Writing Portfolio


Take me out to the ball game

Many years ago my university tutor, who happened to be American, made a comment about how, despite having lived in England for many years, he couldn’t understand cricket. As a tail-end batsman in the university’s second XI, I couldn’t resist responding by pointing out that none of us Brits had a clue about baseball.

“But baseball’s easy!” countered Professor Wheeler. The short discussion that followed, which naturally had nothing to do with the lecture topic, ended with us agreeing to disagree about which country has the best bat-and-ball game. If you’re brought up on one of them, your chances of understanding the other are slim. Just about the only thing we were able to establish is that both sports have a great appeal to fans who are interested in a lot of statistics.

For years, most of what I knew about baseball came from Ed Smith’s book Playing Hard Ball, which is a great read for people who’ve been brought up on cricket and want to try to understand this other summer game that keeps getting talked about in American movies and sitcoms. A professional cricketer-turned-writer, Ed Smith is one of few people to have attempted to bridge this cultural gap in either direction without resorting to feeble jokes at the other sport’s expense (case in point: Bill Bryson).

What surprises me is how much baseball terminology has crept into the language, even in a country that doesn’t understand the sport. Stepping up to the plate, ballpark figures, three strikes, covering all your bases, switch-hitting (a baseball thing long before Kevin Pietersen tried it on the cricket pitch) and coming out of left field are all baseball phrases. Plus, of course, there’s the baseball cap.

I started watching baseball on the TV when I started going to Canada during the summer months, and although it puzzled me at first I did manage to pick up a few things. Until my last visit in May of this year, though, I had never been to a game. On previous visits to Toronto, I had been to BMO Fields (home of Toronto FC) and the Air Canada Centre (where the Leafs play) but I had not been to see the Blue Jays.

They play at the SkyDome (a.k.a. the Rogers Centre) which is located right in the centre of Toronto – not so much in the shadow of the CN Tower but right next to it. Built in the 1980s, it is the first sports stadium to have a fully retractable roof, although as it wasn’t raining when we went this was open to the elements. It seats around 45,000 – although for most Jays games it’s barely half full. At one side is a hotel where some of the rooms have a view out onto the field – although it’s something of a standing joke that if you want to watch a baseball game in your hotel, it’s much cheaper to just get a room that has a TV.

Outside, touts mingled with the guys manning the hotdog stands and somehow managed to evade the attention of the cops who appeared to be more interested in buying hotdogs than anything else.

Inside, the ground was half-full as the Jays took on the Atlanta Braves, a team whose fans are well-known for their ‘tomahawk chop’ celebratory gesture. Years ago, a Jays player used this gesture when they beat the Braves, which caused a bit of friction between the two teams.

In baseball, both teams have nine innings, each one ending after three batters (not batsmen) are out. So there’s quite the turnaround, and the first-time matchgoer is advised to stay alert if he wants to follow the game properly.

Throughout the game, attendants wandered the stands selling cans of beer, although it is in fact cheaper if you get up and go to the bar yourself. It really is just a question of whether or not you want to pay the extra money to not miss anything! Other vendors sold peanuts and Cracker Jack. One guy tried to boost sales by balancing his tray on his head. He got some applause but little extra trade. “Oh come on, guys,” he shouted at us, “I’m trying to pay for college here!” We opted to get some fries instead.

On the pitch, there appeared to be a lot of fly-balls (hits that go behind and so aren’t scoring shots – same sort of thing as dot-balls, I guess), and the fielding was generally excellent. Part of the scoreboard told me that the pitcher was pitching at speeds of over 80 mph.

Of the players, the only one who really stood out (albeit for the wrong reasons) was Toronto’s Brett Lawrie, who distinguished himself by pulling a hamstring muscle while stealing a base when he didn’t really need to do so (he got blasted by the baseball correspondent of the Globe & Mail the following day).

A break of sorts came with the seventh innings stretch, when crowd are encouraged to, well, stretch – the cheerleaders put on a dance routine which resembled a work-out video, and quite a few of the spectators joined in. Quite a few people got up to get food, and it was at this point that sales of beer ended.

By the time Edwin Encarnacion hit a three-run homer at the bottom of the seventh (for the uninitiated, that constitutes a Very Good Thing), it was obvious that the Jays were going to win convincingly. But a ‘never say never’ attitude pervaded among the crowd, most probably because of the way the Leafs had managed to crash out of the NHL play-offs the previous week (losing the deciding game after being 4-1 up with ten minutes to go). Even when they’re in a seemingly unassailable lead, supporting sports teams from Toronto is no easy task.

I am pleased to report that lightning did not strike twice, and in the end the Jays won 9-3 without having to bat the last innings. I am also happy to report that this cricket fan really enjoyed his trip to see the other bat-and-ball game.

Back home, I found that ESPN America shows baseball games, so when summer comes round again I have the option of continuing to learn more about the old ball game.

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