Sunday, September 18, 2016

Take Me Back to the Ballgame: Two Nights Under Lights

Two shirt-sleeved evenings under lights either side of the Atlantic. Two sporting contests played in attractive, homely venues before full houses of around 6,000. Both matches lasted a little under three hours and ended in defeat for the home team. The first was a baseball game in Vancouver, Canada, the second a T20 fixture at Canterbury the following week. How alike were these experiences? Which was better?

My Life in Cricket Scorecards watches a lot of baseball on television, but had never been to a game and was disappointed  to find that both the Giants and the As were to be on the road while I was in San Francisco on my way back to New Zealand. But there was rich consolation in Vancouver on the way out: a minor league game between the Tri City Dust Devils and the Vancouver Canadians (remember that baseball fixtures are listed with the home side second).

The two teams are feeder clubs for major league teams: Tri City for the San Diego Padres and Vancouver for the sole Canadian major league team, the Toronto Blue Jays. They are well down the food chain though, in the Northwest League, North Conference, five levels below the major leagues. Few if any of the players at the Nat Bailey Stadium will ever play at the Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park.

The chances are that readers won’t have heard of the Tri City, but will know that Vancouver is an attractive place on the west coast of Canada. Yet it is Vancouver that feels it necessary to provide further information by way of the name of its baseball team: the Vancouver Canadians. It’s as if they need to say “you Americans may not have heard of Canada; here’s a helpful reminder in our name”. They may have stopped just short of having a map stitched on the team’s uniforms. We New Zealanders know their pain. The Tri City is located about 250 miles south of Vancouver in Washington, not a notably dusty state. The Tri City is presumably a centre of vacuum cleaner manufacturing.

The Nat Bailey Stadium is tucked away in the prosperous southern suburbs four kilometres or so from the city centre. An L shaped stand spreads out from home plate to first and third bases. Behind the fence that had to be cleared to score a home run was a ring of trees. It was Canadian Tunbridge Wells.
Nat Bailey Stadium, Vancouver

Best of all, it was bring your dog to the game day. Three-hundred-and-eighty-three dogs joined the 6,143 capacity crowd. Mayhem appeared inevitable, but not so. It was the ultimate vindication of the principle that dogs imitate their owners. These were Canadian dogs: pleasant, easy-going, eager to please, and averse to conflict. It was splendid.
Three of the 383 dogs present

You are much closer to the action in baseball than cricket; my modestly priced seat was located above leg slip’s head, so to speak, close enough to the action to agree with those who say that the hardest thing in sport is hitting a pitched baseball.

The sun sets in Canterbury
St Lawrence under lights was enchanting, as it often is to see a familiar place in a new way. I sat next to the sightscreen at the Nackington Road End, and watched the sun set behind the stands, gaining aesthetic pleasure and a ready-made metaphor for Kent’s performance at the same time.

The duration of the two games is the same, but the tempo is not. The scoreboard at the Nat Bailey Stadium didn’t shift from 0-0 until the fourth inning, three-quarters of an hour into the game. In that time, only two batters reached base, and one of them was a walk (ie without hitting the ball). This is more like first-class cricket than T20, which promises constant action. But the lack of scoring did not mean that nothing was happening. As in cricket there was all manner of subtlety there for those equipped to spot it: curve balls, sliders, fast balls, knuckle balls, marked by a ripple of applause here, a murmur of approval there, just like the members’ stand at any county ground when nothing is happening but everything is happening.

Something else that baseball has in common with all forms of cricket is an obsession with statistics. It even records errors, of which there were more this night than you would see in the major leagues. Tri City’s first run was achieved with the help of two errors, first when a wild pitch allowed a runner to advance from first to second, then an errant throw from the catcher that allowed the same runner to get home.

The standard of fielding at Canterbury was higher. Kent only took two Essex wickets, but both were cracking catches. Kagiso Rabada sprinted around the deep mid-wicket boundary to dive full length to dismiss Nick Browne, the best catch I have seen by a member of the arthritic brotherhood of Kent fast bowlers. Sam Northeast’s effort to get rid of Dan Lawrence was even better, an over-the-shoulder running catch that he never looked as if he was going to get and hold on to, but did. And without the assistance of a large glove.

The experience of the batsman and batter is a big contrast. A good batting average for a baseball player is anything above .300 (at the time of writing only 23 batters in the major leagues better this figure this season). This means that a batter who gets to first base once every three at bats is a top performer. Batsmen get only the one go in cricket, but have the chance to build an innings in their own style, something that is at the heart of cricket’s appeal. One reason why T20 has less charm to some of us is that generally the batsman does not have the time to express his individuality in how he goes about this task, though the Canterbury game provided a happy exception. Tom Westley and Ravi Bopara batted through the last 12 overs of the innings undefeated. Bopara’s 35 in 51 balls was a masterclass in running the fielders ragged, Westley’s 74 in 49 no less so. Unusually for T20, craft was favoured over muscle; there were only two sixes all evening.

Richness of language is something that the two sports have in common. Poetic secret codes that capture the beauty of the game. There is no better term in sport than “stolen base”, which conveys perfectly the audacity of the commitment to run the 30 yards between bases made with the ball still in the pitcher’s hand.

T20 maintains a frenetic pace. A baseball game, like a test match, is slower but can explode into action without warning. Fielders and batters must have sharp decision-making abilities. The top of the seventh at the Nat Bailey Stadium provided a fine example. With two out and no runners on, it seemed that the Canadians would have two innings to make three runs to take the game, even after the next batter, Aldemar Burgos, got to second with a fly to left field. A base hit by Nate Easley allowed the swift Burgos to score.

With only two innings left, another run would surely settle the game. In baseball each inning has the potential to be a one-act play of its own, the denouement depending on who remembers their lines under pressure. Here, it was the Canadians who needed the prompter.   

A balk (a dummy pitch) allowed Easley to advance to second, which in baseball commentators’ lingo is scoring position. Balks are comparatively rare (only two MLB pitchers have as many as four at this late stage of the season), a sign of stress. Next to the plate was Buddy Reed, who hit straight to the third baseman. A routine throw to first base would end the inning. But the throw was wild and Easley on second was quick to see his chance and make for home. Had Reed stuck at first, the inning would have continued, but he was also sucked in by the exuberance of the moment and was out at second.

Though the Essex innings provided powerful testimony against one charge against T20, Kent’s batsmen made no case in defence against another: that too often the result is clear soon after the interval. A do-not-resuscitate sign was stuck on the game by halfway through the Kent innings. The final margin of defeat—33 runs—was a chasm in T20 terms, but would have been much worse but for some running-towards-the gunfire hitting by(who else?) Darren Stevens and a six-run penalty for Essex bowling their overs too slowly.

Baseball’s format gives it a chance to apply CPR when the game appears a corpse. The contest at Nat Bailey provided a glorious example. Though they got a runner to third in the eighth, the Canadians went into the bottom of the ninth (the final inning of the game) four-nothing down, an apparently hopeless position.

First-up Lance Jones advanced to first on a walk, but stayed there while the next two at the plate were out, so the last dismissal appeared no more than a formality. The official record says that Jones then advanced to second due to “defensive indifference” a term that cricket could have done with over the years. It makes me think of John Snow at fine leg at Canterbury in 1976, arms folded.

Pitching indifference followed. Christian Williams was walked to first. There was a murmur about the crowd. Some of the dogs emerged from under the benches, sensing that something was afoot. Sports fans pretend to be pessimists, but are really optimists. There was not Vancouverite in the ground who had not shifted an inch or so towards the edge of their seat, knowing that the bases were loaded and the tying run, in the form of the splendidly named Venezuelan Yeltsin Gudino, was at the plate with the bases loaded.

Panic was now spreading through the Dust Devils like a vicious rumour. Pitcher Will Stillman, who had been brought in at the start of the inning, now lost control and walked Gudino, allowing Jones to score: 4-1. A home run from new batter Javier Hernandez would win the game. The coach now came to the mound, for the second time this inning. He brought bad news. Stillman, supposed to be the finisher, was finished, replaced by Bednar.

Hernandez turned out to be of the McCullum all-out-attack school of dealing with tricky situations. First pitch: swing, miss. Second pitch: swing, miss. The count was two and O, which meant that another strike would end the game (a swing and miss is always a strike). Hernandez was more circumspect to the next pitch, and left it as being high. The umpire did not agree and called a strike to end the game.

It would have been extraordinary had one of those swings sent the ball over the fence. Regular baseball watchers would go many seasons before seeing a game decided on a last-inning, grand slam homer, and I was lucky to be there just for the possibility.

So which of these two nights under lights was better? The baseball game represented its code more effectively, a tale of the unexpected. There was much to enjoy in the T20, but in the end it was mundane. Of course, on other nights it might have been the other way round, but it seems to me that baseball is more comfortable in its own skin, fitting perfectly the three hours for which it was designed, happy to see quiet periods as integral to the game. T20 remains an artificial construct. In trying to compress a game of cricket into a small space it sacrifices too much of what is wonderful about it.

Put it this way. If there is a major league game on one channel and a test or 50-over match on another, I’ll choose the cricket. A ball game v a T20 and I’m likely to go for the baseball.

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