Take Me Out To The Ball Game - The British View

by Rudy Noriega

AT&T Stadium on San Francisco Bay

AT&T Stadium on San Francisco Bay

It doesn’t take a great deal of effort to realise how important baseball is to San Francisco. A casual walk around the city will take you past people wearing the t-shirts and caps and in under fifteen minutes you’ll know the local team is called the Giants, the colour is orange and they have huge local support. Across the ages and sexes, it was a rare moment when you looked around on the street and couldn’t see anyone in clothing pertaining to baseball. Granted, it is the season for it but even so it’s still impressive.

The Giants’ stadium is actually quite near where I was staying. It’s a modern and grand affair on the edge of the bay, its orange bricks leaving you in no doubt as to who plays there. Its official address is 24 Willy Mays Plaza – Willy Mays being the club’s most famous player and 24 being his shirt number. In fact it’s the only building on Willy Mays Plaza and it’s more accurate to say that it’s on King’s Street. However this would mean that it’s on the “odd” side of the road and so special permission was needed to renumber the building when it was built in the late 1990s. Outside is an oversize statue of the man himself surrounded by twenty four trees. On the walls of the stadium are plaques celebrating the history of the team. It’s a proud place and you feel that before you’ve even been through the club’s impressive gates.

I was shown around in true partisan fashion by Connie who gave every impression that she’s got her perfect job. She’s a huge baseball fan and will complete a visit to every major league stadium later this year when she ticks off Baltimore. Above all, she loves the Giants and can effortlessly quote chapter and verse on the history of the club and can probably detail most of the matches she’s been to. She was incredibly enthusiastic and clearly wanted me and the rest of the group to love the Giants as much as she does. All around the stadium are quotes about the sport often described as America’s obsession. I’m not sure anyone can be as obsessed as Connie clearly was. She must have given the tour dozens of times but appeared to be absolutely loving it.

“We even have all the signs written in braille, in case the umpires come up here,” she laughed, as she guided us around the offices and admin part of the building.

We were taken to the corporate boxes, shown changing rooms and led on to the edge of the playing surface itself. There was a chance to hold a bat used by Giants’ legend Barry Bonds and have your photo taken with the World Series trophies that were won in 2010 and 2012. The whole excursion is incredibly well done and well worth the entrance fee.

Some may say that it’s as much an indoctrination as a tour. Connie tried valiantly to convert a couple from Houston who support their local team, the Astros. She failed but got a reassurance that the Giants would be their second team which pleased her no end. Her fervour has worked with me though. By the time I returned to Willy Mays Plaza I was a Giants fan and it was time to go to a game. I was personally escorted to a ticket window by a concerned and friendly security guard who wanted to make sure I went to the right place and a few seconds later I had a ticket for the Friday night game against the Minnesota Twins.

I headed to the stadium early on game day but most of the fans had the same idea. The streets on the approach were awash with orange adorned fans who were in good humour. As someone used to British sporting events, the lack of police was a bit of a surprise. I’m sure they were there but it certainly wasn't particularly noticeable. The other thing that threw me was being greeted with a big smile by a security guard who said “Welcome to the Giants”; this was followed by an almost apologetic bag search. My seat was high up behind the line which links the home plate to third base and had commanding views of San Francisco Bay. At least if I didn't like the game I could watch the container ships heading across to Oakland. The sun was illuminating the vivid green turf and the setting was just about perfect to settle down and watch an activity I barely understood. Somehow I didn’t think it really mattered. There was a real buzz about going to the game that felt more like a night out than a sporting occasion and whatever happened next was going to be interesting.

Someone once told me that baseball was a really good excuse to eat far too much and on that night’s evidence they certainly weren’t wrong. The queues at the numerous food outlets were sizeable, even an hour before the game, but I decided it was worth waiting to finally try a hotdog and a root beer. I can’t say I can recommend either – my hotdog was forgettable and root beer tastes like somebody has poured Deep Heat into some cola – but it felt like the right thing to do on an evening when I was going to try and absorb something totally American.

How American baseball is, is actually open to some doubt. The popular story is that it was invented by Abner Doubleday in 1839 in Cooperstown, New York. This was a myth created in 1908 and its origins, as many British people have always suspected, probably come from the game of Rounders, which found its way to Britain via German sailors. There’s a reference to Baseball in Northanger Abbey. I’m not sure the origins of the game are all that important. The game was codified in the US, has taken on the national identity and who cares if Jane Austen would recognise it?

It may be the national sport of America but it wasn’t played professionally west of St. Louis until 1958. The Giants started life in New York as did their great rivals the Los Angeles Dodgers. Of the Giants four World Series titles, two were won under their New York name which is why their two recent wins where a huge deal for San Francisco.

I know some of the rules of baseball but the subtleties and the statistics are alien to me. Thankfully fate had put me in the seat next to Gabe, a bear of a man with the ubiquitous Giants hat, a trawlerman’s beard and hands that could easily have been the model for a baseball mitt. He was accompanied by a tiny woman called Jessica and a huge amount of calories in nacho form carried on a sizeable cardboard tray. He agreed to talk me through the finer points of the game but there were a few rituals to be observed along the way. The first of these involved a bit of awkward standing on my part for the National Anthem - "God Save The Queen" is not usually sung at sporting events in the UK - but this was immediately followed by Thin Lizzy’s “The Boys Are Back In Town” which at least I knew the words to.

The Giants stadium holds around 41,000 people but it was extremely hard to tell if it was sold out. That’s because during the game there’s an ever changing pattern of empty seats as people head off to eat. Gabe disappeared three times during the course of the three and a half hours and each time came back with a different foodstuff which he proceeded to demolish at frightening speed. In between snacks he tried his best to explain to me the importance of grounders and double plays and talked me through the pros and cons of each player.

Like cricket - my summer sport of choice - baseball is all about statistics and the one that kept coming up was the salaries the players received. I knew enough about the game to know that starting pitcher Tim Lincecum was not having a particularly good game.

“He gets $17m a year,” Gabe sighed as another foul ball was called. “Probably past his best but the fans love him and he sells a lot of shirts.”

In the seventh inning (there are nine in total), another pitcher is brought on to the amusement of Jessica.

“Jeremy Affeldt is accident prone. Last year he managed to cut his hand making turkey burgers. We needed him in the play-offs!”

The last sentence was said with a certain amount of bitterness. Apparently the season before he put his back out throwing one of his children in the air and catching them. I love a clumsy sportsman. It gives me hope.

The seventh inning was also the time for another baseball ritual. Between the two teams batting, there’s a space put aside for the whole crowd to stand up and have a communal stretch. It was announced on the big screen and was blindly obeyed by everyone. It was also the sign for Gabe to go in search of more food before the outlets closed.

Like everything in baseball, the origins of the group stretch are uncertain but one popular story involves the somewhat portly US President, William Taft, who was watching a game in 1910, felt sore after a prolonged bout of sitting down and decided to stand up. The people in the crowd didn’t know what to do and so decided to join in and a tradition may or may not have been born. The other tradition of the seventh inning is to sing “Take Me Out To The Ball Game”, which was written by a bloke called Jack Norworth who’d never actually been to a baseball game when he wrote it. I love the line “Let me root, root, root for the home team, if they don’t win it’s a shame” and would love to see it adopted in football. With that kind of spirit of old fashioned generosity and fair-mindedness it would kill the British radio soccer phone-in at a stroke.

The Giants ran out 6-2 winners which was a bit of a surprise given my talent for supporting teams that are synonymous with under-achievement and struggle. I didn’t know they were top of their division until Gabe mentioned it halfway through the game. I can’t help thinking that the rest of their season is doomed. Somewhere in the stadium, Connie was probably squealing with delight. I missed a trick earlier in the week. I should have got her to swear allegiance to my cricket team, Lancashire. I'd happily arrange a tour for her.

A version of this, along with several other views of San Francisco can be found on my blog Gullible's Travels

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Thanks for the view from across The Pond, Rudy!
by: Suzi

I luv, luv, luv this! Thanks for sharing your adventure - not only on our side of The Pond, but clear across the country as well. Your summary and evaluation of American baseball is spot on! So glad you had a good time while you were here.


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