retains a sense of unity while allowing everyone their own unique view. The arcane isn't so forbidding to the stranger when he knows it has accreted over generations by anyone who wished to add to the pile. That "anyone" could be you.

I don't think any of this is unique to baseball. I'm a believer in (as Douglas Adams didn't put it) the Fundamental Interconnectedness of All Sports—that they are all different expressions of the same thing. What that thing is I don't exactly know, and whatever it is may be too vague to be a useful idea to anyone bar me. But what stays with me through the blur of this experience is the sense of sport as ceremony. Maybe that's what the vague expression is: a gathering in celebration of life, or a conscious living of life, the chance to experience something that's simultaneously intensely personal and bigger than yourself.

I've been watching Ken Burns' Baseball documentary. It can sometimes be a bit heavy on the "baseball is like democracy/freedom/America" stuff, and sweet Jesus, if I never hear "Take Me Out to the Ball Game" again, it'll be too soon. At times it seems a bit too "official history", sanctioned not by an official authority but by baseball's self-image, there to reassure baseball fans of their game's importance. But it's enjoyable and enlightening, at least to me. For one thing, I could watch a whole documentary where the only two talking heads were Buck O'Neil and Bill Lee (star of CLASS 1). For another, I've got my first real feel for the heft of baseball history. That's another way in which sport can feel appealingly bigger than yourself. It's a powerful thing to step into something that's existed for so long relative to your own puny span that it may as well have been going forever, and for all you know may continue indefinitely. That can be dangerous thinking, because a sport is just a culture, and cultures are fragile things that get born and dead like nobody's business. But that's just why a sense of history is important. My principle sporting passion, soccer, seems to be in the process of shedding its memory, believing itself to be an invincible megabeing that sprung from nothing, fully mega, around 1992. I don't know enough about baseball to know whether, for all its apparent history-fetishism, it suffers from the same thing these days. I may be wrong, but it seems to have a better sense of where it's come from than soccer does. The preliminary findings of the Fredorrarci Commission on Baseball have at least reminded me of the difference between beholding the edifice and thinking about how it got there. Sport's continuity is one of its most attractive qualities, but we should feel that it's eternal while knowing that it's not. There's the false consolation of eternity, and there's the consolation of false eternity, and a thin line between them.


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