Take me out to the ball game

“I believe in the church of baseball. I’ve tried all the major religions and most of the minor ones. And the only church that truly feeds the soul day-in, day-out is the church of baseball.” Susan Sarandon (aka Annie Savoy in the film Bull Durham)

My introduction to baseball was the film Bull Durham and I really love this quote from kooky baseball groupie Annie Savoy (played by Susan Sarandon). The film conveys a game that is intricately woven into the American psyche, overflowing with colourful phrases and bizarre rituals honouring the winning streak.

But does Hollywood portray the real thing? I wanted to see for myself – and where better than New York, home to the most successful baseball team in history, the New York Yankees.

Even rookies know some of the folklore. In 1920, the Yankees bought the contract of Babe Ruth from the Boston Red Sox for $125,000, which was followed by a long drought for the Red Sox (who didn’t win the World Series again until 2004). In contrast, the Yankees have won the the title 27 times.

At the Yankees, Ruth reignited public interest in the game. In 1921, the Yankees clinched their first American League pennant and in 1922 construction began on Yankee Stadium. This marked an era of Yankee domination in the roaring 20s. In the 1927 World Championship year, Ruth, by then dubbed the “Yankee slugger”, hit a record 60 home runs.

“He was a circus, a play and a movie, all rolled into one,” said team-mate Lefty Gomez. “Kids adored him. Men idolised him. Women loved him. There was something about him that made him great.”

It was also the era of Lou Gehrig, who hit 493 home runs in a record 2130 consecutive games for the Yankees. In May 1939, he was diagnosed with a degenerative muscle disease amyotrophic lateral sclerosis and only two years later Lou Gehrig was dead. He had farewelled his team-mates and fans at Yankee Stadium in July 1939, in a now-famous speech, saying, “I am the luckiest man alive”.

Now I was inside that stadium, making my way to the highest point in the bleachers. We heard the announcer welcoming fans: “It’s a bee-yooo-tiful day for baseball.”

It was the New York Yankees taking on the Tampa Bay Devil Rays and my lesson began immediately. Of course, I knew the basics – I played softball in school – and as the manager in Bull Durham expressed it:

“This is a very simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, and you hit the ball.”

He forgot to mention terms such as switch hitter (left or right-hand), the sacrifice bunt (getting out to allow a runner to advance) and a gas (fast ball). Fly ball to the left field is a big hit to the outfield and RBI’s are a statistic for the batter if his hit results in a runner crossing homeplate (a Run Batted In).

As I struggled with the baseball lingo, I recalled taking an American to a game of cricket and trying to explain silly mid-off, a leg-cutter or an LBW. I guess we’re even now.

Surprisingly, the development of baseball was influenced by cricket, along with rounders, town ball, old-cat, goal ball, the Massachusetts Game and, finally, the New York Game.

Earliest mentions of an organised game appeared in 1823, in The New York Gazette and General Advertiser, and by the 1840s the rules had been written down by Alexander Cartwright and other members of the New York Knickerbockers.

I was bought back to the present when my companion pointed off in the distance and told me there was “action in the bull-pen”.

What sort of action, I wondered. But I was also distracted by the shenanigans of the crowd. The peanut man must have been a pitcher in a previous life as he tossed bags of peanuts to customers in the stands. It was worth the cost of the peanuts just to see his perfect throw. Amazingly, he always got his money, with the crowd obligingly passing it along to him.

Apparently, it “just wouldn’t be baseball” without beer and crackerjacks (caramel popcorn) and what better time to enjoy them than the seventh-inning stretch when the crowd bursts into song.

Take me out to the ball game
Take me out to the crowd
Buy me some peanuts and Cracker Jacks; I don’t care if I never get back
Cause it’s root, root, root for the home team
If they don’t win it’s a shame
For it’s One! Two! Three strikes you’re out
At the old ball game!

.

The crowd erupts – “Play ball!” – and the players return.

The seventh-inning stretch dates to 1896, when Manhattan College, a Jesuit school, was playing in a close and tense game. When the umpire made a bad call against the home team the crowd became angry but Manhattan’s coach sensed the mood. He suggested everyone stand up to take a stretch; it relaxed the crowd and saved the day.

Leading 4-0 at the top of the 9th inning, the Yankees looked to be home, but Tampa Bay provided an entertaining last inning. They loaded the bases and managed to score one run before the final batter was struck out.

The crowd roared, then burst into song, “Start spreading the news…”, accompanying a Frank Sinatra rendition of New York, New York.

Paul Richards, former manager of the Baltimore Orioles, once said: “Baseball is made up of very few big and dramatic moments, but rather it’s a beautifully put together pattern of countless little subtleties that finally add up to the big moment, and you have to be well-versed in the game to truly appreciate them.”

As an Australian at my first major league game I had to agree – I was converted. But it will be a long time before I understand what Kevin Costner’s character Crash Davies meant when he referred to a “dying quail” and a “groundball with eyes”.

Have you gone to a sporting event overseas where you didn’t know the rules or the lingo? What was the game and which country were you visiting? What did you enjoy most about the experience? Let me know in the comments below.
 

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