When I was 16 I was riddled with self-doubt. I’d had trouble at school, and all I wanted was to fit in, be popular, and not be thought of as a geek. So I had little in terms of interests outside of the mainstream; I liked the TV programmes my peers liked, and I was determined to join in with the indie-rave crossover at the time through bands like The Stone Roses and Primal Scream. In the summer of 1989 though I knew I wouldn’t be going back to school and from somewhere I smelt freedom and a world outside of the trendy kids I’d done my best to associate with for so long.
Each night I would go to bed with my headphones plugged into my hi-fi and enjoy that personal relationship with music that it was easy to enjoy in those days. Each song written for me, each an accurate description of my state of mind, or the relationships I was having or even yet to have. I would probably only manage the first two or three songs on each night’s chosen CD (or tape, or even LP) before falling asleep, but that didn’t matter, this routine was a comfort for me and one of my most favourite and “safe” parts of the day.
In the late 1980’s, American Football was enjoying a boom in popularity thanks to coverage on terrestrial TV. I took a passing interest, it was nice to get into something different, after all. So on the one night when I decided to hit the sack listening to the radio instead of music, I was happy to think that my trawl of medium-wave had dug up an American Football game. During the night reception on medium wave was patchy to say the least, you could pick up a station and before long it would fade out to be replaced by some European station or just a continuous hum, before fading back in again. So it took me a short while to work out that I hadn’t picked up an American Football game at all.
Instead I was picking out words and phrases that I’d never heard before: “full count”, “the payoff”, and the most rhythmic “swiiiiiing and a miss”. I made the connection to a game I’d seen maybe 5 minutes of once on late night TV – when I’d been flabbergasted by the intricacies of the pitcher’s wind up motion – and so I carried on listening. Between bursts of Vanessa Paradis, it became clear I’d stumbled upon baseball, and somewhere across the world the Pittsburgh Pirates were playing the Cincinnati Reds, carried via the medium of the US Armed Forces Network. Without a stumble upon, twitter, or facebook button I couldn’t share this experience – it was mine and mine alone, as was the excitement and the homely feeling that I could enjoy just for myself, every night.
My ex-military Dad told me the why’s and wherefores of the Armed Forces Network, and the time zone differences became a crucial part of my nightly planning. The sense of disappointment when I’d carefully find AFN on the tuner only to hear music, of all things, was palpable - thankfully this only happened once every few nights or so, because baseball was played almost every day!
When September came around I started to attend sixth form college and began my “A” levels. This gave me access to a college library, and one day when I’d decided to spend some time in there alone I came across a large volume Encyclopaedia. Although I’d never bothered to take the time to use one before, I immediately thought that it might contain something about baseball. In it I found the rules with intricate diagrams, all very clearly explained and easy to follow. It contained a brief history of the game, and also one phrase in particular “baseball is America’s pastime.” I continued to return to the library, pretty much on every break, until I had exhausted that encyclopaedia, and the others, of all their knowledge about baseball.
I continued to return to the library, pretty much on every break, until I had exhausted that encyclopaedia, and the others, of all their knowledge about baseball.
Twenty-two years later, it’s difficult for me to recall exactly from where I learnt to score a game of baseball. I think it was probably these library tomes if I’m honest, but I can’t be sure. What I can remember though is that the next Spring and Summer saw me staying up nearly all night, ensconced in boyhood duvet, scoring full games including pitch counts, in a book full of graph paper that contained home-made scorecards of course. I still have them somewhere to this day. It was to all intents and purposes a pointless and futile exercise, but to me it was the most important thing in the world. By this time, a small village in northern England had its first and only baseball expert. I knew no-one else with any knowledge whatsoever of the sport, not in my country anyway.
Every now and again in Mum and Dad’s Daily Mail there would be a footnote containing the baseball scores, from two days prior, due to the time zone differences and print deadlines. At the end of that previous season there’d even been an article on the Reds winning the World Series, which ended up on my wall, along with a small cut out picture of a guy called Jose Canseco. It wasn’t that I idolised Canseco, just that it was a picture of a baseball player, in a land where there were not many pictures of baseball players. There were names I can remember, such as Cal Ripken Jr, who seemed to play every day.*
Baseball had become mine, no-one could take it away from me. No high school bully could call me a geek about it, no-one could take away the pleasures it had given me from thousands of miles away through weak radio signals sent out to keep America’s troops connected to their homeland. We were going steady, me and baseball. So when I first came across “Field of Dreams” in the local video shop, it was like my sweetheart had put on her best clothes and asked me back to her place to consummate the relationship.
As a Yorkshireman, I normally fully subscribe to our reputation for being emotionless, hard working, straight talking individuals with little time for romance, schmaltz, or dreaming. So when Kevin Costner said he’d build something for a dead man and Burt Lancaster turned in the hammiest acting performance I’d ever seen I should have taken that video right back to the shop with a snigger and asked for my money back. Of course, I had no choice but to enjoy it. All I wanted was to actually hold a baseball in my hands – Costner had a big bag of them on his brand new diamond! They were going on about “the feel of the grass”, “to run the bases”, “to wrap your arms around third”. It was almost like they were speaking to someone who’d never played baseball before, someone in a small village in northern England. Listening to AFN was not good enough for me anymore. All I wanted was to play.
No high school bully could call me a geek about it, no-one could take away the pleasures it had given me from thousands of miles away through weak radio signals sent out to keep America’s troops connected to their homeland.
So a couple of days later I found myself in front of the “hobbies and interests” section in WH Smith’s. Not the sports section, the hobbies and interests section. Baseball Times, Britain’s only published magazine on Baseball, didn’t make it into the sports section. The fact that it was there though, hit me like a hammer. The full colour picture of the catcher on the front was like manna from heaven for someone who’d spent hours creating mental images of the ball game from radio broadcasts. As I flicked through its pages, for the first time I actually wondered whether anyone would play baseball in this country. On reflection, I may have actually bought the magazine and taken it home before I found the advert in the classified section asking for players, as opposed to my romantic recollection of coming across the advert right there in the newsagents.
It was my mother who told me to call up the number. Having come this far, who wouldn’t? The man on the other end of the phone told me about the team he ran, the Sheffield Bladerunners, and that they trained on a Thursday evening and played games – real games against other teams, each Sunday. My biggest worry then became my mother letting me borrow her car to go to both training and games, I was a fairly new driver and Sheffield was half an hour away.
I was of course fairly quick to realise that it wouldn’t be too hard to get a game – as a minority sport baseball was crying out for players, but the standard was fairly good when I started. As a solid cricketer I found it easy to field ground balls, and to me catching a ball with a glove on, in one hand, is infinitely easier than trying to catch a fast moving cricket ball with two. Hitting was harder, but after all those AFN broadcasts and the yearning to play, there was only ever going to be one winner in that particular battle to learn a new skill.
I developed quickly as a player, and with youth on my side I enjoyed turning out for Sheffield for the next few years. While there were often frustrations, such as so many rookies joining the team each year and the team’s performance slipping, I never once forgot how lucky I was to be playing baseball. I’d come so far since those radio days, and I was proud to be a ball player. No amount of taunts from friends and relatives (isn’t it just rounders? Do you have to wear those tight pants?) would stop me from talking about the game, my game.
While there were often frustrations, such as so many rookies joining the team each year and the team’s performance slipping, I never once forgot how lucky I was to be playing baseball.
By the time I stopped playing around 6 years later, some new blood had joined the team, and I knew these guys weren’t the sort that were going to leave after two weeks of getting into the side. They brought a new team spirit, the team stopped being so polite with each other, and we used to have a laugh on the sidelines together each game. They were as raw as I had been when I first started obviously, but players such as Jimmy Ellis picked up the game as quickly as I had.
It was 1995 now, and though the internet had arrived I still only got to watch Major League Baseball once in a blue moon on late night TV. As a student living with friends when I was up through the night and it was on I was hardly giving it the attention that it deserved. So while I’d developed an affinity for the San Diego Padres (we used to have relatives that lived in SD) there was never a chance that I would see them “live” so to speak.
Slowly other things took over in my life and I lost touch with baseball. I started working full time, moved away from Sheffield (where I had spent my University years) and the only part that baseball played in my life was as an anecdote when I was in the pub, or on a date – “I used to play baseball” generally held someone’s interest for at least 2 minutes. The one person who listened for longer than two minutes I married.
So, in 2008, when I asked her if I could buy a subscription to the Major League Baseball TV network which meant I could watch any game I wanted over the internet, my wife didn’t mind. I’d almost come full circle as I lay next to her at night with the laptop open, watching baseball, as our first born son slept soundly in the room next door. It was a long way from the Armed Forces network days, but given the time difference between the UK and the Pacific coast, I still didn’t get to see San Diego much, and just took in whatever game I could.
So my wife wasn’t surprised when I told her I wanted to play again, and I sat up in bed on the net trying to find my nearest team. Turns out, Sheffield Bladerunners were still going. I made it to training, the following Thursday, having dusted off my old glove and found my way to their new diamond, in the corner of an old-school sports and social club between Sheffield and Rotherham. And of course I got to play in the team, the following Sunday, when I met up with Jimmy Ellis again, who’d since learnt how to pitch, and pitch well.
Going back to baseball has been one of the best things I’ve done, but it’s tinged with sadness. Whilst Jimmy Ellis was learning how to pitch, I was pissing my life away in a soulless job in financial services. And while I’m getting back to a reasonable standard, sometimes it’s difficult to remember how to do things that used to come natural, and sometimes my ageing body won’t let me.
I’m 38 now, I’m still riddled with self-doubt and my troubled school years have never really left me, but I’ve got baseball back, and I won’t leave it behind again.
* Cal Ripken Jr holds the record for the highest number of consecutive games played, an amazing 2,131.
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