ith Major League Baseball’s return to London for regular-season games in 2023, 2024 and 2026 confirmed on Monday, the Evening Standard’s David Marsland explains the origins of his love affair with a sport that has never quite taken off in the UK…
True story: I fell in love with baseball at the same time as I fell in love with my wife. She’s no great fan of the game itself, but when you’re born in Boston the spotlights of Fenway Park are bound to shine on you from time to time. “My uncle’s a big fan of the Red Sox,” she told me when we were planning our first trip to see her family in Massachusetts.
We’d be with her aunt and uncle for two weeks in their big house in small-town Cape Cod, and I was nervous about running out of things to talk about with strangers. Maybe we could watch a game or two? I thought I should probably learn the basics. It was 2013. Boston was about to win the World Series, and I was about to enter a world of heroes, myths, and curses.
Baseball fans believe in magic. You kind of have to if you think you’re going to hit a nine-inch white blur coming at you at 100mph with not much more than a thin bit of wood. But superstition runs deeper than that. Babe Ruth thought each of the carved ash beams he used contained a limited number of hits inside it; so he never let anyone else borrow one in case they bumped a potential home run out of it.
No wonder when the great American novelist Bernard Malamud wrote ‘The Natural,’ about a middle-aged unknown becoming a major league batter, he laced it with Arthurian legend. To a young country like the US, players like ‘The Babe’ then, or the LA Dodgers’ Mookie Betts now, are brave knights taking to the field with shining swords made of mana.
It’s why the game’s so beloved by storytellers. Stephen King wrote Blockade Billy about it. John Grisham gave us Calico Joe. Kevin Costner’s Field of Dreams is now synonymous with the sport that inspired it. Last year the game’s governing body MLB recreated the players coming out of the corn scene from that movie for a tie-up between the New York Yankees and Chicago White Sox.
They even used the original Iowa farm that Costner had filmed on more than 20 years previously. Six million people watched it on TV. Everyone who likes baseball likes a good story. Or put another way, if you like stories, you’ll like baseball.
The game’s practically built around them. There are the players that people talk about as if they’re Roman legends, such as Boston’s David ‘Big Papi’ Ortiz. He’s a so-called ‘clutch hitter’ whose sole job was to be rolled out when the chips were down and smash a game-winner out of the park. His herculean efforts were captivating during that 2013 run to the World Series title.
As soon as he strode onto the diamond, you could feel the air change. Then there are the weird tales, like the Chicago pub owner who was barred from bringing a goat into the Cubs’ stadium in 1945, despite buying a ticket for the animal, so he cursed the club. They didn’t win the Series for another 71 years, even though efforts to break the spell included letting a descendant of the offended goat into Wrigley Field in 1973.
Games last an average of around three hours. That’s plenty of time to trade a tale or two. Stadiums are filled with people chatting between pitches. Sometimes about the ball game. Sometimes about their family, their job, or just catching up on life with their friends. It’s a different atmosphere to any other kind of sport. You could spend the entire game with your eye on the field (to strategists every second of those 180 minutes is filled with movement), but it’s OK to have a beer and a hotdog and shoot the breeze if you want to.
The players will draw you in, though. The thwack of a home run sounds different to anything else; you know it’s soaring beyond the stadium and you won’t be able to stop yourself watching. The cheer is electrifying.
The talking goes on after the fields close up for the summer. They call it the ‘hot stove season,’ in honour of those fans of old who’d sit out the game-less winter by gathering in the kitchen or around the fire pit. They’d argue over the season past, pray to the baseball gods for the season future, and maybe exchange their Topps cards at the same time as the big leagues negotiated real player trades (by the way, a 1952 Micky Mantle card sold for $5.2million last year, about a million more than the average MLB player made in the 2021 season).
“So how about them Red Sox?” I ventured back in 2013 to my wife’s uncle, loaded with facts and figures about what was becoming an historic season. I was hooked on the game and ready to enter the conversation.
“You like baseball?” he replied, at first surprised, then barely able to stifle a laugh. “Why?”
“Oh my God, baseball is so boring!” pitched in his wife.
Turned out neither had been to a game in decades and had no idea what was going on that season. But we talked about sneaking into Fenway as a kid for free, grabbing a seat on the bleachers and watching the great players take the field.
Then we talked about a thousand other things in a conversation that’s been going on for more than a decade and never struggles for something new to say. When my wife and I got married, we had the ceremony in her aunt and uncle’s back garden. As the fireworks popped in the sky, it was easy to believe in magic.