Here’s everything I knew about baseball before Saturday.
1) It’s a bit like rounders.
2) Joe DiMaggio was a baseball player who married Marilyn Monroe.
3) There are baseball caps, baseball boots and baseball jackets.
4) The ‘World Series’ is a good way to laugh at Americans, because only North American teams actually play in it.
5) A recent one, this: the word ‘pinch-hitter’ is an American term for a stand-in. To which we could add other vocabulary gems such as ‘getting to first base’ and – er, maybe that’s all.
6) People sometimes go to baseball games in films (often on wholesome dates) and from this I have mainly gleaned that the activity involves hot dogs and beer, both of which are brought round the stands by men with trays hanging from their necks like ice cream sellers at the theatre.
7) The Wrigley stadium is the second oldest in the US and considered quite a Chicago sight.
Anyway, above and beyond all that, baseball strikes me as about as American as you can get. So when our new American friends J and L tentatively mentioned that M and I should check out a baseball game, we enthused until they felt obliged to take us. We were going to see the Chicago Cubs vs the St Louis Cardinals, in some ludicrously good seats that J’s friend’s friend sold us for about a fifth of their price.
Halfway through the game I had an epiphany: I had NEVER watched a live sporting event all the way through other than my school sports day, and possibly a single, solitary boat race in Eights Week at Oxford. Not a football game, not a cricket match – nothing. Maybe I’ve got this wrong – if anyone who knows me remembers different, please say. But it seemed to me that I was watching my first ever live sport in the form of a baseball game. Thus, I will offer just a few comments on the experience, and you must filter them through a lens of amusement at my first-timer naivete.
1) There’s an organ that plays all the music in the Wrigley stadium! And men with rakes have to come and rake the sand during the game. (For some reason this makes me think of The Walrus and the Carpenter: ‘ “if seven maids with seven mops/ swept it for half a year/ do you suppose,” the Walrus said,/ “that they could get it clear?” ‘
2) They hand out free baseball caps at the entrance!
3) Americans don’t sing the Star Spangled Banner in unison, as I had assumed they would. They just stand to attention, having been told to remove caps over the loudspeaker, while a solo singer does it for them. Given that it’s notoriously tricky, I guess that makes sense, but it seems a bit sad.
Still, Cubs fans make up for this by singing a slightly weak anthem about the Cubs, ‘Go Cubs Go’ mid-game, which is reprised at the end if they win. Here are the lyrics scrolling under the scoreboard…
4) The basic rules took me half the game to understand. As far as I can make out, the starting point is that the guy I like to think of as the bowler (actually called a pitcher) throws the ball towards the batsman hitter, and behind him is crouching a wicketkeeper catcher and a referee. They all look a bit stupid bunched in a row like that, but there we are.
If the pitcher throws the ball in the right kind of area but the hitter doesn’t hit it, it’s a ‘strike’. If he throws it into the wrong area, it’s a miss (confusingly displayed on the scoreboard as ‘ball’). If the hitter hits it into the crowd, which happens a great deal, it’s a ‘foul ball’. Guess what happens after 3 strikes? Yeah, you’re out. After 4 balls, you can walk for free up to the first base. If it’s a foul, you just keep trying; and if you hit the ball, you run to first base, then keep trying to run round until you score a home run, which is the only way to actually score anything. But if someone then catches the ball, which they mostly do, you’re out. Or they can get you out by getting the ball to a base before you can run there. Like I said, it’s basically rounders. (You can correct me on all this too if you like, but don’t get too pedantic.)
Each team’s half-inning lasts until 4 hitters are out, and there are 9 innings.
5) Like many sports, it surprises you with its high failure rate. (Like, wouldn’t you think professional tennis players could get their first serves in? Wouldn’t you think a Premier League football team could score more than one goal in 90 minutes? Don’t bother to explain this to me – I understand *why*, but it seems sort of rubbish.) So I assumed that most balls that got pitched would get hit, and then that most of the time the hitter would get to first base. Wrong and wrong.
6) You have to drop your bat when you hit the ball! I assumed the reason we did this in rounders at school was economy, so we only needed one bat between the whole class – you know, it was a state primary school in the eighties, and it was all about sharing textbooks and inadequate head height partitions between classrooms. But I guess there was more to it all along.
Also, someone broke a bat halfway through the game, which was somehow more dramatic even than the Cardinals’ pitcher getting hit, bleeding from the mouth and having to go off to hospital.
7) There’s no division of fans between different areas of the stadium, which seemed odd to me, but I now wonder if football (I mean soccer, but I’m not going to call it that) is the only British sport that does that. Anyway, I thought that made it less fun and more confusing. When I heard boos, I was never sure if something bad had happened to the Cubs or the Cardinals, unless I could ascertain whether they were emitting from a red or blue garbed person. Or cheers. Why did I put boos first?
8 ) Since I couldn’t make out anyone’s faces, didn’t understand tactics or have any acquaintance with the game at all, I soon decided that my favourite player was Aramis Ramirez, based on his nice name and fine figure.
9) The Cubs won 7-3! Yay! Full report at ESPN, if you care.
10) And M and I ate some very nice Chicago hot dogs (though I’m not sure the fried onions were totally authentic – this is for another post, as I’m becoming hot dog obsessed). Then we all went and had proper beers and ciders in a proper pub, spurning the Bud Lite cans sold by the people with trays, while J tried to explain to us the precise meaning of the term ‘douche’.