Sunday, July 25, 2010

Take Me Out to The Ball Game

Image: Coney Island Wonder Wheel and apartments

A couple of weeks before I left Australia, I attended my first Australian Football League (AFL) contest in the birthplace of the game, Melbourne. More commonly referred to as Aussie Rules (or just, footy), our version of football sees two 18 man teams take to the field in a game that is always fast, aggressive (mostly in a competitive way, but often in a physical way as well), exciting to watch, and entertaining to observe.

Yesterday, I attended my first baseball game. Ever. I headed out to Coney Island during the afternoon to take in the sights, and stayed to catch a game between the Brooklyn Cyclones and the Staten Island Yankees at MCU Stadium.

Both teams play in the minor league competition – the Australian equivalent of state football teams. With a total crowd attendance of 8,813 the turnout to watch the games was on a par with, if not better than attendances at many state Aussie Rules games.

Now, if you are expecting a ball by ball account of the game, you will need to go to another source for that information. Apart from the bare minimum, I don’t pretend to know anything about the game and its rules; the players, or their positions, roles and individual histories; and neither do I know where each team stands in the overall competition rankings. I was just there to watch my first baseball game and take in the atmosphere, and hopefully enjoy the whole experience.

Of course, it is also pointless trying to compare baseball with Aussie Rules football. Like comparing apples with oranges, as the well-worn cliché would have it. However, it was interesting to observe and compare the rituals taking place throughout the game, and the behavior of the crowd.

Starting with the rituals for example, there was a lot more razzamatazz associated with the baseball game, than with Australian football. Partly this is because of the way baseball is played. At the end of each innings (of which there can be up to 10), the team taking to the playing field has a few minutes to practice their throwing skills, while the pitcher and catcher do the same. During this time, some sort of entertainment or activity is taking place around the periphery of the game. It might be a rendition of Happy Birthday for a few select fans in attendance who are celebrating their birthdays at the game; it could be a special appearance by a celebrity (baseball, musical or whatever); it might be a short competition; or even a chance to practice the home team dance routine along with the team cheerleaders.

Image: Another tribute wall to 9/11 emergency service members

However the most important ritual was reserved for the start of the game, and the singing of the National Anthem. After a few preliminaries: the ceremonial pitching of the first ball; a walk on role for the Fire Department of New York (FDNY) Pipes and Drums Band, and such, Regina Wilson stepped forward to sing an a’capella version of the national anthem, and everyone – including myself – immediately stood and faced the American flag flying high above the playing field.

Here was the first major difference between this event and an Australian football game. During my attendance at the ‘major league’ football match between Collingwood and Melbourne, I remember someone sang the national anthem – but I can honestly say I didn’t see anyone rise and stand for the occasion. Australians have a clear disregard for the pomp and ceremony of this ritual, and a healthy disregard for the nationalist fervor some would like us to adopt during official renditions of Advance Australia Fair.

That doesn’t mean we never stand for the anthem – just that we prefer to do so when an important occasion really demands it, and not at the so called, ‘drop of a hat’.

The other striking difference between the codes of sport was the behavior of the crowds.

As I wrote in my entry about the football game mentioned above (see Two Tribes), Australian football fans “…are not afraid to give voice to their anger, frustration, and gratuitous advice, with which they liberally shower their team and coaches (and the opposition team and coaches with).”

I also wrote: “I suspect Australian football fans are no different from British, American or any other national sporting fans you care to name. We are passionate, vocal, rude, outrageous, and make no excuses for being so.”

Well, based on my observations of last nights game, I must say American baseball fans, while passionate and vocal, are certainly not rude or outrageous. In fact, I never heard a cross word, let alone anything resembling abuse, during the whole evening. This was a wholesome family affair, and the mood was upbeat, celebratory, and friendly all night.

Image: One true Cyclones fan…

Seventh Innings Rituals

The game was proceeding along very nicely with the home team, the Brooklyn Cyclones well in control of the game, when out of the blue (or so it seemed for a complete baseball virgin like myself), Regina Wilson again appeared on the playing field to sing, God Bless America at the start of the seventh innings. Both teams walked out of their team bunkers onto the field, the whole crowd again stood and faced the flag, and God Bless America was duly sung. As the last notes of the song died away, the crowd broke out into loud cheers, voicing their obvious patriotic pride in their country.

Take Me Out to the Ball Game

In 1858, the first known baseball song, The Base Ball Polka! was written. It was not quite as famous as Jack Norworth's 1908 classic, Take Me Out to The Ball Game, which was written on some scrap paper on a train ride to Manhattan. Norworth then provided those paper scraps to Albert Von Tilzer who composed the music, and before the year was over, a hit song was born.

Jack Norworth was a very successful vaudeville entertainer and songwriter (over 2,500 songs, including Shine On, Harvest Moon), and spent fifteen minutes writing this classic which is sung during the seventh inning stretch at nearly every ball park in the country.

"Take me out to the ball game,

Take me out with the crowd.

Buy me some peanuts and cracker jack,

I don't care if I never get back,

Let me root, root, root for the home team,

If they don't win it's a shame.

For it's one, two, three strikes, you're out,

At the old ball game."

I’m writing about this because at the conclusion of God Bless America, the chorus to Jack Norworth’s song blared out over the loudspeakers, and the whole crowd took up the refrain and joined in heartily throughout.

The reason why the song is sung in the seventh innings has been lost to time. No-one seems to know, but it has become a tradition to at least sing the chorus to Take Me Out to The Ball Game during the seventh innings, at virtually every baseball match in the country.

Mind you, not everyone thinks singing Take Me Out to The Ball Game is a good idea, as this quote attests:

"In the seventh inning fans all get up and sing 'Take Me Out to the Ball Game,' and they're already there. It's really a stupid thing to say and I don't know who made 'em sing it. Why would somebody that's there get up and sing take me out to the ball game? The first person to do it must have been a moron." - Pitcher, Larry Anderson [Source: The Baseball Almanac website]

And yes, you can still buy "peanuts and cracker jack" at the game.

At the conclusion of last night’s game, the crowd was to be entertained with a fireworks display. However, due to prevailing weather conditions, the fire marshall in attendance decided that it would be safer to set the fireworks off early.

I have no idea of what the prevailing weather conditions were, apart from the fact that it was a slightly overcast, balmy, humid night – but maybe they were expecting a storm front to move through. No matter. As the seventh or eighth innings – I forget which – got underway, we were treated to the double spectacle of a minor league baseball match taking place to the sound and fury of a fireworks display booming loudly overhead.

Maybe they were just trying to keep the Staten Island Yankees out of the game. If so, they need not have worried. The Brooklyn Cyclones finished clear winners, and just before 10.00pm, after three entertaining hours, the game came to a sudden end in the ninth innings.

Image: the scoreboard says it all: Brooklyn Cyclones clear winners… this time

If I can get a ticket, I will attend a Major League baseball game between the New York Yankees and Kansas City at CitiField, Queens this coming week.

Baseball Almanac website...

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