I went to my first ever baseball game on Friday night. I didn’t think I’d enjoy it. It seems too similar to cricket, a game so long and boring that it feels like training for life in a nursing home.
But I was pleasantly surprised. Baseball’s a fast moving battle of nerves. When it comes down to three “balls” and two “strikes,” the guy at the bat has the world on his shoulders. If he takes another strike, his head hangs low. If he knocks it out of the park, he stands among the gods. The rules are simple and any confusion is cleared up by more beer. After two hours, I graduated from total novice to seasoned pro – shouting, “You could see the ball better if you got a haircut, hippie!” and “Hit it, don’t swat it, Zimmerman!” [That Zimmerman really bugged me. His whole technique seemed to rely on the pitcher not being able to throw. Is the man allergic to running?]
My buddy explained to me how baseball is an analogy for The American Way. Everyone gets a go at the bat. If you hit a home run, that’s great. If you strike out, that’s your lot. It’s very meritocratic, with no prejudice and ample rewards for the talented.
Then there’s the complex relationship between the individual and the team. At face value, baseball’s an individualist sport because it’s all about the man at the bat. He swings, he runs, he’s in command of his destiny.
But he’s also playing for the team, and sometimes sacrifices have to be made. If someone’s already at third base, the goal of the batter is to hit the ball far enough to allow his teammate to get to fourth – accepting that he’ll probably get taken out himself as he sprints to first. It’s a reminder that a necessary ingredient for the flourishing of the individual is the health and the wealth of the people around him. For you to succeed, others must succeed, too – and as with baseball teams, so with nations. We’re all in this together.
Another, more stark, reminder of that truth is the role that military pageantry plays at a baseball game. At the start of the contest, the CIA honour guard trooped the colours and we were all invited to stand and applaud the folks serving in the US military.
But nothing prepared me for the moving rendition of The Star-Spangled Banner, as sung by a female soldier in combat fatigues. The stadium stood proudly – hats clasped to chests – as she powerfully, beautifully sang the national anthem. “Does that Star-Spangled Banner yet wave/ O'er the land of the free and the home of the brave?” It sure does.
I have a rule on these occasions to stand but not sing or put my hand to my chest. I am an Englishman and my loyalty is to Her Majesty (“My country right or wrong, my mother drunk or sober”). So, I can’t in good faith join in. But I’m always inspired by the earnest love that ordinary Americans show for their country. I envy it.
Nationalism in the UK is a dirty word (largely because it’s been sullied by racists), so instead we have a soft patriotism that prefers to keep itself to itself. For us, love of country is probably best expressed by a Sunday afternoon walk across the Surrey Downs. It’s a half remembered school hymn about vowing something to someone-or-other, or a fevered argument about the best way to make a cup of tea. English patriotism is about as fulfilling as a Greggs pasty.
In contrast, American patriotism is sharper and more certain – and more fixedly about ideas. Its promise is individual freedom. But that freedom is guaranteed – just like victory in a baseball game – by thinking and acting as a team or a nation.
One of the reasons why civil society works in the US slightly better than it does in Britain is that they understand the balance of rights and responsibilities between the individual and the group. Without the security of a welfare state, Americans are acculturated to risk and sacrifice, and so (ironically) they can be a little more charitable than us.
They are certainly more free.
After the game we moved to a bar and got chatting with some young marines, who were talking excitedly about the fact that they are going to present the flag at one of the ballgames next week. After that, they will fly off to war. We are lucky to share the world with a nation that produces men like these...The UK Telegraph