I had a dream last night that one day all baseball fans and all cricket fans will put aside their differences and say nice things about each other’s sport. From the sunny outfield of Dodger Stadium to the Old Wanderers Ground in Johannesburg; from a dusty diamond someplace in the badlands of Nebraska to three chalk-line stumps on the back of a Calcutta wall… Let us all join hands and shout as one:
with the same giddy disregard for all the things that divide us. The roundness of a bat. The bouncing of a bowl. The catching with a mitt…
Can such a thing ever happen in our lifetime? I hope so; it’s probably the most pressing issue of our age.
Well, my friends, at the end of this week the 2011 major league baseball season starts – and I’ve cooked up the foolhardy plan of counting down the days between now and then with a daily baseball-themed blog.
Hands-across-the-ocean style, I figured I’d get the hard ball rolling by teasing out some of the many reasons why America’s national past-time and England’s favourite summer sport are much better bedfellows than you might think. As far as I can see, if you like a bit of whacking, throwing, catching, and running, then both sports are easily worth carving out absurd amounts of time for. A significant chunk of every day, say, between now and the end of October.
(Note: I suppose it’s possible that some of you reading this don’t have any interest in either baseball or cricket. If that’s you, well, thanks much for even reading this far! You really are too kind… and I hope I can play a small, humble part in administering the cure.)
Ok, I’ll skip right past the basic points of overlap. We can all see that baseball and cricket both involve propelling a ball at someone who, for the most part, tries to bash it away when it gets to him. And we know that preventing runs is the goal of the fielding team, and scoring them, the goal of the batting team. So far, so bland.
Let’s get to the meat… Both sports resist the dreary need to rush. They take their sweet-ass time and are all the better for it. They’re marathon sports made up of many smaller sprints, and watching either is an invitation to lounge luxuriantly one minute and leap up from you seat, incandescent or jubilant, the next. Baseball and cricket teams can fall behind, miles behind, and still hustle, harry and hurt their way back to winning. They can overcome some of sport’s most unruly odds for the simple reason that these odds have plenty time to build. Take for example…
AKA: The mother’s day miracle. I watched this game at home. For (roughly) 98% of its total running time, it was slow, grinding agony. The Red Sox couldn’t buy a hit off the opposing Orioles pitcher (let alone a run) and a demoralizing defeat looked for the all the world like a cast-iron certainty. Then their catcher conspired to drop a routine pop-up in the bottom of the ninth and… the game’s left-over 2% was rather splendid bliss.
Or, indeed, this…
This one I remember more-or-less running home to see the end of, down Canterbury high-street after I saw the first stirrings of a fight-back through the window of a TV shop. If I close my eyes and think of it again, it’s all I can do to stop my legs from hurrying away…
Moving on. Both sports reveal character with laser-beam precision, even without the modern helping hand of high-definition cameras. They pivot, always, around the mechanics of a dual. Pitcher versus batter. Bowler versus batsman. Who’s got the better “stuff?” Who’s got the nerve to win, and who’s lacking it? Who can grab the game with both hands and bend it to his bloody-minded will?
Inevitably, some players wilt in the heat of competition. Others, though, find it gives them fresh reserve of talent – abilities, perhaps, they never knew they had. A smaller few don’t just know how to handle themselves in the duel, but crave it, demand that we lucky watchers see it as their contest only, with the other guy nothing but a support player in the drama of the game. I give you…
“[There’s nothing] more enjoyable than making 55,000 people from New York shut up.”
– Red Sox starting pitcher Curt Shilling hoping to be a miserable night out for Yankees fans. After a couple of goes in 2004, he managed it. (En route to his team’s World Series win.)
“Mate, you’ve just dropped the World Cup.”
– Australian captain Steve Waugh coolly notifying South Africa that giving him a second life equals losing. Even with the game ostensibly in the balance. (It did.)
Even better, in baseball and cricket alike it’s not only the best players who are the most fun to watch. Far from it. Both sports throw their arms around a huge array of characters, and you’d hard-pressed to love these sports without loving them. Because there are so many different ways of contributing, eccentrics and mis-shapes are welcome – the sort forever picked last for the football team definitely included.
In Monty Panesar’s first few games for England, he could scarcely even hold a bat, much less so wield it effectively. But – how perfectly diverting – we still got to watch him try. And over in baseball again, a Tim Wakefield can deliver twenty-odd years of championship-calibre usefulness solely on the strength of a slow-moving knuckleball that, on a good day, confounds every hitter by dancing in the air.
Then there’s the rich histories that both sports enjoy. Babe Ruth and Don Bradman -twin greats though in many ways very different – were near contemporaries at the height of their respective powers, yet these interwar years were already long removed from the salad days of Honus Wagner, the ‘Flying Dutchman’ shortstop, and W.G. Grace, the cricketing Doctor and owner of sport’s finest ever beard.
And of course, both games are also preoccupied with numbers – 99.94 and all that – but, as you’ll have long since noticed, I’m afraid it’s high time for me to stop…
In any case, really, my one and only point here: if you love cricket, you can easily love baseball. And vice versa.
Now how about a song or two: both suitably magnificent, one instantly evocative of a golden age of baseball; the other to cricket what dreams are to sleeping… (But which is better?!)
And for the rest of the week, I promise to be briefer! (See you tomorrow…)