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Baseball's worldwide appeal

After a few months in the BBC Washington bureau Kevin Connolly says while he may not have grasped all the finer points of baseball, he feels remarkably at home at the ballpark.

We have lived once again through the triumphs and disasters of opening week, that brief uplifting period in the baseball season when grass is short and hopes are high.

A Baltimore Orioles player hits second base (bottom) alongside a Texas Rangers infielder
Tough negotiators have baseline positions, while more prudent ones cover all their bases

It is a time when even fans who know they will end the summer with the comforting familiarity of defeat and despair allow themselves to feel the uncertain agony of hope.

Not that I have actually lived through a baseball season before, of course.

It is just that a lifetime of watching American films and television programmes has given me a kind of eerie familiarity with things I have never seen before, almost as though I have experienced them in a previous life. Which I suppose I have.

It struck me first when I drove through southern Texas, where telegraph poles, strung out along the desert highways, chop the horizon into identically sized blocks, creating the illusion you are looking at a series of frames on a never-ending roll of film.

I felt as though I knew it and of course I did.

It is the landscape across which that great towering giant of stubborn optimism, Wile E Coyote, eternally chased the charmless Road Runner in Looney Tunes cartoons.

But nowhere is the shock of the familiar sharper than in the ballpark.

The very word alone reminds you that we speak the language of baseball even if we live in countries where we do not play it or watch it.

Pervasive culture

Tough negotiators have baseline positions, while more prudent ones cover all their bases.

New York Yankees' stadium
Like fans of any sport anywhere, we dream the same dreams and court the same disappointments, the baseball crowd and I

We strike out when we fail and, in our years of sexual curiosity, we get to second or third base when we do not.

Our cautious colleagues deal in ballpark figures, while the more eccentric and creative come out of left field, or off the wall.

When this idea was first offered to the editor of this programme, it was pitched - not bowled or punted or kicked - and it was accepted immediately, no need for a rain check.

So pervasive is American culture that we Brits have a complete arsenal of phrases for more or less every aspect of human activity, all drawn from a sport that none of us play and few of us understand.

Oh, say can you see,
By the dawn's early light,
What so proudly we hailed...
... that Star-Spangled Banner

US national anthem

I mentioned all this to an American neighbour who said he was surprised that I was surprised.

"Baseball has always reached out to foreigners," he said. "Look how we changed the words of our national anthem to make it more welcoming to those immigrants who come from Spanish-speaking countries to play the game. You know, the way it starts off: "Jose, can you see, by the dawn's early light..."

'Seventh-inning stretch'

There is a veneration of tradition in baseball, more common in America than you might think, by the way, with which - as an immigrant from the Old World - I instinctively feel at home.

Steven Tyler singing at a game between the Boston Red Sox and the Detroit Tigers
Celebrities are often invited to sing during the seventh-inning stretch

At the same point in the same innings of nearly every major league game that is played anywhere in America, the spectators rise to their feet and sing along to the same song, just as they have done for years.

It is called Take Me Out To The Ball Game, even though it is always sung by people who are already in one.

And the tradition is known as the seventh-inning stretch because it is sometimes accompanied by a kind of half-hearted, shuffling callisthenics.

Imagine that, after the tea interval in every cricket test match, the crowd performed a primary school music-and-movement session to the tune of My Old Man Said Follow The Van.

This is still America though, and at my local stadium the playing of this timelessly charming song is sponsored by an oil company.

Take Me Out To The Ball Game, by the way, has an interesting history.

It was written 100 years ago and became well-known in America because cinema audiences took to singing it when they still had to endure maddening pauses as the projectionist changed reels of film.

It is one of those curious pieces of music which has an initially jaunty air to it but which somehow contains enough space between the notes to allow a kind of wistful yearning to wrap itself around the tune, like ivy clinging to a stronger tree.

Daisy Daisy has something of the same quality to it.


There is something odd about standing in a huge hotdog-holding, beer-swigging crowd belting out a song that celebrates the success of the moment while hinting at heartache to come. But perhaps in the end that is why I feel at home at the ballpark, where I should feel entirely foreign.

All sports fans are sentimentalists and dreamers, even when we look like overweight skinheads.

It is what allows us to extract hope for the future from the glories - and the glorious defeats - of the past.

And of course that is what I really recognise even though I can hardly tell a pitcher of curveballs from a pitcher of beer.

Like fans of any sport anywhere, we dream the same dreams and court the same disappointments, the baseball crowd and I.

I am far from my own country and I miss it, but surrounded by people who weave stories of honour and despair around baseball's simple rituals of throwing and hitting and catching for a few hours every week, I am at home.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 12 April, 2008 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.

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