The SohoistIssue 16

Take me to the Ball Game

In the heart of the United States there is a diamond – a frame of casino green baize swaddled by fine Martian dirt. At the centre of it all rises a nipple of earth compassed by four white nodes. Onto this space are projected: wattage of disinfectant intensity, tin pan interludes of varying musicality, fistfuls of peanuts, and lungfuls of jingo. Around this pocket of attention is gathered a truly impressive commercial scaffolding, designed to encourage consumption from a seated position. Teams of yellow-shirted hotdogwallahs score up and down the ranked seating calling wares and giving change. Beers are handed down rows. The man next to me racks up a line of mustard on his frankfurter. A ring of military personnel bounds the upper seating, resembling rows of square-jawed teeth in their white dress finery. If you were to see this many men and women in uniform during a football match in London you would think a coup had occurred. Each break in play is filled with a soft-powered snatch of a song from the charts. Despite aversions that poker or football [sic] stand for the whole, this is the American game. Baseball is the synecdoche of US exceptionalism.

I am sitting in Fenway Park, the grand dame of Major League Baseball stadia, in late summer heat. You never think New England should be this humid but the air today is as heavy and wet as the backroom of a bayou drycleaner’s. Here is the home of the Boston Red Sox [sic] – here in this ziggurat of capital.

A woman behind me is double-fisting two craft ales and gesticulating with them: “Castilo is at 0.375 this season, can you fucking believe that. I mean can you fuckin’ believe! Fuck him! Give him a waiver! Fuck your OBP Rusney.” She hugs the statistical complexity to herself like a drunkard moulding his bedding into a human form – the acronyms that give form and substance to her rage. Such technical precision is the extraordinary thing about these fans contra the UK. To take football commentary as a counterpoint: play can be ‘uninspired’, ‘lacking passion’, ‘error-strewn’ but it is never quantified. This fuzzy, almost literary, critique is typical of not just football but of most European sporting traditions. It has struck me that UK football hooliganism is perhaps a physical articulation of the frustration of not being able to describe something with enough accuracy to be broadly understood – causally ‘inarticulate rage’. By contrast, baseball is practically algebraic – the woman with the two ales gives me a very plausible definition of regression analysis during the fifth inning and the only topic of discussion in the Park is numbers. Since the box score started with Chadwick in 1845, the love affair that won’t cease is with stats.

It is here at Fenway where Bill James made the move from a boiler-room attendant at a pork-and-beans plant to operations analyst for the Red Sox in 2002. He coined the term ‘sabermetrics’ – the empirical analysis of baseball. But it represents more than that; it is an attempt to uncover objective facts about agents operating in a whirligig of uncertainty. It is an attempt to understand deep truths about even a fraction of the universe if we can. James was a pioneer of this method of understanding his small subset of the world and is lauded for his efforts. Compare James to Brian Clough and you see the stark divergence in attitude. Clough is the perfect example of the unhealthy English obsession with the gifted amateur playing at professional. An aperçu-spouting underdog with sprezzatura. The American approach could not be more earnest, or more effective.

All of this matters because the dissection of the intricacies of professional sports teams are the general outlet of mass intelligence. Even Noam Chomsky, for all he knows, hasn’t failed to notice the phenomenon:

When I’m driving, I sometimes turn on the radio and I find very often that what I’m listening to is a discussion of sport….these are ordinary people, not professionals, who are applying their intelligence and analytic skills in these areas and accumulating quite a lot of knowledge and, for all I know, understanding.

The soul of a people is oft revealed in their approach to sports. Here at Fenway all the elements of the superpower are present: the expertly drilled commercial operation, the scientific method, the traditions and shibboleths, the soft power, the constant honouring of the military. Then, as I reflect on this, in the middle of the seventh inning stretch a small blonde girl with hair materialises. She sings a song that has been required in Major League games since 9/11 (to the extent that the NYPD once arrested a fan for leaving in the middle to go for a piss). She sings falteringly at first but it seems to be nerves and not lack of vocal equipment. As she approaches the home stretch the standing thousands join in:

From the mountains, to the prairies,

To the oceans white with foam

God bless America, my home sweet home.