Brian Viner: Forget the Premiership and take me out to the ball game for a family feast

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The Independent Online

It had not previously been my habit to pick up men in bars, nor indeed to hang out in bars at eight in the morning, but when you're on your own a long way from home, these things happen. This thing happened last Sunday. The bar was the Fox and Hounds in Studio City, Los Angeles. It is described in guidebooks as an English-style pub, but as so often with things in the United States described as typically English, it was about as typically English as its address: 11100 Ventura Boulevard.

Still, the barmaid had a reassuring Lancashire accent, and the $12 (£6.50) "Full Monty" breakfast came with brown sauce, so what more can a chap ask for? Newcastle United v Everton, that's what. The Fox and Hounds is one of the few bars in LA where English Premiership matches are shown live, even before sunrise if it's a 12.45pm kick-off back home.

I arrived at about five to eight naïvely expecting the place to be heaving. I'd made a mental list of all the celebrity Newcastle and Everton fans who might conceivably be in LA - Sting, or Lee Latchford Evans out of Steps, stars of that magnitude - and anticipated them tucking into their Full Monty breakfasts alongside me, wearing their "Ameobi" and "Cahill" shirts. As it turned out I was the only one there, with eight screens to choose from, until Ryan turned up.

Ryan, a "struggling" screenwriter originally from Kansas City, was wearing an Aston Villa shirt. He chose Villa long before the Randy Lerner takeover because it was a Midlands club and Kansas City is, sort of, like, the American Midlands.

Ryan and I got along famously. He's never been to England, but is a huge fan of what he calls the EPL, and he was perfectly happy to root for Everton with me on the basis that his best friend is a Newcastle fan, which is the kind of skewed logic I admire.

Anyway, by 10am the match was over and it was time to look forward to my next sporting assignment. My hotel, I told him, had got me a pair of tickets for that afternoon's baseball game between the LA Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks. I had nobody to go with and could do with someone to translate baseball into English. Did he fancy it? "Sure," he said. We arranged to meet in parking lot five. Pick-ups don't come easier than that.

The ball game was fantastic, level-pegging with no home runs until the bottom of the ninth inning when the Dodgers' first baseman, Nomar Garciaparra, hit a homer with all the bases loaded, what's known as a walk-off grand slam. It was the equivalent of a cricketer hitting a six to win off the last ball of a one-dayer, and with the exception of a few Arizona fans and me - and I was excited - 49,822 people in Dodger Stadium went ballistic.

Ryan was cock-a-hoop. He has a lingering affection for his home-town baseball team, the Kansas City Royals, but the Dodgers are much better.

"The Kansas City Royal is a horse show and what can you expect when your baseball team is named after a horse show?" he asked, rhetorically.

The Dodgers, by contrast, can still make next month's World Series, 25 years after one of their greatest triumphs, in the 1981 World Series against the New York Yankees, which itself represented a thrilling twist in a historic rivalry from the days when the Dodgers were based in Brooklyn.

However, what weighed on me most heavily last Sunday was not history. In all honesty, it made no difference to me how many times the Dodgers have won the world championship (as Americans call it, with such brazen disregard for the atlas). No, what weighed heavily was the dispiriting comparison with mass-attendance sporting events in the UK. There seemed to be as many women as men in the Dodger Stadium crowd, as many girls as boys. Cheerful vendors patrolled the aisles, dispensing pizza, peanuts, ice-cream and water, without the need for spectators even to leave their seats. I even enjoyed the Mexican Wave, perhaps because for once it featured a satisfying number of actual Mexicans. And Ryan told me about a deal called the Dodger four-pack: four tickets, four "Dodger dogs" and four Cokes, for $40. The England and Wales Cricket Board and all Premiership football clubs could learn a great deal from Major League Baseball.

On the other hand - there's always another hand - Ryan lamented the prevalence of performance-enhancing drugs in American sport.

"We are," he said, offering me a peanut, "an unbelievably complacent society. We know our President is probably a war criminal and we see baseball players putting on 40lb of muscle during the off season, yet our President is still in office and those guys are still playing pro baseball.

"I confess that I watched the recent riots in Paris with a degree of envy. You can't motivate anyone in this country, me included, to protest about anything."

As the woman in front of me tucked into her pepperoni pizza without having had to lift her (ample) buttocks even slightly, I kind of understood why.

Who I Like This Week...

Major League Baseball, which entertained me so splendidly in Los Angeles last weekend (see left). It would still take a lifetime to persuade me that it is a better game than cricket - the fact that a cricket ball hits the ground before reaching the bat seems to me an intrinsically better idea, and I would also take away the mitts from all the deep-lying fielders so that they drop more catches - but there's nothing like going to a packed ballpark on a warm Sunday afternoon to understand the sport's place at the heart of American culture. I also envy baseball its delightfully kitsch traditions: best of all, the seventh-inning stretch and mass chorus of "Take Me Out To The Ball Game". Not to mention the baseball-lover's obsession with arcane stats, with which not even cricketing anoraks can compete.

And Who I Don't

American newspapers, which shamelessly pander to the nation's amazingly introspective attitude towards sport (and everything else, for that matter). The Ryder Cup coverage in the LA Times, for example, was negligible compared with the acres of space given to football (their version) and baseball, with only a small and rather eccentric headline on the front page of the sports section on Monday - "Europe Pours It on US in Ryder Cup Blowout" - turning to page 13 inside. Even had the US won, I don't suppose it would have been much different. It's internecine contests that interest Americans, not the stuff that goes on against other countries and continents. In sport as in life.

b.viner@independent.co.uk

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