Sunday, June 08, 2008

My first baseball game

Yesterday afternoon, I attended my first live baseball game; I guess you could say it was a big step in the Americanization of this freshly naturalized Frenchie. A friend got tickets for the Yankees vs the Kansas City Royals, so we all travelled up to the Bronx in scorching heat. According to the excited people in my party, it was a great game with plenty of action, real suspense and lots of hits (the NYT described it as a "slugfest").

I have to say, I'm still not convinced. And if I'm not convinced after a good game, then baseball's just not for me. But that's okay, to each their own—I'd still rather watch the lamest soccer game over the most exciting baseball slugfest, and with Euro 2008 starting, there's no doubt as to what's going to hold my attention.

What I'd like to comment on, however, is the ambience at the game itself. First of all, Yankee Stadium is an eyesore. You get out of the subway and it's like you've been teleported to some developing nation (though the prices certainly are first rate: it's Gouge City out there) and the directions are vague. Your visual sense is assaulted nonstop. There may be a new stadium next year, but its design is really conservative, especially compared to new stadiums (mostly for soccer) like the Olympique Marseille new Stade Vélodrome, the Lazio's new Stade delle Aquile in Rome, Valencia FC's new home in Spain, the Olympic Stadium in Beijing, or the Spartak Moscow's new home.

But what really struck me is that apathy of the fans; that seems to be an American thing because I got the same feeling at the soccer games I've seen in the US. The crowd was pretty quiet, and started yelling mostly when told to, like when the screens went MAKE SOME NOISE! Granted, people got out of their seats and screamed and clapped on good runs, but even that felt restrained. No songs, no taunting of the Royals, no spirit. The only chants were along the lines of "Joh-nny Da-mon!" which is just plain sad. I mean, is that the best you can do, Yankee fans??? Compared to the action in the stands of a soccer game, it was a bit of a letdown. My hometown club of Bastia, in Corsica, was dreaded all through the ’70s and ’80s for its rabid fans, and even though its humble Stade Armand-Césari holds only about 10,000 people (and even less when I used to go), they make more of ruckus than 55,000 Yankee fans.

Want to see how it's done? Check out the action even before a soccer game starts, as Liverpool fans sing their anthem in a match against Chelsea. Or see how fans of Lens sing "La Lensoise" and manage to do a conga line in the stands. The Sheila pointed out that America doesn't know how to do political protest and get in the streets anymore, so it's no surprise it sucks at cheering at games as well.

You may say: Yeah, but in the US we don't have violent hooligans! Of course there's got to be a middle ground between complete apathy and complete mayhem. But here people are so afraid of lawsuits that nothing happens at all. Or at least that's one of the reasons, I think.

Also: What's up with the nonstop eating and drinking? I have to admit that I ate a ginormous amount of peanuts and popcorn but I honestly don't believe I would have consumed as much if I had been more into the game. But I've seen people at soccer games leave to go to the concession stands during play, which is completely insane since a goal can come at any moment in soccer, and for all you know it's going to be the only one of the match. Do you really want to be at the trough when that happens?


Mike W, just a fan said...

Your points on baseball, America and its fans are valid. To a degree. In defense of this great sport (with 162-game seasons, it is not for the weak, whether athlete or spectator), allow me a few soft rebuttals—base hits, if you will, poked over your shortstop's head after 11-pitch at-bats designed to get to your flimsy bullpen as early as possible.

First and foremost, you were at a Yankees game and it was 95 degrees. The Yankees are the most despicable franchise in American pro sports, a team owned by a family whose sole personal characteristics are wealth and megalomania. I've long suspected that being a Yankees fan—a curse often something handed down to you by a parent who still equates the team with Mantle, Ruth and Gehrig—must be a lousy lot. It is at best a relief when the team wins, inconceivable when they lose. Joba notwithstanding, this year's lineup is aging and crumbling, so think of the airless pall hanging over Yankee Stadium to be only incidentally related to the weather; it's comparable to the feeling we all have about the larger Empire.

Second of all, they were playing the Kansas City Royals. For fuck's sake. Excepting the excellent George Brett–led teams that fell to the Phillies in 1980 and won it all in 1985, the Kansas City Royals are just a bummer team, wherever and whenever they go. No one has a rivalry with the Royals because they are not a threat. If you had had the fortune of seeing a Yanks/Red Sox game, or Phillies/Mets, or Giants/Dodgers, or Cardinals/Cubs (ptooey! always spit when you invoke the Cubs name) or Red Sox/anybody for that matter (as the BoSox fans are the worst anywhere, and they always travel), the air would have been electrified. For all three and a half hours, yes.

Thirdly, Yankees fans make Mets followers look sophisticated and erudite—and I am a fan of neither the Mets nor their fans. The only thing missing from your assessment of Yankees fans is their boorish behavior—I've never been to a game there and not had some loud-mouth homophobe in my section hurling the wrong kind of invective against a player or another fan. Always followed by beer being chucked, and that usually by fisticuffs.

I'll suggest that the culture of individualism in the States is partly to blame for the lack of group chanting going on at all times, which is apparently what you feel is required. No. Unless you're at Wrigley Field, which is always packed but rarely with true followers of the game, baseball fans are not cheering because they are paying attention to the nuanced action itself. Also, if you're not in the far bleachers or at the feeding trough, you could catch a foul ball with your teeth if you take your eyes off the game.

I do like non-American football—better than American football, to be honest—but you have to allow for the fact that something like Euro 2008, which pits nation against nation, is bound to unearth deeper feelings than even a dramatic Yankees/Royals game. I agree that Yankees Stadium is a blemish, and I don't care what the new one looks like. But there are many other new corporate-sponsored ballparks that are quite attractive. This one even has a first-place team currently playing within it:

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

Are the fans paying that close attention when they're not scarfing down food, or going out to get food, or deciding which food they're going to get? People around us left their seats all the time, often for long stretches. I mean, what happens if the most fantastic home run ever happens while you're getting your $9 hot dog? I guess you'll get another chance at one of the other 159 games of the season.

Yeah, I think that season is too long: should be 60 games, then that way there would be more pressure on each one. Also they should make those guys cut their cutesy little routines, the butt shakes, the swinging of the bats, the deep, soulful looks left and right before a pitch--maybe a game wouldn't take four hours to complete then! I mean, no fan could keep up the energy level after four hours.

And even if Kansas City is a total loser, this was an exciting game and still nothing was going on in the stands. I don't think chanting is required, but some energy is, no matter how it's expressed.

Finally yeah, comparing a Yankees/Royals game to Euro 2008 is unfair (though "World" Series? HAH!), but even intra-nation soccer matches are more exciting. The links I included weren't from international games after all. But in the end, this boils down to a personal preference and yes, cultural upbringing: I grew up watching soccer, and perhaps if I'd grown up hearing the crack of a ball against the bat, I'd be more into the poetry of baseball.

I do wish American team sports had more of an international component, and not just every four years for the Olympics: Let the Yankees battle a Japanese or Dominican team in some REAL World Series!

Mark said...

Well I'm certainly happy to see my Liverpool Reds mentioned -- I can't wait for the season to start!

As for the World Series, I do think that once upon a time that name reflected American myopia more than anything, but over the last 30 years the game has truly become global and I think the championship has earned its title.

MLB is simply *the* baseball league. Nothing else is better. When the playoffs gear up in October anybody who plays baseball anywhere in the world would like to be playing in the World Series. Playing in Mexico or Venezuela or Japan can be excellent, but there's a reason their best players tend to head for MLB as soon as they can, and it's not because of a $9 hotdog. (I suppose it somewhat analoguous to how the good players in the Scottish Premier League don't stick around there long -- they'll get nabbed by the EPL, La Liga, etc. in no time.)

As a fan of both sports, it's hard to compare soccer and baseball. They are both great sports, but certainly it's a question of cultural fabric. The U.S. has a deeply embedded tradition of outright rejecting what animates other countries, whether right or wrong, bratty or bold. Hence, we invent baseball & basketball. What I think both sports share is a wealth of nuance: a person's love of baseball or soccer tends to start young and only gets deeper with time.

It's not plausible to take in one game and have a solid grasp of the complexity of either baseball or soccer -- or their fan-bases. And to me, that's wonderful.

And yes, Yankee Stadium is an abomination.

Elisabeth Vincentelli said...

I absolutely disagree with the World Series having earned its name: If it only includes American and Canadian teams, that just ain't the world. It may be the best in quality in the world, but that alone does not make it a "world series." The actual one is the Baseball World Cup—where Cuba has twice as many medals at America. It would rile me less if the World Series was called the American Championship.

Also I think there should be a system both in baseball and football where the bottom teams are downgraded to a lower division for the following season, while the top teams of the lower division climb up to premier status (similar to what happens in soccer leagues in England, Germany, Italy, France, etc.) This really raises the stakes another notch.

Mike said...

Gotta agree with Mike's assessment of Yankee fans and the Royals. Having moved to the Midwest this decade, I've had my chance to see a fair amount of Cardinals games, including when they play the Cubs, and it's always a good time. You can't help but get swept up even if you're not a terribly dedicated baseball fan (like me). I will take you to a game if you ever happen to be in town. But I can understand how baseball wouldn't appeal to someone who hadn't grown up with it. If it's nonstop action and last-minute surprises you crave, you're much more likely to get it at a basketball or football game.

It's interesting because there have been several attempts to bring professional soccer to the mainstream of American sport. It's never quite taken off, although it seemed poised to do so in the 1970s. But as a result of that specific boom, soccer has now claimed a permanent place in youth sporting right next to Little League and kickball. Consider how the term "soccer mom" serves as a synonym for "mainstream parent." Even I played in a youth soccer league, and my three-year-old daughter and I play an elementary version that basically entails kicking a ball back and forth.