Why US sports yank South Africans' chains
Baseball made America make sense to me - up to a point because I’m thoroughly South African about the rest of US sport
It might have happened because being ordinary wasn’t an option for a fat kid growing up so far on the wrong side of the tracks in East London that he had pimples before he knew what a train looked like.
It might have happened because he needed to borrow volume “B” of the neighbours’ full set of the World Book encyclopedia to do a half-decent job on his school project on birds.
It might have happened because he liked the smile the neighbours’ daughter smiled at him.
Whatever it was, baseball happened to him. To me, I mean.
World Book volume “B” was dutifully returned after a couple of weeks, its section on baseball far more closely read than anything on birds.
There was, of course, no internet. So I went to the library, as one did, and scoured the place top to bottom for baseball.
I found a decent amount, even in East London, and began a series of scrapbooks filled with photocopies of photographs and my own marker-pen renditions of the logos of Major League teams.Soon I knew my Kansas City Royals from my Toronto Blue Jays from my San Diego Padres, that there were 108 red double stitches in the white leather of a baseball — no, not a baseball ball, idiot — that baseballs were no longer made of horsehide but of cowhide, that the Chicago White Sox had thrown the 1919 World Series, that the Dodgers had broken millions of hearts when they moved from Brooklyn to Los Angeles after the 1957 season, that Hank Aaron had defied death threats from white supremacists to break Babe Ruth’s record of 714 home runs on April 8 1974, that Sandy Koufax, a Jew, had refused to pitch game one of the 1965 World Series because it fell on Yom Kippur, that Satchel Paige was quite likely the best pitcher ever to stand on a mound but couldn’t prove it because he was black in a time when Major League baseball was played exclusively by whites, and that I wished Jackie Robinson had been my father.I knew these things among many, many other things. But let me not bore you.
My 11-year-old self had seen his destiny. And it was baseball. Quite what in baseball he didn’t know. He also didn’t care.
Fate clearly did care, because at around the same time my school acquired a new music teacher. “My husband is a baseball coach,” she announced one afternoon. “Who wants to play Little League?”
Inexplicably she seemed calm as she said this. I was an 11-year-old mess of excitement.So began my journey of putting some of what I knew — the library’s only coaching manual had by then become my bible — into practice. And practice, practice and more practice every Saturday morning of summers that suddenly had relevance.
Short story long, I became good enough to play at provincial level as a bat left, throw right first-baseman. At school I devised ever more creative excuses to avoid playing a summer sport, which would have clashed with baseball. I had a particular aversion to cricket, which I saw as a pathetically pale imitation of the only real bat-and-ball game.
Everything starts with a V
Nothing I have done in the course of playing so many sports (it’s hard to count them all) is as challenging as laying the round barrel of a baseball bat on an equally round and slightly smaller, speeding baseball well enough to hit it into the 90-degree “V” formed by the first and third baselines and out of the reach of fielders armed with large leather gloves built for catching.
Unlike in cricket, it doesn’t count if you hit the ball outside of that “V”, except that you can be caught there. Also unlike in cricket, if you do hit it in the “V” and you aren’t caught you have no choice but to try and reach first base before the ball does.
And you can’t stand there all day faffing about futilely like Geoffrey Boycott: three strikes and you’re out, four balls and you’re on first.
Here I am, almost 26 years into writing about that pathetically pale imitation of baseball. Yes, I still think of cricket like that.
After school I had to get a job, get married, have kids, get fatter still, and prepare for death. Hey, it’s East London, what else is there to do?
But baseball gave me a lot, including the idea that writing on sport can be damn straight literary. And the idea that the world was bigger than East London, where happily I no longer live.
A career highlight was interviewing, on the phone from Pittsburgh in April last year, Randburg’s own Gift Ngoepe, the first African to play big league ’ball.
A quick call to the Pittsburgh Pirates got me Ngoepe’s number, and a few minutes later we were talking to each other. Any cricket or rugby writer who knows how many hoops they are required to jump through to interview players will marvel at that.
New York state of mind
Baseball opened the United States for me as a society, which led to other abiding passions like jazz and New York City.
Baseball made America make sense to me. Up to a point, that is, because I’m thoroughly South African about the rest of US sport.
Football? What kind of game reckons it’s a good idea to keep the ball hidden from spectators half the time and lost in a traffic jam of bodies the rest of the time? Also, there’s an evil, militaristic aspect to gridiron, complete with battle plans and players using their helmeted heads as missiles, that explains why it’s the favourite sport of so many right-wing rednecks.
Basketball? How do you tell the highlights packages from the live broadcasts? Bounce, bounce, bounce, score! Bounce, bounce, bounce, score! Bounce, bounce, bounce, score! Ah, a three-pointer! How wonderful! Ah, a free throw! How exciting! Not. Great talent and skill is required to play basketball, which moves to rhythms not unlike those of bebop jazz. But there’s a lot wrong with a game that can only be excelled at by people who are too tall to sleep in regular beds.
Ice-hockey? Do they even use a puck? How do we know: has anyone ever seen the thing? I reckon they photoshop a black disc into the goal every time they sense the crowd are falling asleep. Or they start a fight.
Boxing? Now there’s a proper sport. But, as George Foreman said: “Boxing is like jazz. The better it is, the less people appreciate it.”
Sadly, most of what passes for boxing hasn’t been worth watching for years. And it’s not as if it’s particularly American.
Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ve got to catch up on what’s going on in spring training. That’s right: the 2018 baseball season is almost here.