This Sunday, a few thousand miles apart yet somehow cut from the same cloth, two very similar sporting mini dramas occurred with drastically contrasting results.
Both episodes began with something routine, unexceptional, both ended as their game’s, perhaps even their sport’s, major talking point of the day, in one case maybe season.
Now that summer proper has arrived, and it being the weekend, both venues in question were packed. We are in the middle of the season, the ‘dog days’ if you like, so neither matchup particularly mattered in the grand scheme of things. The loser would live to fight another day, the winner could chisel a further notch on a bedpost that requires numerous. The games for many in attendance were backdrops, a reason rather than the reason for families to congregate, picnic and just simply spend some quality time amongst love ones.
Two more classical stages can hardly be imagined. One, an old, rickety yet beloved edifice in the north-east of the United Staes, the other perhaps the quintessential southern English countryside setting, complete with even its own castle.
The similarities in cricket and baseball are infinite, yet trying to explain one to an aficionado of the other is nigh on impossible. The sports are the oldest major team game played in their respective countries. Both isolate the individual duel between bat and ball within the broader context of a team framework. Possibly as a result of being summer games, they both take longer than their more obviously violent winter counterparts.
To the exasperation of the uninitiated, short sharp bursts of ‘action’ are followed by mind numbingly tedious periods of ‘inactivity’. And yet to the knowing, its these phases of play that provide the most pleasure, a moment to digest what one has just consumed and ready oneself for another tasty morsel.
These brief yet, at the same time, endless sojourns of nothingness create an enormous capacity to inspire literary attention, where somehow greater meaning is assigned to what the spectator is witnessing than merely the games themselves. It would be facile for devotees of each game to ascribe themselves a moniker as the thinking sports fan and yet that would perhaps be overly narcissistic and self-involved, something a true fan of either would find abhorrent.
I’ve long held the view that nearly everything in life can be related back and told through sports and vice versa. Sports provide us with an escape and yet can also be the very thing we wish to run away from. They might mirror our day-to-day experiences yet they can also delight or destroy. We can all relate to a hellish day at work either topped off or rescued by a moment of magic or inexplicable idiocy from one of our chosen, nay designated, heroes.
And so, one of these tiny morsels of nourishment are occasionally and often deemed to represent an underlying personality and character of a player or even a whole team. They only taste a certain way because of a tiny, usually invisible, ingredient.
There are lazy and convenient labels attributed to certain mouthfuls of this endless tapas, the takeaway pizza of sporting analysis if you like. Nothing raises the hackles more than a boorish yob complaining that, because a batter hasn’t sprinted out a ground ball, this is inherent of a deeper malaise within a clubhouse. And yet, sometimes we fancy, demand and can’t resist the juiciness of a good old hamburger. A burger can’t always be wrong, can it…..?
Sunday’s games and the almost identical scenarios – two fly balls in no man’s land, that area where nobody is quite sure whose ball it is, whose job it is to call, take charge and dispose of the batter.
These two fly balls and what emanated from them provided two very different sporting tales. As ever, far too much ‘meaning’ was undoubtedly attached to these snippets of play but where’s the harm in a bit of poetic license?
At Arundel in Sussex, two men had eyes for that ball, one running back from the infield, the other sprinting in from the outfield. As with baseball, when a ball is in the air for a prolonged period, the crowd awaits with excited expectancy, an increased hubbub of anticipation. As the ball began to drop, it became clear that this was not going to be easy. For either man to claim the catch would be an outstanding play. They ran faster and faster until, in one brutal moment, they converged on the ball and each other.
What remained was a scene from a gruesome movie, two totally motionless bodies, the ball yards away.
Cricket has had a horrifically trying few months. Over the Christmas period it lost one of the world’s top level players to a tragic accident during a game. Unlike baseball, throwing, in cricket’s case bowling, at the batter is a perfectly legitimate tactic, designed, obviously, to intimidate but never kill. Phillip Hughes was hit just under his helmet on the back of his head, collapsed almost immediately and died shortly afterwards.
What followed was a sustained period of worldwide mourning amongst a whole sport, the like of which I have never seen, nor want to witness ever again. It brought cricket, it’s players and followers, together yet in such sickening circumstances it felt so totally unnecessary.
Six months on and history was repeating itself, or so it appeared. Ambulances and medics arrived onto the playing area, minutes passed and still no sign of movement. Blankets were placed over the two players. We were prepared for the worst.
After over ten minutes, one of the players was lifted onto a stretcher and somehow found the energy to wave to those present to let them know he was alive. A further ten or so minutes and the other, father at his side, did similarly. The game was subsequently abandoned, everyone simply relieved that another tragedy had thankfully been averted.
Fortunately, apart from a broken jaw, multiple lost teeth and a bit of plastic surgery, both Moisés Henriques and Rory Burns are expected to be fine.
Yesterday, Rory Burns posted the following photo on his Twitter account.
It is one of the most moving sporting pictures I have ever seen, two men who have fought together for the team cause and are still side by side despite a near fateful incident. It portrays everything we love to assume every sportsman possesses, the almost unyielding desire to win at all costs, a one for all in all for one mentality for the overall good of the team. This is magnified especially if that player is part of ‘our’ team.
Across The Pond, at Fenway Park, an almost carbon copy. This time, however, there weren’t just two fielders converging, but four. The fly ball in this instance was also eminently more catchable, a routine out. It could, of course, have developed into an equally nasty and gory bloodbath. It didn’t.
Vines and GIFs proliferated across the Internet. The ball in question had dropped in the middle of four Red Sox, untouched by a soul, a microcosm of the season. Look at these clowns!! They don’t know what they are doing. They are a joke. Everyone laugh at them. Postseason? Hahahaha!!
Further south in Texas, the Mariners were also making a pig’s ear, dog’s dinner, call it what you want, of their game against the suddenly irritating Houston Astros – a thirteen to nothing beat down that succinctly summed up maybe the season so far, and certainly the past couple of weeks.
For those hapless Red Sox, read the Mariners.
This was supposed to be the year. No more constipated offense and a strong pitching staff led by one of baseball’s superstar pitchers.
Friday night had been somehow even worse. Our King had lasted just one-third of an inning, sent packing after one of the worst starts in baseball history. This was meant to be the series where we showed who was boss in the AL West, putting those young upstarts in their rightful place. However, it was nothing of the sort. Finishing up at Minute Maid, the year felt more desperate and doomed than at any prior point.
As alluded to, if there’s anything that grates, it’s the presumption that players don’t care enough, another that management don’t know what they are doing. These are cliched crutches an ill-informed, undoubtedly passionate yet ultimately simple fan clings to and cites if he disapproves of what he is seeing.
In this same cesspit of bullshit is team chemistry. I see chemistry, and I’m spitting the word out, as nothing more than a romantic notion we like to believe in when our team is successful and we’re struggling to explain why it has over performed compared to our expectations. It’s simply a lazy answer to a surprise success story, idly trotted out along the lines of good coaching.
Each and every year, beat writers, managers, players even will espouse the virtues of good clubhouse chemistry as one of the intangibles required for a team to make a step forward. Each and every year, it seems, the club with the best ‘chemistry’ ends up winning the World Series so it must be a prerequisite of winning, mustn’t it?
Cast your mind back two and a bit months and the narratives coming out of nearly every Spring Training home were that preseason had been a rip roaring success in getting the guys together and having some fun in advance of the six month slog of a major league season. The boys were all “pulling in the same direction” as well as for each other. This was what would take the club to the promised land of the postseason, a golden elixir if you like.
Anyone can say “we have great chemistry”. It is, perhaps, little more than a nice line to get a beat writer who has nothing else to write about off your back. There is often scepticism around statistical types about what chemistry can do for an individual player or for a team. It all sounds a bit schmaltzy and narrative driven.
If one were to argue either way in this hypothetical and laughable debate, one would surely fall down on the side that these Mariners players actually get on too well. As I said, far too simplistic and indolent.
Baseball’s beauty is that there is always tomorrow, both literally and metaphorically. There is no choice when reacting to losses but to dust oneself down and go again. Things might improve, luck might turn, players might discover that little something that has been missing.
One win brings two and, all of a sudden, you have a streak going. And who knows where that streak may ultimately take you.
Part of being a Mariners fan is the ingrained ability to go again. It’s what baseball, to us, is. We know how to handle the losses. Hell, it’s our very fabric.
Last night, our strapping young Titan took the mound in San Francisco. Those first two innings were hairy, to say the least, but not disastrous. And then our boy Taijuan started dealing. A win ensued, a welcome little treat to devour after the sickly and bilious fare that had been served up in Houston.
This is why we watch. There will forever be something to cling to, even if it seems relatively minuscule. All might not be rosy in the Safeco garden currently. However, the flowers have yet to die.
The capacity for improvement is there in spades. It shouldn’t take much to reverse the unending misery that now seems intrinsic with following the Mariners. It surely shouldn’t, at least that’s how I’ll be approaching today. You just never ever know.
What if the Mariners actually manage to catch that damn fly ball?