Monday, April 14, 2014


This week Lifelong Londoner is in New York, the second most exciting city in the world.

Baseball and cricket are pretty much brothers. Both boil down to the same dynamic: one man propels a ball as fast and as unpredictably as possible towards another man, who tries to hit it as far as he can with a wooden bat. Both are summer games. Both are stop – start. Both generate a bewildering algebra of statistics, addictive to the adept and incomprehensible to outsiders. But they’re brothers who were separated at birth and brought up in very different countries with very different cultures, as I discovered on a trip to the Yankees Stadium in New York.

There’s a lot of justified concern about the way in which growing economic inequality is prompting a stratification and atomisation of societies around the world, and this is more evident in the USA than anywhere else. However, a ball game remains a profoundly inclusive event, hardwired into Americans young. Every age, every race, every class is there; push chairs, and even baby slings, are commonplace. The Yankees stadium is so well designed that there is virtually no distinction of rank by seating, and all the seats have a pretty much equally good view of the game. There are none of the empty rows backed by hospitality suites filled with schmoozers ignoring the game that are the bane of British sporting events. There is, however, a lot – a lot – of advertising. Everything and everyone is sponsored by somebody. Players are announced by a ‘call to the bullpen’ from a phone company. If you see the Yankees score more than six runs, you get 10% off your next pizza. There is even an official hospital for the Yankees, which presumably gets first dibs every time someone gets brained by a 100 mph ball.

There is also a lot of food and drink, and large parts of the game are spent queuing for it and consuming it. Mindful of the obesity epidemic, all outlets display calorie counts in lettering as big as – sometimes bigger than – prices. (French fries with cheese will set you back $7 and 1,327 calories.) I was flattered to be asked for ID before I could buy a beer, despite it being 31 years since I passed the minimum age for purchasing alcohol in the US. The beer was so weak, however, I could have been 41 years younger and it wouldn’t have had much effect on me. The famous American service ethic is everywhere; we are not customers, we are guests, and even the toilets, foul smelling, squalid places in British stadiums, have a mission statement. (‘It is our mission to offer our guests the highest possible levels of comfort with regards to quality and cleanliness.’)

The hostly duty extends to ensuring that there is not a moment’s rest from being entertained during the game. Singalong tunes are played continually, with lyrics flashed on the screen, alternating with automated rhythmic clapping. Should the crowd show any signs of slacking off, a cartoon character appears and shouts the message GET LOUDER. I CAN’T HEAR YOU. GET LOUDER !!! During one break, a soldier just returned from Afghanistan posed by the plate with his wife and family and was announced as ‘Veteran of the Game’, while we all stood, put our hands on our hearts and sang ‘God Bless America’; this was abruptly followed by a compulsory singalong of ‘Take Me Out to the Ball Game’. The big screen shows not just scores, stats and replays, but constantly cuts away to different parts of the ground, encouraging people to perform for the camera. This happened so often that I feel sure every spectator was covered at some point (we were caught singing along to ‘YMCA’ – had they forgotten it started life as a covert gay anthem?) A second screen flashes up welcomes to cub scout packs and congratulations on birthdays and golden wedding anniversaries. One message asked Karen Hudson to make someone (unnamed) the happiest man alive. What if Karen Hudson wanted to say no?

The overall effect is like being at a child’s birthday party: the piles of food soaked in sugar, fat and salt, the loud music, the singalongs, the primary colours, the manically short attention spans, the insistence that no one is left out, the black and white moral code, the sentimentality, and, at the back of it, the discreet but firm grip of parental control. And I have to say it was the most tremendous fun. Much as I love my outings to Lord’s, six hours sitting down watching not much happen can be a very long time, but this three hours went by in a flash, and my ten year old daughter enjoyed it almost as much as I did. If I lived in New York, I’d get a season ticket. At the end of the game, as Frank Sinatra belted out ‘New York, New York’ on a loop in honour of the Yankees’ 7 – 4 thrashing of the Boston Red Sox, the man next to me turned and said to this ironic Limey, ‘Not much like cricket, is it? You have a good one, now.’ 

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