Wednesday, 23 October 2013

Baseball's World Series: Why the Name is Correct & Why You're Wrong to Argue Against It.

The World Series, baseball's crowning championship showcase, begins this week in old Fenway Park, Boston. In the 109th Fall Classic, the Red Sox will again face the St Louis Cardinals, a traditional foe. All over the world, millions of baseball fans will tune in, via television, radio and internet, to watch The Series, and see a new champion doused in the champagne of success. It's sure to be dramatic. It always is.

Each October, when the last autumnal hours hold winter at bay, a new chapter in the enduring history of baseball's main event is written. At this time, we see an exponential rise in the volume of Brits asking “why do they call it a World Series, when only teams from America and Canada play?” A June tweet from Piers Morgan, that renowned font of British ignorance, is typical:

“Given we now have proof baseball's a British sport, maybe it's time for a real 'World Series' – one where a non-American team also competes?” -Piers Morgan, 12 June, 2013

Whilst Morgan may have intended only to start a debate, he opened a whole can of worms which British baseball fans are tired of hearing. The age-old chestnuts were thrown into the fire: teams from other countries should be allowed to play! How can American's be so arrogant? In what way is this a World Series? I can understand many of these concerns. However, it's also important to note that, on the whole, such protests come from casual sports fans who have little interest in baseball; from football fans who like to throw in their two cents whenever baseball is mentioned in mainstream dispatches. The hardcore community of baseball fans in Britain hardly views this as a major issue because, as seasoned followers of Major League Baseball, we're well aware that the American game is far superior, in skill, management, and marketability, than any other variation. When you think of baseball, it's impossible not to think of America.

I've always been a firm believer in MLB's right to market itself as a world league, with a World Series and even a World Champion. However, I determined to answer this timeless question once and for all. Accordingly, I put it to Josh Chetwynd, former Great Britain catcher and longtime baseball guru, during one of his broadcasts for BBC Radio. “I've been broadcasting baseball in the UK for eleven years,” stated Chetwynd, the author of numerous books on global baseball, “and I don't think a year has gone by were I haven't been asked this question.” I know the feeling.

“One real urban myth,” Chetwynd began, “is that it [the World Series] was named after a paper called The New York World that was the sponsor of an early World Series. That's not true; it's a complete myth.” Indeed, I've encountered this old yarn before. It's a complete fabrication, lacking in any historical fact, recycled by baseball fans all over the world at this time of year. The World, a tabloid in circulation from 1860-1931, never alluded to any such sponsorship deal, and official Baseball Hall of Fame spokesmen have frequently dispelled the myth.

So, you must be shouting, where does the World Series moniker come from? As Chetwynd explains, it's largely derived from the aspiration of one man: Albert Goodwill Spalding. A pitcher, manager, executive, and all-round baseball trailblazer, Spalding “wanted to bring baseball literally to the world,” says Chetwynd. Thus, in 1888, a blend of American capitalism and nationalism motivated Spalding to take baseball on a world tour unheralded in size and daring, wowing audiences in eight different countries, including Australia, Great Britain and France. The Boston Globe wrote that “for boldness and scope, [Spalding's project] tops anything ever before attempted in the world of sports.”

Spalding had a dual motivation. In the first instance, he felt that, by expanding baseball to foreign lands, new markets would be available for his wide-reaching sporting goods empire. Simultaneously, Spalding could provide a window into an expanding US culture and, in turn, help solidify baseball as a truly American export. So it was that an entourage of twenty ballplayers, a cricket coach, and a stable of women were sent off by President Grover Cleveland on a global baseball trek.

In time, exhibitions would be played in the shadows of Egypt's Sphinx, France's Eiffel Tower, and Rome's Coliseum. A cast of all-star ballplayers, including Hall of Famers Cap Anson and John Montgomery Ward, brought baseball to cities like Naples, Paris and London, Dublin, Birmingham and Glasgow, Manchester, Liverpool and Belfast. “He [Spalding] really believed that, with his support, these countries were going to bring baseball into a world purview,” says Chetwynd. In pursuit of this dream, Spalding put his money where his mouth was, too. Joe Gray, founding chairman of Project COBB, a wide-ranging initiative concerned with the preservation of British baseball history, states that “Spalding was a crucial presence in the establishment of the early British baseball leagues, as he funded three of the four teams.” However, Gray adds, “it's not clear, though, as to what extent that was for the love of the game or simply to set up markets for expansion of his sporting goods empire.”

Regardless of Spalding's end motive, it's pretty clear that he was highly-influential in making baseball a truly global entity. “Ultimately,” Chetwynd concludes, “Spalding hoped that the World Series would be exactly that, with the teams from Great Britain, France and elsewhere being good enough to play against those from the United States, with the result being a true World Series.” However, when the level of baseball talent in these foreign lands proved inadequate to America's new-age professionalism, Spalding began to concentrate on glorifying the US game. At this time, Spalding's revered Official Baseball Guide began referring to American baseball's championship series as “the World's Championship,” which was later shortened to “World's Series.” At the time, hyperbole was a key ingredient in any grand American venture. Spalding's marketing sense in branding the Series as a global event spoke to a new-wave American bravery to grab the world by the collar and make itself known. Americans wanted to be power-brokers on the biggest stage of all, and the World Series was a valuable weapon in the fight.

So, there is factual evidence to the term “World Series,” but it also works on a visceral level. I don't believe that any domestic team from another country is currently capable of competing commercially or on the field with MLB. The standard of baseball in the US, starting with the core collegiate system, is far superior. Even Japan and the Dominican Republic, amongst the most baseball-literate of foreign lands, are eons away from the level of professionalism displayed throughout organised American baseball.

The world is full of baseball fans. We focus by-and-large on the US Major Leagues, of which the World Series is an illustrious outgrowth. I spoke with Gabe Kapler, a member of the historic 2004 World Champion Boston Red Sox, and asked him for his take on the Fall Classic. “The World Series is the pinnacle for baseball player and fan. It's the peak of excitement, the highest test of character and determination,” said Kapler, a career .268 hitter who spent parts of twelve Major League seasons with the Rangers, Tigers, Rockies, Brewers and Rays. But it's as a Red Sock that Kapler is most fondly remembered. He was one of just nine Red Sox players present on the field of play when Boston won it's first World Series in 86 years, thus completing an unprecedented postseason run and banishing the Bambino Curse. Kapler calls those championship Red Sox days “majestic...the best time of my life.” I asked Kapler to describe the emotions of playing in a World Series, because we mere mortals are unlikely to experience it any time soon. When I queried whether the Fall Classic felt like a truly global event with the eyes of a baseball world cast upon the players, Kapler responded “absolutely! 100%.”

So, it becomes clear that baseball's World Series, in name and feeling alike, is a worldwide phenomenon. A most passionate advocate of that phenomenon is the Dominican Republic, a small country which dances to the baseball beat. Keith Winters, a Dominican baseball expert, spent the 2009 season following the Gigantes de Cibao in the Dominican Winter League. As Winters explains, the dream of emulating World Series champions such as Kapler is a way of Dominican life: “pretty much every Dominican plays with the hopes of making the big leagues. Some have a goal to make it to a US college, or simply make the minor leagues, so they can stick around and get a regular job in the United States.” Thus, we see how baseball is a powerful tool for change the world over.

Dominicans follow the Major League progress of countrymen such as David Ortiz and Albert Pujols with feverish intensity. Winters informs that “one in every 10,000 Dominicans is in the big leagues. By comparison, the number in the US last year was one in every 500,000 people.” This level of Dominican success on the world baseball stage breeds excitement and hope for many young children in the country, who often see baseball as an escape from poverty and a catalyst for prosperity. “Most Dominicans know someone that is fairly close to them – a relative, an ex-teammate, or somebody from their town – that has made the big leagues,” illustrates Winters, “which makes the dream seem attainable.”

In many ways, Major League Baseball is the league of dreams. On the Opening Day rosters of all thirty organisations in 2013, 28.2% of players were foreign-born, the fourth-highest figure in history. A total of sixteen different countries were represented in MLB this season. The Milwaukee Brewers had 14 foreign players, whilst the Texas Rangers had 13. Furthermore, the sheer volume of games makes MLB the most-watch league on the planet, in gross terms. Nowadays, internet connections make it all-the-more easier for Major League Baseball to reach new enclaves, and those watching aspire to win a ring just like Gabe Kapler. Let Winters regale you with a tale of Dominican October: “During playoffs time in the big leagues, Dominicans are always interested in what other Dominicans are doing. One quote I love that I heard from a librarian one day in the Dominican during the Phillies vs Yankees World Series in 2009, when he said 'I don't care who wins, but whatever team has more Dominicans, that is who I want to win.' The whole country was rooting for Pedro Martinez and the Phillies that year, even though the Yankees had a few Dominicans too. Pedro is a legend down there.”

So, could a country such as the Dominican ever harness it's passion for baseball and channel it into direct competition with the US Major Leagues? Will we ever see Spalding's initial plan come to fruition and have domestic teams from all over the world competing with the might of MLB? One day, will we have a World Series between the New York Yankees and the Gigantes de Cibao? Winters doesn't think so, arguing that “the best we can hope for as far as a true World Series would be something like the Toyota Cup in soccer, in which the domestic league champions all play some sort of playoff.” I have to agree with Keith. No Dominican team could ever compete with the supreme marketing and financial juggernauts at play in MLB.

If you're reading this hoping against hope that, one day, the World Series of which Piers Morgan tweets will come to fruition, I simply don't share the same thought process. However, for arguments sake, let's play with the idea a little. The popular consensus holds that the nearest alternative to MLB, in terms of professionalism, fan interest and history, is Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league (NPB). If, in some quirky development, MLB was to expand, Japan would surely send the most adaptable franchises. In Japan, baseball is of huge interest, with the Major League success of demigods such as Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Yu Darvish providing a modern chapter in a historical narrative previously dominated by Sadaharu Oh. It is notoriously-difficult to find accurate attendance records for NPB games, but the league averages 25,000 per contest, which substantiates its claim as a professional baseball powerhouse. The levels of professionalism, talent and celebrity associated with NPB are perhaps the most comparable with MLB throughout the entire world. However, the Japanese league still lags far behind the US Major Leagues in various areas. For instance, in 2013, the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's glamour team, became the first NPB team to break the 3,000,000 threshold in attendance since 2010. On one level, this inspires deep admiration and speaks to the undeniable popularity of the Japanese game. When viewed through an MLB prism, however, the distance between its nearest competitors still resembles a canyon: in 2013, eight MLB teams reached the 3,000,000 mark. Furthermore, the migration of NPB's biggest stars is most indicative of MLB's impenetrable standing as baseball's definitive league. The goal for Japanese players, just as for Dominicans, Venezuelans, Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, and every other nationality, is to one day venture to the United States to play ball. Ichiro, Dice-K, Yu, Nomo, the list of great Japanese players making a success of MLB is seemingly-endless. How can any nation even think of competing with MLB, if it's best talents understandably join the enemy? By extension, how can we ever question MLB's right to call its's showcase event a World Series?

All of this is highly relative. Here in Britain, we recently cherished the opening of Farnham Park, the fruits of labour for years of dedication from the baseball community. At last, we have a respectable, showcase diamond. For us, it works, it's something to be immensely proud of, a monument to our extensive development as a baseball-playing nation. Obviously, there is just no comparison with Major League Baseball, however. Farnham Park probably ranks as a Spring Training practice diamond for MLB teams; a fantastic achievement for us Brits, yet barely a blip on the US-tinted baseball radar. It shows, more than ever, why we should just be content with MLB's standing as the true world league, and respect it's right for a World Series moniker. If you still yearn for a true global baseball tournament even after reading this mammoth essay, may I give you a gentle shove towards the World Baseball Classic, an equivalent of football's World Cup? It may never pit the Chicago Cubs against the Seibu Lions, the Leones del Escogido against the London Mets, or the Tigres de Quintana Roo against the Sydney Blue Sox, but it's the closest thing to Spalding's dream we have ever known.

However, until the next classic in 2017, the mainstream should embrace the World Series just like the tight-knit community of British baseball fans have done for years. Let your misplaced indignation rest, pick up a beer, and become ensconced in one of world's greatest sporting spectacles.

Wednesday, 16 October 2013

The Baseball Phrases You Unknowingly Use Everyday

A lot of cynical Brits don't trust baseball. I've endured countless referenced to 'glorified rounders,' and grimaced through endless comparisons with cricket, all attempts at diminishing the impact of America's Game. A skeptic majority in Britain seems casually-dismissive of American sport, almost ignorant to its intoxicating history and perpetual excitement. The Wembley Series of NFL games has taken American Football to the mainstream, with many Brits embracing it, but baseball as a mass consumer sport has yet to take-off on this side of the ocean. Many feel uneasy that the manager wears the same attire as his players, or lament its slow-paced nature. However, I'm here to report that baseball has had a powerful impact on each and every one of you...even if you didn't know it.

The game of baseball has its own language; a colourful dictionary of slang and technical vocabulary which enthralls and beguiles. We have dingers and bombs, suicide squeeze bunts and double-steals, sacrifice flies and intentional walks. A baserunner gifted with great speed has wheels, an outfielder with a strong arms possesses a hose. The pitcher may throw a screwball, a splitter, or even a slurve, which may ride up-and-in and result in a hit-by-pitch and bench-clearing rhubarb. In extreme cases, a hitter may escape the chin music to hit a nubber, a blooper, a Texas Leaguer over the infield. He may even get lucky, find a hanger in his wheelhouse, and smack a long four-bagger. A slick infielder may flash the leather, go around the horn, and complete the spectacular twin-killing. The possibilities of baseball language are endless, and it plays an integral part in making the game truly unique.

In time, aspects of this extravagant lingo have trickled into the everyday British dialect. It's deeply ironic that we no longer have baseball broadcasts on terrestrial TV, yet the schtick of every afternoon quiz show host, daytime agony aunt, and evening sports pundit is laden with nuanced fragments of baseball speak! The television personalities, restaurant waitresses, and even bricklayers of this land rely on baseball phrases in their everyday communication. I expect you do, too. Here is a comprehensive list of baseball lexicon which may seem familiar.

  • Step up to the plate – We hear this time-and-time again, in all manner of situations. It's usually meant as an urging for somebody to stand and take responsibility, or to deliver in a time of need. In baseball, a hitter literally steps up to home plate, and is similarly expected to produce for his team, hence the simultaneous usage of this phrase in our everyday dealings.
  • Throw a curveball – When an unexpected event or circumstance presents itself, freezing our thinking, a curveball is said to have been thrown. While you may be familiar with this phrase from the office or school, it is a literal baseball term: an actual curveball is part of the pitchers arsenal which he ues in attempt at getting the hitter out. In a similar regard, the hitter can be caught off-guard and frozen, thus surrendering a strike.
  • Three strikes, your out – The most recognisable of baseball phrases used in everyday terminology, this one is usually associated with poor behaviour, or used to caution an offender. We've all used it. In baseball, a hitter is pronounced out should he receive three strikes, accumulated via foul balls, missed swings, and pitched balls which pass over home plate inside the strike zone. This is the most self-explanatory baseball phrase of all.
  • 'Ballpark' figure/estimate – Every builder providing an estimate deals in the currency of ballpark figures. It's intended to give a general price approximation in a given region. In traditional baseball, there are no stadiums, there are ballparks. Whilst many different theories are suggested for the exact etymology of this phrase, many agree that it is derived from baseball. One argument holds that the dimensions of a baseball field vary from ballpark to ballpark, yet all adhere to rough, unspoken guidelines: no team will set the outfield fences 600 feet from home plate, because they must comply with this round figure or estimation of the accepted norm. Hence, the ballpark estimates you receive in a similar manner from plumbers, gardeners and decorators today.
  • Hit it out of the park – We usually hear this when a performance of some kind, be it on X Factor or Strictly Come Dancing, is a great success. The performers are said to have hit it out of the park! Well, this refers to the defining action of any baseball game: the home run. A batter literally hits the ball over the outfield wall and out of the park. It's the hallmark of excellence.
  • Hardball – When negotiations are tense and prolonged, one party is usually playing hardball. In essence, it describes an aggressive, uncompromising approach, typical of David Cameron at the EU. The baseball roots of this phrase are undeniable; hardball being a style of similarly aggressive play, usually featuring lineups of powerful sluggers and home run threats. It's David Cameron as in David Ortiz.
  • Heavy hitters – The executives or people of importance within a company or on a television show are often referred to as the heavy hitters. Again, this phrase is simply transferred from baseball! A manager typically placed his heavy hitters, those most capable of wreaking havoc and producing runs, in the 3-through-6 spots in the batting order. When watching a baseball game, the excitement is tremendous should an announcer inform that your teams heavy hitters are due up in the next half-inning!
  • Right off the bat – A distant cousin to our hit the ground running cliché, this term describes instant success in one pursuit or another. When manager at Sunderland, Paolo Di Canio experience success right off the bat with a memorable victory over Newcastle. In another literal translation from baseball speak, this is self-explanatory: a batted ball flies right off the bat at an impressive speed.
  • Play ball – We use this in a variety of contexts: when arguing, when walking the dog, and, strangely, when actually playing sport. A baseball game can only begin once the home plate umpire is satisfied enough to holler “play ball!”
  • Way off-base – During arguments or heated negotiations, people are often accused of being way off-base, positing a distance between themselves and the true reality. When a baserunner is picked-off during a baseball contest, his mistake is almost always a direct consequence of being way off-base.
  • A whole new ballgame – In sports punditry and politics, a change in circumstances, such as the appointment of a new coach or the use of chemical weapons, produces a whole new ballgame. Again, this is derived from baseball which, in the professional Major Leagues, adopts a mammoth 162-game season. When your team loses a regular game, it's great to look forward to tomorrow, when there will be a whole new ballgame to take part in.

So, now you know: even if you've never watched a baseball game, even if you like to condemn it from a position of football-crazed elitism, even if you dislike America, an essential part of your everyday communication has a flavour of its National Pastime. When you next use one of these phrases, perhaps instinctively and without consideration, just remember this post, and thank baseball for its brilliant, wide-reaching dialect.