Everyone knows that Americans love their flag and their troops. But is that reason to turn one of the most cherished dates in the domestic sporting calendar – and one that needs no embellishment – into patriotic grand opera?
Last Monday I went to the Opening Day game of the Washington Nationals. The start of the baseball season here is a symbolic rite of spring. "Wait until next year" might have been autumn's consoling thought as another losing season ends. Opening Day is next year, a moment of recharged hope, and nowhere more than in DC right now. "First in war, first in peace and last in the American League" used to be the (all too accurate) joke about Washington and baseball. This time the team is widely tipped to bring home the city's first World Series championship since 1924.
That prospect alone was surely enough to fuel Opening Day excitement. Yes, there would be a shot of patriotism in the shape of the national anthem – and as a sports fan who's lived in the US for 20-odd years, I'm used to that, even though the practice doesn't exist in most other countries for domestic sporting events. I've heard hundreds of renderings of "The Star Spangled Banner". But this non-citizen thinks each time, that's it. Now let's get on with the game. On Monday, however, the anthem wasn't even the start of the cheering for America.
Early in the pre-game ceremonies there was a performance of "America the Beautiful", one of the country's several non-official anthems (a stirring ditty indeed, as anyone who knows the Ray Charles version can testify). Then a small regiment of soldiers came on to the field carrying a colossal US flag, which covered an area the size of a soccer pitch.
As with every major league game, a dignitary throws out a ceremonial first pitch. On Monday, however, it was a soldier, an Afghan war hero and a recipient of the Medal of Honor, the American equivalent of the Victoria Cross. Understandably enough, he was cheered to the rafters.
Finally, the game itself started. During the third of the nine innings the crowd was summoned to rise in a now customary salute to wounded soldiers attending the game. Then came the "seventh-inning stretch". But even that delightful tradition no longer consists only of the crowd singing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game". You are now expected first to stand for another unofficial national anthem, "God Bless America".
Somewhere along the line, the organisers of this Opening Day extravaganza forgot the stricture contained in the second verse of "America the Beautiful", to "confirm thy soul in self-control". Of patriotic self-control on Monday there was next to none. Oh, I almost forgot, the Nationals did win that afternoon. But it felt like an afterthought.
This fusion of sport, the flag and the troops is not confined to baseball. Soon after the hoopla at Nationals Park, we had "military appreciation night" at a Washington Capitals hockey game, at which the deputy chairman of the joint chiefs of staff appeared, and the Caps players did their warm-up in camouflage jerseys. As for American football, the militaristic razzmatazz fits perfectly with the game's warrior and "kick-ass" ethos – witness January's college football championship game, where the ball was delivered by a paratrooper who jumped out of a plane. All good fun, but does college sport really need a battle pageant?
In fact, Washington probably has more excuse than most for the flagwaving. Other US sports cities can beat local drums, but Washington's one distinction is that it is seat of the national government and the military high command. It can hardly celebrate Congress, while lauding a particular president would be too partisan. Which leaves the Pentagon and its non-partisan job of, as they say, "keeping America free".
The links between sport and war go back a long way. The anthem appears to have made its first appearance during the 1918 World Series, the year after the US entered the First World War. By permission of President Roosevelt, baseball kept playing through the Second World War – precisely because FDR considered it would boost spirits on the home front.
Then came 9/11. The resumption of baseball, six days after the attacks, symbolised how a traumatised country was starting to get back to normal. That was when "God Bless America" made its encroachment into the seventh-inning stretch. All of this is strange to non-Americans. Yes, play the anthem at international fixtures, but why at games involving just US-based teams, often larded with non-US players?
I'm not American, but I consider baseball to be one of the America's gifts to civilisation. I like military parades too. But keep the two apart. Attending a sports game shouldn't be akin to reciting the pledge of allegiance. I want the Nats to win the World Series. Above all, I just want to enjoy baseball.