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Sunday, January 2, 2011

Coming Home to 'The Bite'

Anyone who is unable to ackowledge the deep cultural mythology in sport simply isn't looking.

Baseball at Cooper's Oval
Friends of mine have a hard time understanding my love of baseball, the 'national pastime' of the land of my birth. It is played from the bright promise of spring through hazy humid golden summers through to the hard realities of autumn. At its core, is a powerful yankee myth--that one's team scores by coming 'home'. Home: after a statistically unlikely launch onto the base-paths, after navigating one's way from safe base to safe base. Home after going 'round the horn' of the field. It is the hero's journey in a peanut shell.
Quincey Lattimore, a young prospect from North Carolina, safe at home
This myth is framed in sepia-toned nostalgia for days when all one had to do was play ball, when the home our parents kept loomed large and beckoned with kitchen smells at the end of a day of play in the sun, and the drowsy rituals of bath and bed, sunburnt and exhausted and clean and fed. Safe at home!

"...until they think warm days shall never cease"
And never more happy to be safe at home am I this holiday season, during which, to my giddy delight, the fledgling Australian Baseball League is off the ground again November through February. These months bound the "off season" in the Northern Hemisphere, and to these sunny shores come hungry young players affiliated with pro teams, to work on their game, many on their way to a shot at "The Show" and big-money contracts.

Jamie McOwen from Miami Florida, his eyes on the prize
Some come from college baseball, some from the minor leagues (the A and AA mostly), and more than you'd think come from the Korean and Japanese leagues. Some even come from small but impassioned baseball sub-cultures as far afield as India and the Netherlands. These professional hopefuls are teamed with the best players from the Australian amateur leagues, and the result is a standard of play that, while not exactly at the elite level, certainly rewards  a leisurely walk to Cooper's Oval, a few blocks from my house.

There, for $12, you can sit behind homeplate and watch every pitch, something only the very rich get to do back in the US of A. With the backing of local sponsors, Major League Baseball, and the Australian Baseball Academy, money has been spent, and the popularity is growing--several thousand watched a recent game at the oval, to cheer our local team, the Adelaide "Bite" (geddit?).

Okay, maybe the worst team name ever
To say this does my old heart good, doesn't come close to how blissful it feels to watch the game's leisurely rhythm and occasional heart-stopping drama, as the sun sets behind the gum trees and the twin domes of a church, with its white stucco and its domed spires, looking for all the world like the Alamo. And to do so in the company of my wife and/or daughter and/or close friends who indulge what must seem to them an alien practice. But it's summer, and in a variety of ways, I'm 'at home'.

Field of Dreams
And at home, last night, watching players far from home on their journey as hopeful itinerant players, I saw an Indian pitcher zipping 80 mph fast balls to a young Korean batter, neither of whom are in any sense "of" the cities they represent for the enjoyment of fans. The whole league construct is made-up, a means of feeding Australian and international talent into the machine of a multi-billion-dollar industry. Although there are long-standing baseball subcultures in nearly every large Australian town or city, the roots do not go wide into the Australian soil. Nor do the roots of this made-up league go as deep as, say, Australian Rules Football, one of the world's most demanding and least-appreciated sports.

Once this game gets hold of you, it does not let go. It holds a special place in my memory, of course, and not because I ever any good as a player. It's been heartening, for example, to hear kids from the local little leagues at the oval, swapping a Manny Ramirez for a Greg Youkilis baseball card, or talking about how the Dodgers look good for next year. Obviously, it has colonised them good, and visions of a big-money contract in the "states" no doubt dance on the horizon of their dreams. A few Aussies have had good careers in "the bigs"--Gary Nilsson, Grahame Lloyd, to name a few, and hopefully this made-up league can make that happen for a few more.

But in the end, and not to invoke Field of Dreams too much, it is about a game that absorbs your total attention for three hours every day, is played by the young and free in what on these long evenings seems like an endless summer, full of warmth and promise. It's rhythm and routine turns the reality that even the best hitters don't make it 'home' seven out of ten times on average, into a daily lesson in stoicism and persistence--keeping at it, having another go, despite these odds.

At these games, in the company of loved ones, we are all of us--Yanks, Australians, Dutchmen, Koreans-- for a few hours of a summer evening, truly 'safe at home'.


  1. "It is the hero's journey in a peanut shell" ' see Kal Bashir's 510+ stage hero's journey at http://www.clickok.co.uk/index4.html