Bottom of the ninth, 2-2 count, men on first and second. One Mitch Williams fastball later and the only teenager in Ireland watching baseball at 4.30 am is heading for bed. With a walk off home run Joe Carter and the Toronto Blue Jays had the 1993 World Series in the bag. The Philadelphia Phillies, losers, again. The Phils haven’t been back to the Series since but I’ve spent a whole heap of late nights making lodgements at the Bank of American sport.
The third week in September for me doesn’t involve muscling through throngs of Kerrymen on the way to the bar in Quinns. It’s about who’s on the schedule for the Eagles in Week 3 of the NFL season. Sure I read the back pages as much as the next man but like a not insignificant number of Europeans, I save my sporting passion for the ballpark
For the outsider there are three primary reasons to engage with American Sports at an intimate level. There is the liberation of choosing one’s path as a sports fan. There’s the intrinsic optimism of America and through her, her sports. And of course there is the sheer spectacle, theatre and greatness of sport played out on a stage so large.
It’s a hugely liberating experience to choose ones own sports team to follow. Much like the promise of a better life that drew in the Pilgrim Fathers from an intolerant Europe in the 17th Century, crossing the Atlantic in search of sporting salvation is an escape from a certain type oflocal persecution. A fan of any football team other than Liverpool in the classrooms of Eighties Ireland knows in great detail the persecution I write of here.
For thousands then in Europe Wrigley Field, Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium are their Plymouth colonies. Within their friendly confines takes place a sport whose language we understand. And in a manner masonic we seek out each other and offer safe harbour, understanding and a support group on those dark February days after the Super Bowl when baseball hasn’t yet begun.
But wait, “My father’s a Man Utd fan, I don’t have a choice” goes the refrain. Well heart disease and a predilection for Scotch eggs run deeply through the male bloodlines of my family. I’m rather keen for both of those to skip a generation, so you better believe we all have a choice.
If a need for sporting liberation is a strong push factor for international fans of American sport, the optimism inherent in these sports is the strongest of pull factors. US sport, and I think baseball in particular is fundamentally wrapped up in the American myth.
The quest for Liberty, Egality and Fraternity framed the French revolution. Noble sentiments but not ones you’d expect to produce a sporting heritage. 13 years earlier however Thomas Jefferson and company not only signaled their intent to cut ties with the Empire, but by placing Life, Liberty and crucially the pursuit of Happiness as central tenets at the heart of their fledging nation they made playing ball a constitutional right.
America is a human construct. To different people the world over it means many different things, the worst of which are strong arm foreign diplomacy and the globalization of neo-liberal economics. But at its very best America stands for freedom and opportunity. This is summed up neatly in one simple package; the American Dream. Nowhere is the American Dream more alive than on the playing fields and hockey rinks of the nation. An American childhood is incomplete without Little League Baseball. And everyone can play Little League Baseball.
Like life, sport is not about winning, it’s about failure, and overcoming that failure. Getting back up the next year, turning round the franchise and being in with a shout. Competitive balance to some in the US is a dirty phrase but it is a reality. Over the past 10 years eight different teams have won the Super Bowl. Seven different teams have collected World Series titles. If your team has a losing record in 2008, a good draft pick, a couple of trades and some money down on one superstar may be all it takes to bring home some gold in 2009.
In 2007 the Philadelphia Phillies accomplished a first for any professional franchise in the history of organized sport. They lost their 10,000th game. To endure that level of failure year after year over a century, and as a fan to keep coming back, to keep the candle of hope ever lit sums up what American sport is all about. John Elway and the Denver Broncos won back-to-back Super Bowls in the Nineties. That’s not important, the fact that everyone remembers is they lost three Super Bowls in the Eighties.
US sport facilitates optimism and fairy tale endings like nowhere else on earth. The great boxers were and are greater in America. The quarterback, an alpha role in a sport that allows only alpha humans is a position that could exist nowhere else. Truly the modern incarnation of ancient Roman gladiatorial combat.
The batter in baseball looks out onto the field and sees all bar one of his opponents staring him down, trying to stop him doing his job. He is left to confront the opposition on his own, isolated from the rest of his team. He takes a pitch fouls it off. He takes a pitch and swings for a strike. He takes a pitch and 70% of the time he’s out. Failure. But there is redemption. In the bottom of the ninth with his team down he swings, and only in America, makes contact with the shot heard around the world.
The greats wrote baseball and boxing. Hemingway uses the baseball and it’s greatest icon, Joe DiMaggio, as a metronome in the Old Man and the Sea, perhaps his greatest work. Don De Lillo turns Bobby Thompson’s “Shot Heard Round the World” into a modern day American tapestry in Underworld. The meanderings of Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch don’t belong on the same shelf.
David Halberstam, who wrote definitive books on Vietnam and the politics of the third quarter of the American 20th centuary saved his best work for baseball and basketball. I’m not sure any self-penned book by an ex-pro is as brutally honest, and funny, as Jim Bouton’s Ball Four. Norman Mailer was maybe the world’s first method sports journalist, though bringing his knowledge of boxing into the boudoir is something we shouldn’t celebrate him for.
Constraints of space and time prevent me from discussing the great American sports movies, I can only comment that The Natural, Hoosiers and Raging Bull are peerless examples of how to get sport on a big screen right.
If American sports fans in Europe are latter day Pilgrims, then for much of this decade and last the vessels of escape we’ve sailed in have been NASN and MLB.tv, our digital Mayflowers.
But sport can’t be fully appreciated from the wrong side of an ocean. My US sports baptism happened age 12 in Ireland’s first Little League team. My schooling took place during college summers in the bars of South (New) Jersey and my apprenticeship was served out in NASN, the North American Sports Network.
At times in the world of sports broadcasting we forget that our job is a very simple one. To connect people with their passion, their needs and their community. Whether that community is spread wide over a continent or localised to a rural parish is beside the point. For that’s what sport ultimately is, a community binding agent. Getting that connection right isn’t easy, but achieve it and you have at least some hope of success.
The greatest sports TV moment I’ve experienced didn’t involve Ireland, Munster or any team from the Premier League. It didn’t involve a team I support or even like for that matter. It took place in a packed sports bar in London, lasted past 4 am and consisted of one of the great come backs of all time. It took the Red Sox 14 innings to overcome the Yankees in Game 5 of the ALCS.
The dislocation to London was irrelevant, what was great about that night was that by the final out every one of the Red Sox fans present were feeling exactly what their Boston brethren in New England were feeling. Nearly 80 years after the Bambino this was gonna be their year. Those that were American were crying into mobiles at fathers and grandfathers. Those that weren’t were wondering just how to explain the feeling to their families, friends and workmates later that morning.