March 27, 2014

Things baseball teaches us

American sport at the SCG - blasphemy or opportunity to learn?

Players chewing tobacco in the dugouts? We'll have some of that, thanks © Getty Images

And so to Major League Baseball at the Sydney Cricket Ground the other night, and it was very, very, very good. Good? Really good, friend: great crowd, the joint looked a picture under lights, and the difference of the Grand Old Dame with a baseball diamond in it, actual Major League stars (not that you recognised them) doing their thing, the Members Stand decked out with baseball bunting, the Australian and American flags fluttering in the sou-easter… a magic night out in Sydney Town.

What can the ye-olde-yet-modern game of cricket learn from America's Pastime? Many things, among them, notably, these:

Tradition is good. And you'd think cricket would know that. And it does, to an extent. But in baseball they don't blaze advertising all over their uniforms. They play for the Yankees or White Sox or whoever, not for a telecom or car-maker or fizzy drink. And it's fans who drive it. They don't want anything but "their" team name on their "their" team's uniform. And the bigwigs are smart enough not mess with it, despite, no doubt, the rabid yearnings of muscular American capitalism. More money doesn't always equal better.

Not that cricket doesn't have tradition. In Australia the baggy-green cap means plenty. The practice of handing out a cap to a debutant, embroidering each player's number on the chest - love it, it entrenches history with the now. But the day Australia put "Coke" on the front of their clean white Test cricket kit, and a bank's logo the other side of the coat of arms, the game died a little inside.

Food - mix it up, baby. At the baseball you could eat burritos, tacos, enchiladas, and a two-foot hot dog they wanted $40 for. They weren't getting $40 from me for a hot dog, no sirree Bob Simpson, it could've been 20 feet long and covered in king prawns. But it did look a fine hot dog, and there was a line-up for them, so… yes. Food. Food is good.

Beer. More specifically, real beer. And many brands. At the cricket, at least for the plebs in the outer, it's half-strength, generic and ordinary. And it's because idiots at the cricket can't handle themselves drinking beer in the heat. But that doesn't mean there should not be real beer at the cricket for everybody else. It just means idiots should be punted like they would be from anywhere, and charged for obnoxious behaviour. We're all still allowed to drive cars despite some people doing it drunk. I don't expect law enforcement, security, Cricket Australia or other religions to agree with me. But. There it is.

Slow food is soul food. Baseball games can take three or four hours, and in that time the actual action of it - throwing, hitting, catching, running - might last, maybe, 14 minutes. Or something. I didn't measure the bloody game, I just watched it while eating a burrito. Point is, the action was riveting. The endless hat-adjusting and groin-scratching, was not. But you didn't focus solely upon the action. People who know and love Test cricket know this, too, that there is an art to properly watching baseball and long-form cricket. And it is this: watch the action for the seconds it's happening. Then switch off, talk to your mate, eat a burrito, think about Jessica Alba, whatever. There's a long narrative to a game of baseball and long-form cricket. But you can't concentrate for the entire few hours. It would kill you.

Throwing. Dear Lord Mr Lillee, the arms on these people! There's some good arms in cricket. Andrew Symonds could ping the cherry like it was shot out a cannon. But these guys… flat and hard, and… that's it, just flat and hard, pinged at super speed from the outfield to home plate. Wow. Outstanding, exciting, and big, if that makes sense. They call it "The Bigs" because it's the Big League. And they have arms of incredible power.

Hot zone. The area around third base they call the hot zone or danger zone or something, because that's where right-handed batters can swing the bat and hit flat, hard bullets at the guy fielding there, the third baseman. Saturday night saw a flat, hard one hit at a man who leapt in the air and caught it, one-glove (though he didn't have a choice, one supposes). Spectacular stuff, a cracking classic catch. But then fielding in gully and catching a hot cut is perhaps the better and more freakish skill, given they're closer and don't wear gloves. Nothing for cricket to learn out of this, of course. Just thought I'd chuck it in.

The death. Baseball's pitchers are often ten-foot monsters with beards like buck male wombats, who hurl these fast balls called "heaters" at various and odd angles, all of them fast. Yes, they're all full tosses. But they're curving, ducking, diving, straying perilously close to a man's knees and nether regions. Some pitchers are called "closers" because they're brought on at the end to snuff out an innings. They're like cricket's "death bowlers". And if you caught Dale Steyn's final over against the Kiwis in the T20 World Cup the other night, you would know: the man is Dr Death. Yet batters, for the most part, seem to be winning that particular arms race, and the art of the yorker looks lost because batters can move back and forward, and side to side on the crease. But their feet are in the same spot, attached to their shins, aren't they? And you can still bowl at them. Admittedly I write this peering over a belly on a Thursday morning dressed in my jimmy jams after a grade-cricket career in Canberra in which I bowled first-change in fourths, but - cricketers, everyone - has a crack at journos because they've read a newspaper, so it's open slather on the Merchants of Death.

The stretch. In the seventh inning of each game is the fabled Seventh-Inning Stretch, in which people actually stand up and have a stretch and they play "Take Me Out To The Ball Game", and people sing it. And it's actually a bit silly and I don't advocate cricket taking it up. But the tradition bit above got a bit long so I chucked it in down here. Cricket's lesson is, thus: silly stuff like "tea", "lunch", and such forth, it's all good. Things that seem quaint or anachronistic are actually a part of the fibre of the game.

And one of the things the baseball guys said about the SCG as a baseball field was that the venerable old Members and Ladies Stands, sitting like your grandma's California bungalow among gleaming skyscrapers, meant something. They meant history and ghosts and a great nod to the past. It's not about living in the past. Hell, they've just played a baseball game at the SCG. You couldn't get more modern had they played electronic space bocce, a sport from the future I just made up. It's about retaining the good things as we stride boldly into the future.

The future. The games have many similarities and you'd think, one day, maybe, who knows, a baseball player might make a decent cricketer. Batters might struggle with "pitches" that aren't full tosses. Certainly they've only ever hit cross-bat shots. And bowlers aren't allowed to throw the ball, though maybe the 15-degree thing would help.

But it's gone the other way. Ian Chappell - who was commentating for American television in the SCG series - played catcher for South Australia in Claxton Shield and made an All-Australian team. Allan Border played baseball, as did Neil Harvey, and Ian's brother Greg. Australia's fielding coach is baseball man Mike Young, MVP for the University of Wisconsin River Falls in 1978. And indeed, sitting in the press box in the Bradman Stand there was a glass wall between myself and Young, who was regaling Michael Clarke with some baseball rudiments.

Yes, it might be a while before an American baseball player earning $215 million (as the LA Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw will be across the next seven years) is tempted to try his hand at the game of willow and wickets. But they made a team of cricketers from the streets of South Central Los Angeles. You'd think they could scrabble up a team from those who couldn't crack the Dodgers. Just a thought.

Matt Cleary writes for several Australian sports and travel magazines. He tweets here