Tom Sutcliffe: Baseball: a view from the boundary

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The Independent Online

It might sound a bit perverse to describe Sugar as a Test match film, but bear with me and I'll try and explain. The perversity arises from the fact that Sugar is actually about a rookie baseball player, travelling from the Dominican Republic in the hope that he can make it big in the American leagues. And nothing about the system he enters in heartland Iowa could be described as cricket, even metaphorically. If he does well he'll be kept on, at a salary that is impressive relative to per diem earnings back home but measly compared to Big League prospects. If he falters, however, he will be cut loose without a second thought. So, why a Test match film then? Only this – that Anna Boden and Ryan Fleck's film is stately in its pacing and entirely unflustered about getting a conclusive final result. If Sugar was a Baseball film – rather than a Test match film about baseball – there would really have been only one destination ... the triumphant home run, a couple of tense strike outs (a performance slump, say, and a romantic disappointment) being followed by a crisp click as he finally connects and hits the ball out of the park.

At the risk of confusing things even further the Test match analogy came to mind while watching a cricket match that seemed to aspire to the condition of baseball – England's bruising encounter with the Dutch team in the World 20-20. What I know about cricket could be written on the pointy end of a cricket stump, but I did know that the Dutch played cricket, thanks to Joseph O'Neill's novel Netherland. And watching the Dutch players lay into the ball I was reminded of his description of what happens to cricket when it's transported on to foreign ground ... or more specifically a foreign ground with an overgrown outfield. "In breach of the first rule of batting", O'Neill writes, "the batsman is forced to smash the ball into the air ... and betting is turned into a gamble." That looked to me as if it would do quite nicely for 20-20 cricket. Another of O'Neill's disquisitions on the two games seemed pertinent too. Cricket (by which he means Test cricket really) "calls almost for a naturalist's attentiveness: the ability to locate, in a mostly static herd of white-clothed men, the significant action. It's a question of looking". Baseball, he concedes, also requires a viewer to move between a panoramic view and a narrowly-focused one – but the fact there's only one batter and no changing of ends makes it easier.

And that seemed to lead back to Sugar and the way it combined a baseball plot line – one single man at the centre of our attention – with Test match demands on the viewer. Because Sugar is a pitcher rather than a batsman this is a film (bizarrely, given the normal run of things in more conventional sports films) where we hold our breath and hope nothing will happen, since Sugar's success is ultimately measured by the failure of the batsman to connect. More than that though it's a film which expects us to sit patiently through the interludes, and understand that there might be significance even when a sporting "nothing" gives way to an off-pitch "nothing". At one point Sugar walks through the public rooms of his hotel, going from nowhere to nowhere, and you understand his loneliness from the clattering electronic noise all around him. In terms of cricket I can see the point of the baseball, Jerry Bruckheimer approach – lots of percussion and explosive action, a deadline as inexorable as a bomb timer. In terms of films there's a lot to be said for Test match subtleties – where you come away not entirely sure whether anybody could be said to have won, but still thinking about the style with which the strokes were played.

Bank on these pictures

The estimable Public Catalogue Foundation, which aims to record all paintings in public ownership, has just published its volume covering the City of London. As usual it's a pleasure to browse through the matchbox-sized reproductions of paintings that currently sit in storage or hang neglected in bureaucratic corridors. The City of London Corporation, for instance, has a fine James Tissot called Too Early, pictured, in which a few awkward-looking couples mill around a society ballroom, perfectly capturing the embarrassment of a party that has not yet achieved critical mass. There are other tantalising thumbnails as well, such as Charles Pears's striking painting of the Pool of London during an air raid, a kind of representational Vorticism, with searchlights and bridge against an orange sky. Naturally, there are plenty of dull aldermen and men in suits too, but even here there are treats, such as Walter Thomas Monnington's attempt to squeeze a bit of historical drama out of a group portrait for the Bank of England. A Director Announcing the Bank Rate shows a huddle of officials waiting for a morning-suited figure to reveal the new percentage. It is, I guess, a kind of action painting – but is there a staider, less eventful one in the national catalogue?

The Design Museum's current exhibition SuperContemporary unquestionably makes the case for the importance of visual design, and how frustrating life can be without it, but perhaps not in the way it intended. The show aims to celebrate the design vitality of the capital city and it consists of 15 special commissions and an extensive illustrated timeline around the outer walls of the exhibition space, which takes you from 1970 to the present day. The latter combines information overload and confusing layout in a way that offers an object lesson in how not to engage an audience. You begin by diligently attempting to decipher its apparently arbitrary connections but give up about half-way round, exhausted by a clutter of panels packed with dense print. It's a book, you suddenly realise, which you have to read while standing up. I would have left in a very bad mood indeed had it not been for Paul Smith's contribution – a proposal for a new kind of municipal litter bin, in the shape of a giant polypropylene rabbit holding out a bin-bag in an encouraging way. Sadly, I'm not sure that this object would survive coming into contact with the more energetically cretinous sections of the general public, but it provided a much-needed smile.