At first, it’s likely to be some surface-level inclination. Maybe the way an evening ballpark illuminates the hyper-greens and the browns that it sits next to. Maybe the way the floodlights bounce off the hitter’s helmet, pronouncing a ghostly stillness each time the pitcher sets up to throw. Maybe it’s the first sight of a short stop receiving the ball drilled towards them, skipping while transferring it from mitt to throwing hand and – stretching time to their will in the same elasticated stride – throwing out a runner at first base.
Honestly, it could be any of the motor skills sunk into a player’s being – unthinking, sweet execution borne of the repetition of a lifetime, hiding any actual competition and instead presenting a kind of alpha ballet of all the pleasing ways a body moves. Maybe it’s just the clothes that do it for you. A walking, breathing map of implied American history. Or the sound – the congregated conversation behind the gently pleasing way a ball lands in a mitt. It could be as trivial as the breathtaking amount of chewing and spitting on view.
Something internal might align within you for a second. It’s likely a simple, stupid happiness. It will potentially be akin to that supernatural time you first heard a song so strangely familiar to you, it was as if it was written to explain to you how you felt about yourself. Baseball meets you in the exact same sweet-spot – between knowing and not – with the promise that this might go deep.
When it does this, do not, whatever you do, think you’re the first. The American “national pastime” has a penchant for this kind of frivolous, intimate beauty. That’s its trick, to make you feel like it has spoken to you alone. It’s the seduction on which this odd game – profound then meaningless, meandering then swift, simple but complex, ancient but modern, jock but intellectual – has been messing people around for years. I’m afraid to forewarn that by the time you realise it is in fact all pain and failure, game upon game stacking themselves on top of each other until they are indistinguishable from the last, an infinite void you have poured non-recoupable time into, each televised break bookended with the same advert that now visits you in your sleep, it will – of course – be too late. You and it are tied together now forever, for better or for worse. Sound familiar?
Cricket and baseball evolved from the same ancestry. As Ken Burns’s documentary tells it, when an inner-city group formed the “New York Knickerbocker Baseball Club” in 1845 they marvelled at their game for “it was quite distinct from cricket and rounders”. They were particularly delighted about this, the documentary tells us. It is probably for the best then that the collective Knickerbockers are not around close to 200 years later to occasionally overhear the generally shared opinion of cricket fans that their beloved baseball, still recognisable to the one they coined, is “glorified rounders”. That would have stung.
I don’t remember whether I held this opinion of baseball in 2016 when, then a touring musician obsessed with cricket, it caught my attention in all of the aesthetic ways listed above. If you’re playing club venues on your fourth album across the continent, as we were, breaking America is much more likely to break you. The drives are gruelling and long. There is little sleep and less novelty with which to brush it all off with. Often there is little context for you when you turn up in satellite towns in Bible belt states unbothered with English indie music. I needed a reason to blur the days of a disturbingly cricket-less landscape.
And there was baseball. Like our bat and ball game, it too comes with time to hold all the feelings you care to throw at it. Unlike ours, you will not have to search to find it. A regular Major League Baseball season is just over 160 games, which come about almost uninterrupted, one after another, day after day, night after night. Then – as now – it was there in hotels, on in the little televisions in the back of yellow taxis, in airports, there behind the noise in bars, a few lonely souls staring into the set, the rest talking over it.
Choose to commit to its particular drift and you will be kept company by the same personnel – hitters, pitchers, outfielders, callers, presenters – every day. As the season passes, the pizazz slowly gives way to weariness, little rings appearing underneath the eyes as the early season fades into memory.
I began to realise it isn’t just in the aesthetics – the way we might purr at a Babar Azam straight drive, for example, being our own surface-level seduction – that the games hold common ground. They have a similar sense of themselves; a stubborn resistance to an abbreviated world that threatens to abandon it, a tendency to over-complicate absolutely everything, every single act documented and numerated, an accommodation of all different body types to manipulate the game to their individual will. In the essential plot of both too, the hitter/batter is trying to essentially read what ball the pitcher/bowler is throwing/bowling. Unaware of each other, those with a ball in hand have developed similar means to deceive their opponent. A four-seam fastball is very close to a seamers stock ball, for example. A change-up curve can look identical to a leg break. A split finger fast ball is not dissimilar to a cutter.
Six years have passed since then. Life has changed immeasurably. But baseball, against tricky odds, has survived in my peripherals, keeping it from cricket as if it were a secret infidelity, through sleepless late nights. This year, no longer a touring musician, I have returned to America a few times for baseball reasons alone. Most pointedly, to see the Philadelphia Phillies hosting the Houston Astros in the World Series.
Ballparks have a habit of explaining the city and the moment they are in. In Philadelphia, as the diamond opens up into centre field, the home run wall unusually shallow in the eye-line of the hitter beyond the pitcher, the tiers of seats are cleared to reveal the backdrop of the route back into the city. As evening falls upon Citizens Bank Park on a Tuesday night, the series tied 1-1, the neon lights of constantly moving traffic have slowed to a near Christmas Day sparseness. Nothing else is really happening anywhere.
Baseball is an extremely big deal here, a Phillies shirt or cap the only common threads in a city that changes every five minutes as you walk through it, and World Series fervour has been left to apprehensively bounce around the city for an extra day, the planned opener of yesterday rained off (yes, baseball does that too). Last night it left a game-less void in the bars around the sports district, leaving only House of Pain and Pitbull, neon lights and alcohol for slightly jarring company as people fled disappointed. Tonight, with the home opener – their first World Series since losing in 2009 – only minutes away, as the teams line up, there is a genuine, tingling anticipation.
The sheer attentiveness of the moment – everyone consenting that this is something of genuine, generational importance – is such that, in the same way walking into a cathedral can give an atheist a momentary pause for thought, you almost forgive them calling this a “World” Series. Anything else, to be fair, would feel like an unnecessary underplay. There are ovations for everyone as they line up before the game – Phillies dietician, Phillies physical conditional coach, Phillies mental health coach. There are fireworks and there is God Bless America. The Phanatic – the large green, furry bird of a mascot – bombs across the outfield on a quad bike. The World Series, essentially, makes the Hundred look like croquet.
The Phillies’ opponents, the favoured Houston Astros, make for dream bad-guy fodder. Their sign-stealing World Series title of 2017 remains thick in the memory of the teams they visit across America, greeted with “cheeeeaaattteerrrss” everywhere they go, like heel wrestlers. It plays out to the said good guy/bad guy script tonight too. Bryce Harper reads a curve ball from his first pitch, homering high over right field to give the Phillies the lead. The focused attention gives way to an India v Pakistan-esque level of fever, 43,035 people screaming at every pitch. Alec Bohm drills one flat into the unusually low left-field wall. Brandon Marsh follows him over right-field. Against a sea of fate, the occasion is irreversible. The Phillies win 7-0. In the procession of the final few innings, that little magic window of relief that sport offers – very occasionally – opens up. Strangers are no longer strangers, high-fiving each other, laughing into the air, letting in that simple happiness that might have first registered on sight of the game, now a manic joy running right through them.
They do not know then that the Phillies will have lost the World Series 4-2 by Saturday evening. I watch the final, fatal game back in south London, huddled against the screen through the night, the way you might have done through England’s latest Ashes catastrophe, squinting at a group that so recently bounded around for fun, as they fade into bittersweet melancholia. The colours on screen are so different to the greys of evening London, that I wonder whether I have imagined the whole thing completely. There’s always next year to find out, I console myself.