Baseball: Sport in the Big Apple – a sharp reminder

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A visit to New York, even a mere six days on holiday, is always liable to leave the senses in need of a decoder. Last week, as the arrival of spring sunshine returned Central Park to its role as the exhibitionists' capital of the world and the hot-dog stalls on Coney Island reopened for business for the first time since 11 September, the city that never sleeps was beginning to reclaim its rituals after a long, dark, slumber.

It helped the collective mood that the Yankees were back in town, reminding the Rangers ice-hockey team, embroiled in an unseemly scramble for the last play-off place in the NHL, and the New York Knicks, who encapsulated the winter months by failing to reach the NBA play-offs for the first time in nearly two decades, what a winning ball-club looks like. The arrival of Jason Giambi, a big hitter from the Oakland A's, has further shortened the odds on the Yankees winning the World Series for the fourth time in five years after the glitch against the Arizona Diamondbacks last November. Over the next seven years, Giambi will earn $120 million. Winning a few World Series medals was presumably part of the bargain, though in his early interviews Giambi did not resort to the cliché of one player, who chose a $60m contract with his own club over a $70m contract with a rival and then proudly announced: "Y'know, money ain't everything." Try telling that to the chairman of Lincoln City or Grimsby Town.

In American sport, money is everything. Clubs are not clubs, they are franchises, as easily traded as the local McDonald's. There is no sentiment here and fans know it, so their allegiance is to the game not the club, because the club can leave town tomorrow. If Baltimore cannot make a living out of its baseball club, hey, maybe Memphis can. Ninety-two football clubs in the League? The majority of them broke? Torquay, Exeter and Plymouth would be the Devon Wildcats before you could say pumpkin pie. And you can forget relegation. Whoever saw a business plan which relied on the whims of sport? Americans long ago distilled the sport from the business, and before you wring your hands in horror there is a refreshing honesty about the approach which stretches way beyond the figures on the bottom line.

The first-baseman for the Kansas City Royals may be able to fund a Third Division football club out of his weekly pay packet, but, in return, the fans and the management expect their guy to be playing hard every single game of the season, not out of any mawkish sentiment for the fans or his club, but because that is what he is paid to do.

Fatigue is not an issue, let alone an excuse. "I can't see the big deal," as Cal Ripken Jnr said on playing his record-breaking 2,131th consecutive game for the Orioles, "I just turn up at the office every day like everyone else."

In the NBA, fans behind the hoop wave elongated balloons to distract an opponent whenever he takes a free throw. In England, such gamesmanship would be banned; in America, it is sponsored by the clubs, who hand out the balloons. This is part of the deal. No one whinges at the outrageous sums of money being paid to athletes, but, in return, you play as television demands, day after day, night after night, no matter whether the game is a play-off decider or, more often, just another statistic, and you get the ball in the hoop whether the fans in your eyeline are waving balloons or the roof is falling in. A number of Premiership footballers, many of whom are now earning American-style money and daily profess their commitment to "giving 110 per cent", have yet to grasp their part of the bargain.

Yet if we can learn something about the nature of professionalism from across the Atlantic, we can teach them a thing or two about the nature of amateurism. It is our special sporting subject, after all. Standing on the little pebbled shore after the closest Boat Race in 50 years, I was struck by the comments of one triumphant Dark Blue oarsman. His name was Daniel Perkins, a US international from Sharon, Connecticut, and the story of his recovery from surgery on a tumour in his brain had been understandably well documented in the days leading up to the race. It was remarkable that Perkins was still alive, let alone fit enough to row four- and-a-quarter miles flat out down the Thames, but this was his tribute to the 148th Boat Race.

"I just wish everyone could share the feeling I've had today. I've rowed all over the world and won and lost and had triumphs and tribulations along the way, but nothing compares to this. You win a race at the world championships and you feel good for a couple of days, you win a race like this and you've got it for your whole life and you never let go."

For a man who is never quite sure whether the sun will rise tomorrow, the testament is all the more powerful. But it took an American to interpret the meaning of a race widely regarded over here as a sporting nonsense. And you can be certain that the flip side of Perkins' elation will be felt with equal force by the losers. As far as I am aware, not a penny goes into the pockets of the crews who rowed themselves to exhaustion on the Tideway.

The American equivalent of the Boat Race is the Final Four, which is the culmination of the national college basketball tournament. I mean, we are talking full-page features in the New York Times, the whole front page of the sports section of USA Today and wholesale frenzy on the pages of the Indianapolis Bugle, or whichever local newspaper is lucky enough to have a semi-finalist in its constituency. It is a cross between Henley and the Boat Race, without the rowing. Barbecues are held in the back garden, college graduates gather to chew over old times, and those without any particular allegiance at all pretend to have one for the weekend. If they had blazers, they would don blazers.

Ah, you say, how touching that such a dollar-worshipping nation should devote itself so completely to a bunch of fresh-faced amateurs. Except, of course, that the bright young things from Indiana State or Michigan or Oklahama are simply professionals in college drag.

The average graduation pass-rate for the basketball players at the four colleges involved in this year's Final Four was reported to be below 40 per cent. One college actually had a pass rate in single figures, which says all you need to know about the recruitment and development of the basketball programmes in most United States colleges. College coaches are paid in millions and hired and fired with the same rapidity as coaches in the professional leagues, so they make sure their players can read and write, but mostly play ball.

Recruitment can involve illegal incentives and, almost universally, the turning of a Nelsonian eye to the academic inadequacies of a gifted player. Every time an investigation reveals the moral and financial corruption at college level, Americans squirm, because they know the college sporting system is a business like any other – the best players are only stopping off en route to a multi-million-dollar contract in the NBA – yet they try to believe it is still real sport, still the way it was in their day. So the Final Four becomes a celebration of something that is good and amateur and wholesome, when it is nothing of the sort. Since the demise of boot money, we have been spared that sort of hypocrisy at least.

The American way of sport, like their fondness for flags and pretzels, is mildly perplexing. The trick is to acknowledge the differences, not try to change them. A couple of Americans have tried to understand football, at Chester City and Notts County, with predictably dire consequences. The NBA and the NFL have tried to sponsor the development of American sports in the UK without notable success. We watch sport in different ways, glory be. Just one thing: How can any sane sporting nation call the home team second in reading the sports results?