Thursday, 15 October 2009

Mike's Letter from America No 16

Kick me out of the Ball Game

There’s lots to write about in U.S. politics at the moment; Obama’s Nobel Peace Prize (which the USA celebrated by launching a missile at the moon); the continuing health care debate, which looks set to deliver a bill so watered down that it can hardly be called ‘reform’; and an increasingly hysterical right-wing campaign against Obama, with public meetings called by Democratic congressmen invaded by mobs orchestrated by Fox News and right-wing pressure groups. But instead, I will write about a lighter subject; baseball.

‘America’s Pastime’, as it is sometimes called, is reaching its season’s climax this month. October is traditionally the time for the post-season play-offs, ending in the World Series. Baseball is a microcosm for much that is good and bad about America. It is traditionally a working class sport, and despite an early history of racial segregation, is very multi-cultural. Today’s professional teams include large numbers of players from Latin America, U. S. players of all racial backgrounds, and, increasingly, the top players from Japan and Korea are playing in America’s major leagues.  It also contradicts some of the clichés about American sports fans who supposedly don’t take to cricket or football (‘soccer’) because they are too slow-moving and low-scoring.  Baseball games can last three hours or more; last week’s game that saw my local team (Detroit Tigers) eliminated lasted 4 ½ hours, and was totally gripping. It is a game that requires (but repays) patience from the spectator, it is subtle, and highly tactical – everything that is opposite to the stereotype of Americas liking entertainment that is flashy and quick. And the teams do not wear sponsors’ names or logos on their shirts.

On the negative side, baseball also reflects the least savory aspects of American society – capitalism and nationalism. All professional sports are big business, but baseball pioneered some of the worst aspects of sport-as-capitalism. It was the first sport to move teams lock, stock and barrel across the country to access richer markets, which began with the migration of two clubs from New York to California in the 1950s. Team owners in the early days of the game treated their players like serfs, a practice which lives on in a punishing 162-game fixture list. Today, the players are millionaires, but the pressure to perform to earn their vast wages has created an endemic culture of performance-enhancing drugs. 

Alongside increasing commercialism is rising nationalism. It has long been a joke to non-Americans that the ‘World Series’ only includes teams from the USA and Canada. The ritual of playing the national anthem before sporting events is an alienating one to me, as both a foreigner and a socialist, but something that you get used to. In recent years, however, the enforced patriotism has been ramped up, and combined with militarism. I first noticed this in 2006, when I was following the Detroit Tigers in the World Series via Channel 5 in the UK. In one game, the commentators read an email from a viewer in the US armed forces, who was watching from Iraq. One of them then said ‘those boys are fighting so that we can have the freedom to enjoy occasions like this’, which was news to me, as I had been previously unaware of Saddam Hussein’s evil plan to destroy Major League Baseball.  Now when you go to a game the tannoy announcer asks you not only to stand for the national anthem, but to do so in honor of the armed forces. At one minor league game I went to this year, the flag was escorted onto the field by an honor-guard of flag-waving boy scouts. The pre-game rituals of baseball feel increasingly like the ‘Tomorrow Belongs to Me’ scene in Cabaret, where an angelic-looking boy singer turns out to be a Hitler Youth member.

The worst aspect of all this is the damage done to the beloved ‘Seventh Inning Stretch’. This is a pleasantly silly ritual where the crowd are able to stand, stretch their legs, and sing ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’ a hokey song about the joys of watching baseball. Today, ‘Take Me Out’ is often replaced by ‘God Bless America’ or some other patriotic song – as if the national anthem were not enough. Maybe they fear our patriotism has faded in the previous 6 ½ innings, and needs a top-up? I’m sad to say that last year one America-hating subversive in New York tried to use this time to go to the toilet, only to be thrown out for disrespecting ‘God Bless America’. I repeat – not just told to sit down, but thrown out and roughed up by two cops.

So will understand my mixed feelings about attending a baseball game in the USA during the ‘War on Terror’. But on the plus side, baseball is still an enjoyable game, and the right to burn the American flag is still protected by the Constitution. Now, where are my matches?