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The day I finally got baseball

The day I finally got baseball
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First Published: Sat, May 12 2007. 12 29 AM IST
Updated: Sat, May 12 2007. 12 29 AM IST
The wind that blew across Boston harbour that weekend was strong and cold, and it brought rains and a grey cloud cover, the raindrops hitting you sharply at an angle. The weather forecasters on television were watching excitedly the slow but certain advance of the Nor’easter, which was expected to lash the city the next day, casting doubts about the staging of Boston’s Marathon the following morning.
But those winds and that rain did not deter thousands of fans, whom I joined with an old friend, now a doctor, and we headed towards Fenway Park to see Boston Red Sox take on the Los Angeles Angels. I had lived in the US in the 1980s for a few years and, since then, had made many visits to the country, but, until this April, I had never been inside a ballpark.
I like many American authors, but I’ve always found the fascination Bernard Malamud, Philip Roth and Don DeLillo have for baseball slightly perplexing. Their passion is almost evangelical: DeLillo and Paul Auster took Salman Rushdie to baseball games, introducing him to the two New York teams, Yankees and Mets, respectively, to help him acclimatize in his new hometown.
But the idea of getting excited over a game with nine innings in which you were lucky if even 10 runs were scored, where the pitcher could not bounce the ball to give it any variation, where the ball could not be old, where the catchers had to wear a glove to hold a ball that seemed lighter than the cricket ball, and where most batters were caught out because the only shot they could play with certainty to get a run—one run—was the lofted hit that would have fetched as many as six in cricket, seemed, well, oddly peculiar.
I joined hundreds of Red Sox fans in Boston's subway. The stadium was full and it was already the third innings, but we had missed nothing, as no run had been scored yet. To our left was a giant green board, appropriately called the Green Monster, and to its left was a large screen. And beyond, towering over the stadium, the Prudential Tower. Airplanes took off and landed at Logan Airport, as the likes of Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz stepped on the field, millions of dollars riding on their shoulders. The players seemed remarkably pristine and pure, their uniforms unsullied by endorsements. Ramirez was the hero; fans sitting near me informed me that his annual salary was $18 million—no, make that $25 million, someone else said—no, it is $20 million, a woman behind me said—as they argued among themselves good naturedly, while the Red Sox slowly built their lead to an unassailable 8-0 by the time we reached the eighth innings. In cricketing terms, it was like the 1999 World Cup final, pitting a relentless Australia against a lackadaisical Pakistan.
There was a tragic irony in remembering cricket while watching baseball because, 150 years ago, cricket was still big in Boston. The first international cricket match was in 1844 between the US and Canada. I reminded another American friend (a lawyer) about it, and spectators around me listened in as we discussed the finer points dividing cricket and baseball. They couldn’t imagine a game lasting one day, leave alone five days; and I couldn’t understand what was so great about the severely curtailed range of shots a batter could hit.
Cricket did not survive in America—the conventional explanation is that Americans saw cricket as unsuitable for a nation in a hurry. Baseball’s success arose from the battlefields of the Civil War, where soldiers could play on rougher pitches—“an honest, rugged game, not a class-ridden elitist diversion”, as Ed Smith explains. Indeed, Orlando Patterson and Jason Kaufman at Harvard have argued that with its simpler rules and egalitarian nature (baseball players have their union, which periodically goes on strikes), it appealed to American democratic instincts, eager to shake off colonial feudalism and elitism.
Baseball has broken barriers—the weekend I saw the game was when Americans celebrated the 60th anniversary of Jackie Robinson breaking the colour bar, becoming the first black to play major league baseball. The stadium honoured him, flashing the number on his shirt, 42, from the stands.
The current idol in Boston is Ramirez, and the dreadlocked Dominican dutifully obliges fans, tossing balls to them, and waving at kids. Writing in The New Yorker, Ben McGrath says Ramirez is "perhaps the closest thing in contemporary professional sports to a folk hero, an unpredictable public figure about whom relatively little is actually known, but whose exploits, on and off the field, are recounted endlessly, with each addition punctuated by a shrug and the observation that it’s just “Manny being Manny”. (His team-mate, David Ortiz, describes him as) “that guy, he’s in his own world, on his own planet”.
That Saturday was Ortiz’s day as he hit a spectacular home run, punctuating the Red Sox’s superiority. As I left the stadium, I had a pleasant feeling of time well spent; I could not feel the same passion, but I understood. The American writer, Mike Marqusee, got it right when he said: "The swing of the bat, the ball scuttling across the earth or arching through the air, human figures moving purposefully, gracefully, at speed, across a vast green lawn. No cricket fan could resist it, even if it is baseball."
 
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First Published: Sat, May 12 2007. 12 29 AM IST
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