Donald Trump throws the first pitch before the start of the second game of an American League, August 18, 2006 (Photo: Reuters)
WHEN THE WASHINGTON Nationals stepped onto the floodlit turf of Houston’s Minute Maid Stadium on October 29th, they were fighting to keep a dream alive. A week earlier, at the same venue, they had stunned America by winning the first two games of their inaugural World Series. But their opponents, the Houston Astros, who were generally thought to be the better baseball team, had since come back strongly.
The Astros had swept three subsequent games in Washington DC—notwithstanding the raucous, impassioned home support of 45,000 Washingtonians on each occasion. Frustrated and perhaps intimidated by the laser-like excellence of their opponents’ pitching, the ‘Nats’ scored just one run in each game, a miserable record. And with the Astros now 3-2 up in the 7-game series at the Minute Maid, and so needing only one more win on home turf to take their second World Series title in three years, the writing seemed to be on the wall for the Washington side.
But something remarkable happened. The Nationals stirred themselves to deliver one of the most brilliant performances of what had already been one of the more extraordinary World Series in the contest’s 116-year history. Washington’s taciturn, bearded starting pitcher Stephen Strasburg, kept on throwing bombs—inning after inning, for almost the whole game—a feat roughly equivalent to a fast-bowler getting through a 15-over spell without dropping his speed much below 100 miles-per-hour. And the Nats’ offence, or hitters, reignited. The team’s best hitter, Anthony Rendon, handsome and Houston-raised, was alone responsible for five runs—including a two-run homer that set the Minute Maid’s celebrated rooftop train hooting and chugging around the stadium’s rafters. The Nats won the game 7-2, tying the World Series, and ensuring it would be decided in a final seventh-game at the Minute Maid the following day.
The odds were still stacked against the Nationals—one of only two major league teams never to have won a World Series. No team had secured that crown by winning four away games, as it would now have to do. But on October 30th, the Nats upset the odds once again, defeating the Astros 6-2 to win one of the unlikeliest of World Series titles. Indeed it was one of most glorious sporting victories I have ever been lucky enough to follow.
Rarely has a champion team started out so unfancied as the Nats did. On the back of a poor 2018 season—which culminated in the loss of their best hitter, Bryce Harper, to their Philadelphia-based arch-rival—they began this year’s seven-month season in even worse form. By mid-May, they had lost 31 of their first 50 games, the fourth worst record in the two leagues—the American League and National League—that comprise America’s major league baseball tradition. Then something changed. A couple of players returned from injury, Rendon’s form improved, the team’s roster of relief pitchers was bolstered. And steadily the Nats began swelling with the confidence that is crucial to winning in baseball, a game settled—ball by ball, play by play—by the narrowest of margins.
Over the ensuing five months, the Nats won 80 games and lost 40. That constituted the best record in the leagues, sufficient to propel the team into its first ever World Series—the epic denouement to the baseball season that a Washington side had last won in 1924.
Merely the prospect of the Astros-Nationals series was sufficient to spark wild celebrations in America’s capital. Suddenly there were Nationals flags and shirts everywhere, in the subway and paraded through the city’s autumnal parks.
In a fiercely Democratic city, the club’s curly ‘W’ emblem had once caused consternation; some said it too much recalled the name of a despised Republican president, George W Bush. But in the sudden outpouring of enthusiasm for the local team’s success, politics was momentarily forgotten. On Capitol Hill, Republican and Democratic lobbyists and congressional staffers gathered to gush over Rendon or his partner in homering Juan Soto, a 20-year-old Dominican, built like a buffalo. “It couldn’t have come at a better time,” a Republican lobbyist told me, her face shining with enthusiasm.
Years of worsening partisanship had made deal-brokering hard enough in Washington even before the extreme rancour introduced by Donald Trump—a politician whose single main method is to demonise his opponents. Coming together over a great sporting story was for many Washingtonians a precious release from the partisan war.
Yet, the success of the Nats and mass outpouring it has stirred has also shown that the old caricature of Washington, as a town of cynical politicians and sleazy lobbyists (and sometimes sleazy politicians and cynical lobbyists) needs updating. After decades of decline, the city has been transformed by a booming and increasingly diversifying economy over the past 15 years—roughly since the founding of the Nats in 2005. Washington’s population has grown rapidly, its economic success has fuelled a wave of gentrification across the city’s dilapidated streets of row houses. America’s reviled city of government is now much more that. It is the culturally rich, ethnically diverse centre of America’s sixth biggest metropolitan centre, and the success of the Nats reflects that. Previous Washington franchises failed for lack of support from the city’s transient populace. The Nats draw over 2 million spectators a year.
The distance between pitcher and hitter in baseball is a little over 20 yards, almost the same as the equivalent in cricket. The speed of a major league fastball—90-plus miles an hour—is similar to the pace of the fastest bowlers. But the games are different in a number of fundamental ways, the most important of which is this. Cricket—and I write as a former bowler—is at the most basic level, a batting game. Its range of strokes, played with a relatively broad bat, means the default delivery is a dot ball. When a bowler breaches a batsmen’s defence, it is an anomaly. In baseball, the opposite is true. Hitting a 90-mile-an-hour pitch cross-batted, with a bat not much thicker than a broom-stick, is a ridiculously difficult undertaking
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Just as Indian cricket or Brazilian football, national games that ripple with political-cultural significance, reflects the mores and changes of the societies they represent, so it is with baseball. It is America’s national pastime, the game American nationalists promoted in the late-19th century to express a new confidence and desire to break with European culture—including cricket, above all. Cricket was America’s most popular game until deep into the 19th century. The first international cricket contest was played between America and Canada in New York in 1844. TheNew York Times, unbeknown to most Americans today, reported cricket scores on its back pages almost into the 20th century. But in the nationalist surge occasioned by the end of the American Civil War, the Anglo-taint that cricket was considered to represent, had to go. Baseball has ever since been America’s primary game. And as a late convert to its charms, I am grateful for that.
Truth to tell, nothing about my time in America has given me more pleasure than my conversion to baseball. And nothing has surprised me more. I thought I had understood the game’s essential limitedness, and so dismissed it, long before I moved with my family to Washington. That conclusion stemmed from my first experience of living in a cricket wilderness, during a couple of years pursuing postgraduate studies in Tokyo in the late-1990s. Having suddenly no access to televised cricket—or football, if you exclude Japan’s J-League, which I did—baseball and sumo wrestling were my only available televised sports. And after giving baseball what I considered to be a fair chance, I decided I preferred wrestling.
This was chiefly because I found batting in baseball to be puerile by comparison with batting in cricket. Compared with the glorious stroke-range of a Tendulkar or Lara (both at that time in their pomp) that a cricket delivery’s myriad possibilities of line, speed and trajectory give rise to, baseball hitters have essentially one stroke, a muscular swipe. I could not understand how anyone found that gripping. (To my shame, I recall holding forth along those lines to Japanese friends, who nodded politely, and how they must have seethed.)
I was additionally irritated by a perception, common among the Japanese, that baseball and cricket were almost the same game. Yet ironically my misjudgement of baseball actually stemmed from my trying to watch and enjoy it in the same way I watched and enjoyed cricket. The games are similar in a number of ways. The distance between pitcher and hitter in baseball is a little over 20 yards, almost the same as the equivalent in cricket. The speed of a major league fastball—90-plus miles an hour—is similar to the pace of the fastest bowlers. But the games are different in a number of fundamental ways, the most important of which is this. Cricket—and I write as a former bowler—is at the most basic level, a batting game.
Its range of strokes, played with a relatively broad bat, means the default delivery is a dot ball. When a bowler breaches a batsmen’s defence, it is an anomaly. In baseball, the opposite is true. Hitting a 90-mile-an-hour pitch cross-batted, with a bat not much thicker than a broom-stick, is a ridiculously difficult undertaking. A comparison between the fortunes of a pitcher batting in a baseball and a bowler batting in cricket underlines the point. Most hardworking tail-enders have their moments; Glen McGrath scored a Test match half-century, for goodness sake. By comparison, pitchers in baseball rarely lay bat on ball. In the American League, they do not even get to bat.
Baseball, albeit to my eye still fundamentally a poor relation to cricket, is a game of drama and of striving for perfection. And in those two qualities, it is hardly equalled. Among the millions of Americans who share that view is Donald Trump. An enthusiastic first baseman in his youth, and lifelong fan of the New York Yankees, the president follows a long line of baseball nuts in the Oval Office. Dwight Eisenhower played the game semi-professionally. Ronald Reagan commentated on it for radio. George W Bush part-owned a major-league side
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Amazing as baseball hitting skills are, therefore, the essential delight of the game is pitching. To watch a top-class pitcher try to psyche out his opponent, with the exaggerated turkey-cocking contortions most perform before hurling the ball, is a drama almost as powerful as sumo. To try to predict and then pick the sequences of fast, slow and breaking balls they throw, with often unerring accuracy, is to my mind baseball’s greatest delight.
A more rudimentary game than cricket, baseball makes up for it, insofar as it can, in those two ways. First, in the almost Zen-like attention it draws to brief and somehow discrete dramatic moments—the pitcher’s wind-up; a defensive fielding play. And, second, the equally Zen-like, because extraordinarily rigorous, technical skills its best practitioners display on the field.
To elucidate the second point: however much fielding skills have improved in cricket in recent years (in part because international sides recruited baseball coaches to teach their players how to throw) they remain way below their equivalent in baseball. Major-league baseball players throw like guns fire: shockingly fast, unerringly straight. The ball seems to accelerate from their hand—they throw like Ben Stokes and David Warner hit. They hardly ever miss their target; they hardly ever drop a catch. A defensive mistake in top-flight baseball—an errant throw; a dropped catch—is an uncommon and, in a low-scoring game, potentially decisive event.
The Nats almost learned this to their cost in their penultimate victory at Minute Maid Park (a ball park, incidentally, I first visited to watch a Sachin Tendulkar Veterans XI take on a Shane Warne XI—an enjoyable but altogether lesser sporting occasion). Their whippet-quick lead hitter, Trea Turner, was given out for running just a fraction off the line between home plate and first base—an error that might easily have cost his team the game and the World Series. His mistake has since been replayed and analysed thousands of times on American television and social media, and will no doubt form a case study for future coaching manuals. Baseball, albeit to my eye still fundamentally a poor relation to cricket, is a game of drama and of striving for perfection. And in those two qualities, it is hardly equalled.
Among the millions of Americans who share that view is Donald Trump. An enthusiastic first baseman in his youth, and lifelong fan of the New York Yankees, the president follows a long line of baseball nuts in the Oval Office. Dwight Eisenhower played the game semi-professionally. Ronald Reagan commentated on it for radio. George W Bush part-owned a major-league side, the Texas Rangers (in which role he is chiefly famous for having swapped a youngster called Sammy Sosa for a journeyman hitter—a trade remembered as one of the worst ever made). Yet Trump has been shy of flouting his baseball record, in part because Washington, America’s new capital of baseball, is no fan of his. The city voted for his rival, Hillary Clinton, in 2016 by 96:4.
And sure enough, when he made a fleeting, heavily guarded trip to the last of the Nats’ games in Washington this week, Trump was fiercely jeered by the crowd. Most obviously this pointed to his unpopularity. Perhaps more interesting, it underlined the national capital’s re-emergence in recent years as a diverse, go-getting metropolis: the America that Trump has most offended. That baseball was the medium of this contrast was unsurprising. It has always represented America and how it is changing—as well, as I have latterly discovered, as being a really excellent game.
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