Saturday, 30 July 2016

Baseball, Brats and British Ex-pats

It wasn't until Neil asked where the Away fans end was, that I remembered just how different American sports and their supporters are to the British way of thinking. If its true that you can tell a lot about a nation and a culture through the sports they choose to pursue and how they pursue said sports, then Britain and America's special relationship is not as close as some might think.

Neil and I were sat, along with my wife, Kelly, high above first base at Miller Park, the home stadium of the Milwaukee Brewers, Wisconsin's only Major League Baseball team and Neil was trying to find his bearings. Come to think of it, looking back, he wasn't the only one.

Sometimes, when my working week runs smoothly, the weather stays just below unbearable on my own personal humidity scale and I manage to grasp the intricacies of some overly simple part of living here in America (such as operating the tumble dryer) I try to tell myself that I'm finally getting my bearings, learning my way around this deeply complex country and generally doing pretty well. Around about the time I get to thinking like this, circumstance tends to clip me around the ear and tell me I've still got a long way to go in learning to understand this foreign country.

Truth is, I am, on the whole, doing pretty well on the whole adjustment thing. I've learned, in most occasions, what is a correct amount to tip in restaurants, I'm getting better at understanding how jobs work over here and I have some inkling of how tax returns work.

However despite this, I still have a long, long, way to go.

It is fairly accurate to say that when we British think of the Americans, it has always been with a sense of familial relationship as if America is a younger sibling with a rebellious attitude and loud taste in clothes and music but family all the same. We don't think of ourselves as foreigners, not deep down, as saturated as we often feel with American movies, music and culture. But we are, even though we don't feel it and so, more often than not I find that my bearings are still a little eschew.

Despite following the NFL(National Football League), since before I was a teenager and gamely making an effort to do the same with the NHL (that's the National Hockey League) this past season, MLB, or Major League Baseball, is still mostly an undiscovered country to me.

On the verge of moving here, it occurred to me that I should probably choose a professional team to follow from each of the major sports in the United States. I figured that it would give me something to talk about at work with the guys, if nothing else.

So I set about choosing five teams using criteria which, quite often, verged on arbitrary and in at least one occasion, just plain ridiculous. I have followed the “Green Bay Packers” since well before the onset of puberty, so that was a given. Wisconsin doesn't have an NHL team so I looked across the Mississippi to my wife's people in Minnesota and the “Minnesota Wild”. The “Minnesota Timberwolves” stole my basketball allegiance with their logo, which, unlike the “Milwaukee Bucks” logo, looks absolutely nothing like a dead deer's head stuffed and mounted on someone's wall. Living in Madison, my college sports team had to be the “Wisconsin Badgers” and then I had to address the baseball situation.

Baseball was definitely at the bottom of my list of U.S. Sporting pastimes to get into. At times in Britain, we can see baseball as merely an overrated game of rounders, a schoolyard sport elevated to a ridiculous level of seriousness, but over here it is seen as “America's Game”. So I eventually realised that I had to at least find a way of taking it all in and learn to like it.

Baseball is the oldest of America's professional sports, as it was definitely the earliest to be organised into anything approaching the structure of a modern sporting organisation. The National League, which is one of the two leagues which make up Major League Baseball, (the other is the American League) was founded on February 2nd 1876. This makes it the oldest of the professional sports leagues in the United States, by far. The NHL wasn't founded till 1917 and until the 1960s only had six teams in operation most of the time, the NFL likewise wasn't founded until 1919 and didn't reach a national following until the advent of television in the 1950s and 60s. The National Basketball Association is strictly a postwar organisation, not being founded until 1946.

To put it simply, before the advent of television, cable sports broadcasts, multi-media extravaganzas, pay per view internet podcasts; before the birth of our increasingly connected hyper-active information super-highway influenced world; before all of that, Baseball reigned supreme over the American nation and its collective psyche.

Even now it has the oldest teams. There are still teams present in MLB that were found on that very first National League rosta, albeit with different names or locations. And it is this longevity that separates baseball from other sports here in the U.S. Baseball, I am learning, truly represents something deeper than just sport to many Americans. It is more than a sport, it is memory, nostalgia, a symbol of a more innocent time that many worry that this nation has forgot.

Baseball is the sport that comforted them through the great depression. It came of age as America itself did, soldiers in the Civil War playing it on hastily constructed diamonds in camp. Then it grew to professionalism at the the same time as the United States started to look beyond its borders to the rest of the world. In the 1960s, Paul Simon, caught up in the social upheaval and artistic milieu of counter-culture, desperately searches around to find an image to denote innocence, nostalgia and integrity for his generation. He ends up looking to a baseball player, Joe Di Maggio, asking where he has gone, as if baseball could, even then, save America from its own culture wars. Di Maggio, “Joltin' Joe” proved that maybe Simon was right in that assumption, when they eventually met Di Maggio asked Simon whether he was calling Di Maggio to account for something he'd done wrong. Simon merely said that Di Maggio was a hero and they were in short supply.

Baseball is innocence to Americans, its also dreams and nostalgia and echoes of the past. Kevin Costner builds a baseball field in a cornfield to find absolution in the arms of a father he couldn't talk to because of the difference in generations. So having realised this, it seemed that I should promote baseball further up my list of U.S. sports to start following.

Which is why Neil and I were sitting alongside Kelly, in the seats of Miller Park, watching my final choice of baseball team, the “Milwaukee Brewers” take on the “St Louis Cardinals” one of the oldest teams in baseball.

Milwaukee is Wisconsin's most populous city and, according to my sources, the fifth largest urban area in the mid-west. Located in south east of Wisconsin, it lies on Lake Michigan, making it the northern end of a band of built up urban areas that wrap around the western and southern sides of the lake. The other end lies at Chicago, Illinois, of course. And in between them lies cities like Kenosha and Racine.

According to the all knowing Wikipedia, Milwaukee revels in a plethora of nicknames, such as : “cream city”, “brew city”, “beer city”, “brewtown”, “beer town”, “miltown”, “the mil”, “mke”, “the city of festivals” and “Deutsch-Athens” (German Athens)

Like many other cities within Wisconsin, Milwaukee was founded by French settlers coming down from Canada, but as time went on it became defined more by German and Polish influences along with lesser amounts of immigrants from other central and eastern European nations. If Minnesota, as I mentioned before, is known for its Scandinavian heritage then Milwaukee and much of Wisconsin, is known for its central European roots. Why else would the official “state dance” be “the Polka”?

Milwaukee celebrates its German heritage, glorifying in the German sausages known as “Bratwurst”, here known more often as “brats” and often boiled in a mixture of beer and onions and then thrown on a grill. They are pretty amazing and end up tasting like the best hot dogs the world could ever have created. They also love their beer, for many years Milwaukee was the largest single producer of beer, in the world. Despite losing three out of the four major breweries that used to make their home there, its still has the last one, “Miller” brewery, which is still one of America's most popular beers.

Milwaukee is also known for its festivals, with one happening virtually every week. This is a city of celebration. It even has its own Oktoberfest something not seen that much outside Germany, apart from in the rest of Wisconsin, that is. It boasts “Summerfest”, a massive music festival that boasts many more acts, three times as many days and definitely better weather than wading around in a muddy field in the English countryside and convincing everyone that Glastonbury Music Festival is not actually a colossal waste of money.

Milwaukee is also the closest Wisconsin comes to an old-fashioned, working class, blue collar, industrial powerhouse of a town, like Detroit, back in the day, or Pittsburgh. During the 1920s, 30s and 40s, it was the only city that the Socialist Party of America made a serious impact in politics and city government.

So what better place to go watch baseball in Wisconsin, or for that matter, any where in the Mid-West. A quintessential American industrial city, a melting pot of races, cultures, festivals and “America's Game”, the only game that travelled to this continent at least partially formed. The pomp, ceremony and the history.

The Milwaukee Brewers are the city's second major league franchise, since the Milwaukee Braves (originally the Boston Braves, who moved to the city in 1953.) left in 1965 for Atlanta. The Brewers first played in Milwaukee in 1970 and from then until the year 2000, they played at “County Stadium”. Then they built “Miller Park”

There is always a discussion when building American sports stadiums about whether to build an enclosed, indoor stadium or a traditional, outdoor, bowl-shaped ground.

Many areas, in the U.S., have extreme climates, of course. Arizona, for instance, with its desert heat or New Orleans, with its marshy, river delta humidity. In these cities, an indoor, temperature, controlled environment makes sense, it is even desirable for sporting contests. However, conversely, there are other sports teams, such as the veteran leviathans of the NFL's National Football Conference North, the “Green Bay Packers” and the “Chicago Bears”, who use the adverse weather conditions of their open air grounds to intimidate opponents. (If you interested in just how “adverse” this can be, search for the “Icebowl” game of the 1960s on the Internet.)

Miller Park is actually something in between, a stadium boasting a fan-shaped retractable roof which opens and closes to match weather conditions. When we went it was a Tuesday night game and there was the threat of rain. So the roof was closed.

So back, eventually, to where I started, in answer to Neil's question, there is no home end or away end in American sports in general. Home and Away supporters sit together and enjoy games together. While quite willing to “trash talk” opposing teams fans in the run up to the game, there is very little “hooliganism” associated with any American sport.

When watching such a game, it rapidly becomes obvious why many people in the UK don't like watching U.S. sports. In many nations, particularly the UK, sports are contests of strength, wit, skill and dedication. They are all about the game itself, the spectators are almost incidental. American sport, on the other hand, is different. My father always complains to me that the NFL, for instance, is not actually a sport, its theatre, a spectacle for the masses and he's only partially wrong.

American sports acknowledge the need to entertain, to put on a show to reward the spectator for coming. It is an attractive package, even though to say so seems like a betrayal to the no-nonsense northern town I grew up in. I have to say I'd rather watch a spectacle of some over-the-top American sport, designed for the fans as much as anyone else, than spend just under two hours on a wind swept, rain drenched, Saturday afternoon in February with nothing to take my mind away from the home team's dismal performance than a round of “Crossbar Challenge” at half-time and “Scunny Bunny” running round the sidelines like he's on some illicit substance.

Maybe that's one of the reasons we British, struggle to get our bearings over here. We're traditionalists, in it for the sport itself and while I admit to enjoying the trappings of U.S. sporting contests, it is with a fair amount of guilt. That this is too much ceremony for a game. “You're coming to watch the game, why do you need anything else?” We like to think we're on the right side of this argument, but maybe we're not.

America seems to accept fundamental concepts of modern sports that we British choose to ignore, even in their oldest game. They acknowledge that sport is a business. That teams are a brand. That if you want to appeal to families, you need a greater incentive that promising them they won't be sat next to a fan, screaming obscenities, questioning the parentage of the referee and chanting about if he was a bird, he would fly away and defecate on the away team's home ground.

So, here, the prices are generally better, the food in the stadiums is better. I had cheese curds and a brat and although I had a soda, Neil and Kelly both had a beer. This isn't the sort of place to give you a luke-warm pukka pie which you have to devour in 15 minutes while wondering how full the toilets are going to be.

When a home run is scored in Miller Park, there are fireworks under the roof, at the New England Patriots, a group of minutemen fire off a musket volley to greet touchdowns and Tampa Bay's Buccaneers employ a cannon shot from the pirate ship built into their home stadium to signal the same result.

This is still alien to me, as much as I enjoy it. We British, are purists, closing our eyes often, to the business-like footing of modern sports and shaking our collective fists at so-called progress.

We still believe that the point is to compete, even if we have no hope of winning, why else do we send so many athletes to the Winter Olympics when it barely snows at home anymore.

Maybe, we're not purists, just fearful pessimists. Maybe that's why I struggle to get my bearings. The Americans are the ultimate optimists. We look warily across the Atlantic, not wanting the Yanks to come and mess up our games with their brash lights and commercialised competitions. They see as part and parcel of making sports fun and inclusive to all. Even in baseball, where during the game we watched, there were at least two sing-a-longs, a mascot race involving different sausages, the “Famous Racing Sausages” and numerous chances to get yourself on the scoreboard with your outrageous dancing to the music played at the end of each inning.

So, maybe this blog is deeper thinking than some of the others, but I do wonder whether this is what it feels like to be an immigrant, ever torn between two ways of thinking, even when people share a language like we do. Maybe its about what you decide to keep from home and what you decide to discard. And maybe sports and entertainment and other forms of popular culture are where you're going to feel it the most. I am not sorry to be British and to have grown up in the North of England but I'm also now aware that no country is totally right and sometimes even the things we hold on to tightly are the things that should be traded in.

So I told Neil about the fans and we had a good time. The Brewers lost but they really aren't that good of a team at the moment. Thanks for reading.

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