Peter Pringle's America: Well, it's just not cricket

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The Independent Online
WHERE have all the baseball poets gone, now that we need them at the opening of another season? They are the ones who write about the game as though it were a pastoral frolic in the summer haze, an earthly manifestation of some heavenly process miraculously bestowed on America and played by fine, upstanding citizens, all of whom are worthy of a place in somebody or other's Hall of Fame.

They write books with titles such as Baseball and the American Dream, The Boys of Summer and Baseball, the Beautiful. The late baseball commissioner, Bart Giamatti, added his book, Take Time for Paradise, to the list. He liked to remind fans that the root of the word 'paradise' is ancient Persian for 'enclosed park or green'. Americans built ballparks, he said, because there is in humanity 'a vestigial memory of an enclosed green space as a place of freedom or play'.

The columnist George Will is another self-anointed baseball bard. He once wrote: 'Proof of the genius of ancient Greece is that it understood baseball's importance.' Beg pardon? Well, Mr Will was reminding his readers that Greek philosophers considered sport a religious - in a word, moral - undertaking. Sport, according to the Greeks, is an event of beauty and courage. As Mr Will put it: 'The Greeks discovered that seeing people compete courageously and fairly helps emancipate the individual by educating his passions.' Poor old Will, misled again. The Greeks were talking about cricket, not baseball.

Everyone knows that the real reason why Americans rhapsodise about baseball is that they don't play cricket. And they don't play cricket because they couldn't bring themselves to adopt a game played by their former colonisers. That is perfectly understandable, even though it is immediately obvious to anyone with a minimum comprehension of the interaction of bat and ball that cricket is the better game. A ball that is allowed to bounce before hitting the bat provides the bowler with more opportunity for trickery than a pitcher's full toss. And a flat bat gives the batter more control, plus the opportunity for genuinely elegant strokes.

Americans could never concede these things, of course, but this season a number of baseball fans have been willing to record that the poets of yore were full of baloney. Among the memoirs and books of statistics is an intriguing volume entitled Field of Screams, the Dark Underside of America's National Pastime by Richard Scheinin. Finally, here is a writer brave enough to admit what has undoubtedly been true from the beginning: if baseball reflects all the loftiest aspects of American society, it also reflects the worst.

The moans of the poets have been countered by this hardball view of baseball's ruffians, cheats, chisellers, blackguards, and, lately, drug abusers on the field. Nor does it spare the misers, knaves and power-mad egomaniacs who have managed and sponsored the game.

Baseball players, as it turns out, have never been practitioners of any gentle art. John Clarkson, a Chicago White Stockings pitcher, won 53 games in 1885 and later killed his wife with a razor - yet was still elected to the Hall of Fame. In 1894, Baltimore Orioles third baseman, John McGraw, another Hall of Famer, kicked Tommy Tucker of the Boston Beaneaters in the head as he slid into base, and then the two punched it out as the crowd egged them on. As baseball grew in popularity, attacks got worse. In 1976, Yankees right-hander Dock Ellis threw a fast ball that hit the Baltimore Orioles' Reggie Jackson in the face. Jackson slumped to the ground, and Ellis trotted in to check the damage. 'Is he dead?' he asked. Years later Jackson's cheek was still numb. Why did Ellis do it? 'I owed him one,' Dock explained in his autobiography.

Since the beginning, the players have been tempted by drugs. In 1882, the Philadelphia Athletics hired private detectives to shadow the team's chronic drunks. In 1920, Babe Ruth had just joined the Yankees after a glorious spell with the Boston Red Sox. At spring training in Florida he was hopelessly drunk, ran into a palm tree in the outfield and knocked himself out. Today, Darryl Strawberry of the Los Angeles Dodgersis back in a drug rehabilitation unit after failing to show up for a game.

Far more difficult for a fan to stomach has been the greed. Once the boy next door who made good, baseball players have become whining ninnies when it comes to money. In the Fifties, players were not yet superstars. They lived next door and you could bump into their wives at the corner grocery store. In the late Sixties, players' salaries were still within reach: an average major league salary was around dollars 24,000, not quite three times the pay for an elementary school teacher. Now salaries are in excess of a million dollars, more than 32 times that of the average teacher. Many players could make considerably more by promoting commercial products if only they behaved themselves on the field.

What is worse for the fans is that these players view their team the way a bumblebee views the latest blossom. If it's out of honey, the boy's off. What happened to loyalty? What happened to team spirit? What happened to the bonding between teams and their loyal supporters? Forget it. The players took a big slice of the American apple pie and stepped all over it.

When they label me an outsider and say I don't understand the lure of the game, they will be right. It's what a New York Giants catcher once said of his fans, 'Many attend, but few understand'. So be it. Find me a cricket pitch.