Learning to Baseball – Thirty Years Later, I Went To A Game

So, I had fallen for the Mets and I had fallen for baseball but what I really wanted was to sit in the stands to watch a game and roughly thirty years later here I was. Well you get side-tracked don’t you?

Ever since our daughter was born we had been saving, a college fund as they would call it in an American soap, and fifteen years later we were due a minor windfall. University funding in England has gone through a bit of a transformation since the turn of the century, but let’s not go there. We’d worked hard, we’d put a little something away, but the world was changing and we’d never had enough left over to show it to our children beyond the confines of our island nation. Maybe a university war chest was the sensible thing but what about family memories?

We already had friends on the west coast and then a Christmas card arrived to announce that others had just relocated from Hampshire to Michigan and should we ever want to visit to give them a shout… Well it’s funny you should say that, see you in a few months’ time! But we couldn’t go over the pond without also taking in New York, concrete jungle that dreams are made of. A plan was forming to start in the East, hop over to Detroit and the vast spaces of Michigan and finish up in the Bay. Three weeks in the USA, surely my time had come.

New York is for me an iconic city. The welcoming figure of Lady Liberty with her warm words that understandably lured huge numbers of people to dream of a better future in this new world. “Give me your tired, your poor, your huddled masses yearning to breathe free.” Hopefully we will rediscover the meaning of those words on both sides of the pond before long. It remains, however, a city to inspire you and whilst everyone in the family had their list of things to do and places to see I had my mind fixed firmly on getting to a ballpark.

The Mets were on the road so we made our way to the Yankees store to buy tickets for the game that night, it was only Boston in town so there’d be no trouble getting tickets at short notice right? The lady behind the counter didn’t seem keen, “I’ve got a few tickets left but you won’t see anything, you probably shouldn’t bother”. Could she smell Met on me or something? This was my one chance, it wasn’t going to be Citifield but hey Yankee Stadium isn’t a bad one to tick off the list. We had to take the risk and go for it.

Even catching the subway to The Bronx felt like an event. We started up a conversation with a couple of guys in Yankee t-shirts thinking they’d be good people to stick to when it came to finding the stadium, but they were tourist fans too who’d just changed into their freshly purchased gear. It’s funny how football tourism irks so much. Areas of Manchester United’s Old Trafford stadium are packed with camera waving day trippers and I sat self-consciously amongst them with my son when he wanted to tick that ground off his list, but we didn’t care what diehard Yankees fans thought of us dropping in on their season, possibly their pain.

The new stadium was built in 2009, replacing the House that Ruth Built, and it is an extremely impressive venue. Wide concourses are the norm in customer focused America and the range of opportunities to spend money was quite bewildering to a football fan used to a tired mix of sweating pies and pasties. You are also trusted to drink beer while watching your sport, another novelty although to be honest while I’ll happily sup away at the gently paced baseball I have no desire to have a pint tipped down my back at the more erratic event of football at the City Ground.

I’ll be honest even in the summer of 2015 I knew next to nothing about the rules of the game, but on this occasion it didn’t matter, it was all about being at the park and experiencing the live event. Our seats were far better than the ticket lady had implied but despite that we were a long way from the action so we could see everything that was happening, except for a small section of left field, but we couldn’t see the batters eye staring down the pitcher, an overview rather than a detail. In many ways the coverage on MLB TV is a better way to watch when it comes to learning the game (a topic for another day), but not for experiencing it.

One aspect that really struck me was the different way that US fans watched their sport compared to my more normal habitat. In football you go to be part of the crowd, you are absorbed into something bigger than yourself and (especially in the old terrace days) you move and sing as one as you support your team. On that night watching the Yankees the fans were individuals all seeking to catch the attention of roving cameras that would beam them onto enormous screens for personal recognition. As I focused on the game, keen not to miss anything that happened on the field, others jumped up and harangued the cameraman with shouts of “Look at me!”.

I admit that I had hoped for more from our three week trip. When we reached San Francisco the Giants weren’t in town. We visited the AT&T and saw Willie Mays in statuesque glory swinging his bat, bought a few souvenirs in the shop, but never got to see them play. It was nice to make that link though from New York Giant to San Francisco and then back to NY for a swansong at the Mets. It all fitted together nicely, both teams sharing a legend and sharing the Polo Grounds. My Mets had been born to fill the East Coast space left by the Giants (and Dodgers) and their orange was Giants’ orange (and their blue was Dodger blue). It was clearly meant to be.

I had travelled to the States with an inkling, a sense that I was a baseball fan but nothing solid to back it up, and I returned as a committed novice; armed now with two teams to support, a handful of books to teach me more and a subscription to MLB TV to see how the season would play out. It was a rite of passage, one that should have happened a lot earlier for sure, but had now been passed. I returned home ready to continue the journey from baseball mythology to spectator sport but without the confidence to publicly explain a sacrifice fly. So how would I get to grips with the nuances of the game? Well pull up a chair and I’ll explain…

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