Oddly, it is only recently that I became hooked on baseball. Perhaps it was the flying rounders (the tame “British” version of the sport) bat that put me as a seven year old in the local hospital, for which I still have the bump on my forehead, which had, subconsciously, spooked me from engaging with the game earlier.
Or maybe it was the ambivalent relationship with American culture that I “enjoyed” until the mid nineties when I took that fateful first trip across the Atlantic. Baseball epitomised the inferiority of American sport compared to games invented by the English such as association football (soccer) and, especially, cricket with which baseball has much in common.
Despite trips to San Francisco in October 1995 and then the springs of 1999, 2002 (a season which culminated in an unsuccessful World Series appearance for my now adopted San Francisco Giants), 2004 and 2006 a trip to, respectively Candlestick, SBC, Pacific Bell and now AT & T Park never occurred to me. The prodigious exploits of Barry Bonds, both on and off the diamond, relayed on KRON 4 and other Bay Area TV stations were as close as I got, and their features focused as much on his controversial lifestyle as his sporting prowess.
Perhaps the fact that we were never in the city during the regular season, and , therefore, TV coverage was limited to cursory references to spring training, may also have accounted for my indifference. Put simply, the opportunity to attend a game just wasn’t there.
To be fair, the little I had watched on television at home had intrigued me. The reason I hadn’t given it a chance was due in no small part to the fact that games lasted up to three hours and were relayed live in the middle of the night. Even in the comfort of my own home I was denied reasonable access to the sport.
Our first trip to AT & T Park was in March 2008, less than a week away before Opening Day, when we saw an understandably below strength Giants team beaten 7-1 by their neighbours across the bay, the Oakland Athletics (“A’s”). They greeted our arrival with a mediocre performance in a half empty stadium lacking in any real atmosphere, and played in a bitterly cold wind that we could not escape, wherever we moved. But we were hooked!
Firstly, the design and setting of the stadium were, of course, beautiful and the facilities outstanding. Having been brought up to think that the catering, if such a word dignified it, in American sports arenas did not extend beyond hot dogs, popcorn and soda / beer, we were amazed by its range and quality. There were at least two more converts to Gilroy’s garlic fries in the Bay Area that day! The celebrated American customer service was prevalent everywhere, and we were struck by how fan friendly the whole experience was.
And then there was the crowd, Ok, it was only a “pre-season friendly” in soccer parlance, albeit between two bitter local rivals, but there was no segregation, in fact Giants and A’s fans sat together in our section and maintained a barrage of feisty but light hearted banter throughout the afternoon.
But why should I fall for baseball and not american football or basketball? The affinity with the traditional long form (i.e. 3,4 or 5 day) of cricket is the best answer I can offer – a game that unfolds slowly but subtly with periodic bursts of excrutiating excitement, a rich literature (no other games have offered more to the English language), a noble history graced with remarkable characters and an obsession with statistics and records (one of the reasons both games captivate and capture for a lifetime the male of the species). And not forgetting the attractive spectacle of field and “flannelled fools” where pitcher (bowler) and hitter (batsman) test their skills and character on an epic scale.
So I kept a close eye on the Giants‘ exploits over the next two seasons, which were modest but promising of future success. By the time we made our next visit in March 2010 I considered myself a long distance Giants fan. We took the ballpark tour which was fascinating, and were given the opportunity to sit in the home team’s dugout. We bought several items of merchandise to take home, including a Tim Lincecum bobblehead that we then contrived to leave in our apartment!
The general consensus seemed to be that the Giants, with their pitching strength in particular, could be more competitive that year. But few dared to dream then, or even through most of the regular season, of division, league or World Series championships.
Or that, throughout October and the beginning of November, I would be going to bed at home at 8pm in order to rise again at half past midnight, or, on other occasions staying awake until 5am, living every strike, hit, walk and stolen base against the San Diego Padres (in the last regular season games), Atlanta Braves, Philadelphia Phillies and Texas Rangers. How I enjoyed the rare daytime starts which meant that they were over by midnight UK time!
Sporting a Tim Lincecum t-shirt, kept company by a Pablo Sandoval soft toy and with a bottle of Jack Daniel’s by my side, I too endured the “torture” and ultimate glory of that Giants play off campaign last autumn.
And after a slow start in 2011, aggravated by a succession of injuries to key players, I write this on the back of a five game winning streak against the Colorado Rockies (previously dominant in the division) and the Arizona Diamondbacks. ESPN America is broadcasting the game live tomorrow evening from Wrigley Field against the Chicago Cubs.
I will be there -on my sofa that is, wearing one of my World Series Champions t shirts and accompanied again by Jack and Pablo, even if the latter remains on the DL (I may not have mastered all the terminology yet -I doubt it’s humanly possible for anyone to do that - but I’m learning fast. I know my DL, sac fly, ERA and double play I’ll have you know)!