My first memory of baseball is of seeing the game on my
grandmother’s television in Cork city in 1987 or 1988. It was the New York
Mets. Don’t ask me how I remember this, as I remember nothing else about the
game. I don’t even recall what time of year this was, so I don’t know if it was
spring training, a regular season game or even the post-season. This was Cork
city, home to great teams of both hurling and gaelic football, the center of
old fashioned rugby union in the south and, as Ireland’s second biggest city,
soon to become a stronghold of Irish soccer. Baseball was not on the radar of
many people in Cork.

My grandmother had MultiChannel, a local service that
provided about sixteen channels via a small black box on top of the television.
Otherwise one could watch two channels over terrestrial television. The breadth
of selection, though a bounty to the generation before us that had been happy
with one station, was often referred to dismissively as “Bog One and Bog Two”
in schoolyards. The MultiChannel was popular because it gave affordable access
to English stations, which by the time I stood in front of my grandmother’s
television watching baseball added a whopping four stations to the original
two. Beyond that lay a number of stations with minimal effect on me, until Sky
One’s rigorous syndication of Star Trek: The Next Generation a few years later.
The French language station Canal Plus, the German station Sat 1 and the
sports channel Eurosport rounded out the coverage. This latter station hosted
the baseball, as was its wont; Eurosport presented itself as a channel
presenting a continental European slant on things but as far as I could gather
it was left with the dregs of sporting events the terrestrial channels chose
not to cover. Eurosport was the place to go for winter sports, off-season track
and field and the occasional bit of cycling. On this occasion the channel
showed baseball.

 

I have to confess that the game, or rather the few minutes
of the game I watched, had little effect on me. I had no context, for one
thing; I knew nothing about the successful 1986 Mets. I had no idea who Daryl
Strawberry was, let alone Keith Hernandez. In fact, I would become familiar
with both of these figures on television before I became aware of their
sporting legacies, Strawberry as the suck-up to Monty Burns on The Simpsons and
Hernandez as an object of Jerry Seinfeld’s smitten affections. Baseball was
supremely foreign in a way that it’s hard to fathom for me now, having lived in
the United States for almost a decade, fallen in love with an American woman
and become a soon-to-be father of an American child. He will likely see his
father as some kind of odd Irish weirdo. That’s certainly the aura I hope to
cultivate, anyway. I now spend weekends watching American football and much of
my summers watching baseball.

My conversion to baseball was by far the most recent and in
some ways more profound. I developed a taste for American football at a young
age, despite the fact that this was an extremely rare taste to develop on my
own in late 1980s/early 1990s Ireland. So isolated was I in my fandom that when
I met an Englishman in Sheffield in 2002 that also liked the sport, we bonded
immediately. He was in my wedding. There were other factors too. We both liked
metal, for instance. However, he was the first person I had met and hung out
with that was open to the idea of staying up until four am drinking beer and
watching the Dallas Cowboys. He was already doing it before I met him, in fact.

He also liked baseball. I didn’t. Baseball was too arcane
for me, and as a result I had long since dismissed it, even questioned its
viability as a sport. It was foreign in the very real sense that it appeared
quintessentially American, and although I was far more amenable to American
culture than most of my European contemporaries, sport provided a final
frontier of sorts. American football was different, or perhaps it filled my
quota of Americana weirdness to that point; basketball seemed like a waste of
time and ice hockey close enough to a European sporting ethos to seem
attractive but never quite convincing enough for me to start paying attention.
America was off on its own, a strange oasis of odd, commercialized sporting
enterprises that rejected my one true love: soccer.

It was that connection that helped draw me in, in the end. I
started working on sports history during my doctoral work and a good friend
asked a simple question: “Why do they play baseball in Taiwan?” This drove a
project that ended up, of all things, comparing baseball in Taiwan to Gaelic
Games in Ireland in terms of their political and social significance. It also
started an interesting process for me personally. In order to be able to write
about the sport effectively, I reasoned, it was no longer acceptable for me to
practice an aggressive ignorance about the sport’s culture and the culture of
those that appreciated it. I set myself a crash course on the game and began to
read: Joe Posnanski, Howard Bryant, John Thorn, David Block, Bill James, the
ubiquitous Moneyball by Michael
Lewis… There are many more that I have yet to read but surely will. I watched
Ken Burns’ nine innings (and his tenth), I actually started… watching games.

I had been to baseball games before. I always enjoyed it as
a spectacle. I was, at baseball games at least, the person I had always hated
at soccer matches, the very person that marketing departments desired to go to
the games. Somebody willing to buy a ticket and spend a little bit of money in
the stadium, and… well, I think that’s all marketing departments wanted. My
first ever Major League game was in 2000, when I attended a Giants-Dodgers game
at Pac Bell Park. I remember a Dodgers fan being escorted from the stadium
after the Giants fans surrounding him had been unpleasant, which struck me as
highly unfair; Americans didn’t seem to be very good at this rivalry thing. On the train to the stadium, we were
briefly joined by a man wearing a t-shirt bearing a motto he was only happy to
repeat at volume: “Duck the Fodgers!” I wasn’t overly impressed. 

My friends, all young Irishmen like me, wanted to depart
from the cheap standing area we had bought our way into and to take a nicer
seat in the stands. Being an abject coward, I argued against the approach until
it became clear that people were leaving with worrying regularity. I’ll always
remember the large man leaving with his daughters just after the seventh inning
stretch. He approached us purposefully and yelled “dirty hippies!” Being, as we
were, twenty year olds in unkempt jeans and cords with pretty liberal haircuts
(in a maintenance sense, not a political one) I assumed that he was focusing
his ire upon us. Then the hand came up and I performed one of the first
un-ironic high fives of my life. He took his daughters and left; we took his
seats.

Marvin Benard scored a three run homer in the bottom of the
ninth to win the game. We thought it was cool. 
In 2008 I witnessed Marlon Byrd hit a walk-off grand slam at the
Ballpark in Arlington to break a tie with the Yankees. I lost my mind. I often
try to recreate Benard’s homer in my mind and try and generate a more suitable
response, but it’s impossible of course. We thought it was cool. We went on
with the rest of our evening. I’ve often told the story since, though until
recently I claimed that it was Barry Bonds, and not Benard, that scored the
winning home run. The truth is that Bonds didn’t even play that day. Now, this
could be an example of the perfidy of memory but in truth I think it’s rather
more mundane: Bonds is a more interesting story so I choose to remember Bonds.

So what connection could there be to soccer in all of this?
As I suppose would be typical of my interests, the history of the game drew me
in. Baseball, at has existed and continues to exist in the northeast of the
United States, is a game of loyalties and latterly, of betrayal. The American
phenomenon of teams moving locations, such anathema to my European
sensibilities, has as its ultimate example the departure of the Brooklyn Dodgers
for the west coast. I suppose we can talk about the Baltimore Colts stealing
away in the night, but the Dodgers is the better story, the better example of
trauma inflicted on an entire community. The Dodgers led an exodus west, to
that place where the sun always shines and excited men demand high fives of
scared Irish college kids before leaving a game with two innings to go. Boston
and New York are home to the game’s history, where urchins in flat caps broke
windows and scurried off from the wrath of their neighbors. That resonated with
me because I did the exact same thing, though with a soccer ball, and in less
oppressive settings than the poverty of urban New York at the turn of the
twentieth century. Baseball fans care about their teams as well, and this meant
something to me. Yes, fans of other sports care about their teams, but it’s
just so sanitized in the American experience. The NFL has been too successful
in monetizing itself, in recreating the sport as a television product. The NFL
champions the fan that trades in body paint and mugging for the camera. The
advertisers focus on the concept of fan loyalty to a lesser extent, but it’s all
on the surface. Basketball threw its lot in with the superstar model and that’s
been successful too. But baseball…

Baseball is nerdy. It’s weird. That arcane nature that so
turned me off as a child is a large part of its appeal for me now. Look at the
people that write about baseball, that talk about it on television. They’re
generally not the cool kids. Don’t get me wrong; cool is overrated. I identify
more closely with them. In that sense, I have come to baseball not because the
sport reminds me of soccer, or because the culture of baseball resembles the
culture of soccer (though I believe it does in some key ways) but because the
way I have come to feel about baseball mirrors the way that I feel about
soccer. In the case of both sports, I enjoy intellectual discussions based on a
rational approach and I willingly give in to the enjoyment of completely
irrational impulses. I’m not a fan of the concept of “narrative” in sports
because I feel it’s a concept utilized and followed a little too closely by
people whose job it is to write about sports. However, I will confess to
wanting a specific team to win for no real reason, for liking certain players
and disliking others, for having a completely irrational (and unfair) dislike of
an entire organization for no apparent reason. My love is baseball is exactly that, or has become that: love. It will never displace my love of soccer but it’s come closer than I ever thought possible. My enjoyment of baseball and of
soccer, and my practice as a fan of both sports, makes no sense. That’s the way
I like it.

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