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Why baseball is so alluring for this working class girl from Belfast

Rounders offered us respite from The Troubles in Belfast, baseball offers America an escape

Yvonne Watterson (right) at Fenway Park in Boston: ‘The ballpark offered a central hub for the Irish community, hosting in 1919 Eamon de Valera’s Freedom Rally which drew almost 60,000 people.’

I don’t know how it will turn out, but for today at least, the Boston Red Sox are ahead in the 2018 World Series, two ahead of the Los Angeles Dodgers. Finally meeting for the first time since 1916, this match-up is the stuff of dreams for baseball fans. Somehow, even though I grew up on the other side of the world from these storied franchises, it is for me as well.

By the time I graduated from university in Belfast, I was head over heels with the idea of America’s national pastime, at least with the way it showed up in movies and music. Smitten with Don Henley’s song ‘The Boys of Summer’, and the lone big baseball player in Bruce Springsteen’s ‘Glory Days’, and far away from John Fogerty’s ‘Centerfield’, I nonetheless understood, “Put me in coach, I’m ready to play.” I was, and I am.

On the big screen there was The Natural. With Robert Redford in the starring role as Roy Hobbs, a weary, aging baseball player with his Wonderboy bat no less magical than King Arthur’s Excalibur. Roy’s love of the game, his desire to break all its records, and be part of its legacy, is what drives him, because, as he tells his girlfriend, “Then when I walked down the street, people would’ve looked and they would’ve said there goes Roy Hobbs, the best there ever was …”

Growing up on a housing estate in Northern Ireland in the 1970s, the closest we came to baseball would have been the game of rounders. In primary school, everyone played it. Not a serious competitive sport by any means, it was just a game for us kids to play on the big field in front of our house on a long summer evening. A simple game, it involved throwing a ball and hitting it and then running frantically around a circle.

We probably made up the rules as we went along. We would divide ourselves into two often uneven teams and flip a coin to determine who would hit first. All the children in our estate played - boys and girls, big and small, and - this part is important - religion didn’t matter in rounders. For bases, we used items of our clothing or tidy piles of cut grass, and the bat was whatever we could get our hands on - a tennis racquet, a cricket bat or a good stick.

The ball, usually a tennis ball, was thrown underhand, and on the rare occasion that I made contact, I could barely contain my joy, running and laughing my way around those makeshift bases. From the houses across the road, some of our parents, young and hopeful, would watch until the game ended as a fat red sun set slowly into Lough Neagh behind us.

There was no magical language or ritual associated with rounders, no “fly ball” or “outfield”, no “swing and a miss”, or “stealing home”. There was no stirring rendition of the “Star Spangled Banner” or peanuts and popcorn or Cracker Jacks. But there was, for an hour or two, an escape from The Troubles and the bitter divisions that were destroying our tiny country. It lifted us into a different realm.

Maybe this offers a glimpse into the way baseball has provided an escape for America - from the Great Depression or a World War or the atrocity of 9-11 during the 2001 World Series. And just maybe, baseball brings with it a nostalgia for a simpler time, when the American Dream seemed more within our grasp, more accessible to anyone who desired it:

“Born to an age where horror has become commonplace . . . we need to fence of a few places where humans try to be fair, where skill has some hope of reward, where absurdity has a harder time than usual getting a ticket.” (Thomas Boswell)

Drama of the game

Although I do not understand the technicalities of the game and often have no idea where the strike zone is, I have an appreciation for the unspoken drama that unfolds within these fenced places - the tension between between pitcher and batter, superstitions and hand signals. What is the pitcher going to do? How will the batter respond? What about the runners on the corners? It reminds me of the psychology of penalty kicks in World Cup football. Will the kicker bluff the goalie? Which way will he dive? Will he do it in time? Or in a fifth set tie-break at Wimbledon - Borg and McEnroe - who will break first? It’s a duel - someone always loses.

I arrived in the United States the same year that Field of Dreams was released in cinemas. Based on Kinsella’s novel, Shoeless Joe, it tells the story of an Iowa farmer who is compelled to build a baseball diamond in the middle of his cornfield after a mysterious voice whispers to him, “If you build it, he will come”. I saw it at the cinema three times, until I knew the stories behind those ghosts of American baseball’s past - Shoeless Joe and the Chicago White Sox team, banned for throwing the 1919 World Series. To this day - and particularly during the post-season - I return again to James Earl Jones as his Terrence Mann waxes lyrical about the sport to Ray Kinsella and the rest of us, making believers of all of us:

“The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it’s a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again.”

I cannot say with certainty why these words hold such allure for a working class girl from Northern Ireland. Maybe it has something to do with believing that regardless of social class or privilege, hard work and talent could place the American Dream in my hands the way it had done for Babe Ruth, the barkeeper’s son, Joe DiMaggio, the son of immigrant fisherman, or Jackie Robinson, the grandson of a slave and the son of a sharecropper. Maybe it has more to do with returning to a time when all things seemed possible. Maybe I’m getting romantic about baseball . . . which leads me to my love affair with the Boston Red Sox.

A fan of European and World Cup football tournaments, I know well the disappointment and despair of a household praying for its national team to qualify. Long-suffering fans of Northern Ireland football have been desperate to see the team advance since its first World Cup appearance 33 years ago - so close last year, but then there was a disgraceful penalty decision in Belfast in 2017 that dashed their hopes again. Belfast will never forget it - just as many Bostonians know exactly where they were and what they were doing when Bucky Dent’s wall-scraping three run homer in 1978 ended their dream of a World Series trophy, on a day when schools closed early to let kids watch the game.

A bit like Northern Ireland football fans, Red Sox fans had - until 2004 - been bred to expect everything that can possibly go wrong. It would take two more titles in 2007 and 2014, and making it to the 2018 World Series again to erase the cloud of impending doom that hung over Fenway Park for decades. Afraid to tempt fate, it’s as if nobody wants to state that this Red Sox team might - as the record books show - be the best ever.

Irish connections

Home to the Red Sox is the lovely Fenway Park, a veritable cathedral for those who worship the game, described by John Updike in the New Yorker in 1960 as “. . . a lyric little bandbox of a ballpark. Everything is painted green and seems in curiously sharp focus, like the inside of an old-fashioned peeping-type Easter egg”.

Officially opened on April 20th, 1912, Fenway Park was built by an Irish immigrant, Charles E. Logue, a Derry man who arrived in Boston at the age of 23, with ambition to spare and skills in carpentry. Following three straight rainouts, the hometown Red Sox defeated the New York Highlanders (later the Yankees) in extra innings before a massive crowd.

It should have been a glorious celebration in the sunshine, but the city was reeling in the aftermath of what had occurred at sea a week earlier, when just four days after leaving Southampton, England on her maiden voyage to New York, the S.S. Titanic struck an iceberg off the coast of Newfoundland and sank, claiming the lives of more than 1,500 passengers and crew. The Fenway faithful would have us believe the curse of the Bambino was responsible for the team’s 86-year drought from 1918 to 2004. I’m not so sure. Fenway Park and the S.S. Titanic are forever intertwined, alluring sources of conjecture.

Over the years, when the Sox weren’t playing, the ballpark offered a central hub for the Irish community, hosting in 1919 Eamon de Valera’s Freedom Rally which drew almost 60,000 people. The GAA played at Fenway too, with the All-Ireland Football Champions from Co Mayo defeated the Massachusetts team, 17 to 8, in 1937. In 1954, the All-Ireland hurling champions Cork beat an American team, 37 to 28.

The first time I visited was with my best friend in the summer of 2008. A cheeky Dubliner was our guide for a behind the scenes tour of this fabled ballpark, famous for its natural grass, quirky symmetry, and that 37ft-tall wall that keeps score, the Green Monster. Manually operated, it houses a place to sit for the operator and somewhere to store the big white letters and numbers. Sitting up there on top of the iconic Green Monster, the day before a game against the Yankees, it occurred to me that Fenway is for everyone whether they can afford the good seats or the bleachers. In the end, everyone shares in the joy and the heartbreak.

This Friday night, my beloved Red Sox are far away from Fenway Park to take their two game lead to Los Angeles, where they will face the Dodgers in a modern ballpark near downtown. I don’t know who will be performing the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ before the game, but I know that whoever it is will be hard pressed to match the performance of Massachusett’s own James Taylor who opened the World Series as only he could, turning the ‘Star Spangled Banner’ into a song that would have belonged on the Sweet Baby James album.

Alluding to the current occupant of the White House, Taylor told an audience in London earlier this year, “Ladies and gentlemen, there is an America different than the one represented by that guy”. In his understated performance at Fenway the other night, I think he captured that America, the same America that drew me to her back when I was still playing rounders. I miss that America.

Before I knew about baseball, I knew about James Taylor. I knew about the turnpike from Stockbridge to Boston and the songs that we sing when we take to the sea. Long may we sing them.

Go Sox.

Originally from Co Antrim, Yvonne Watterson emigrated to the US in 1988 and settled in Arizona where she works in education. She is director of education innovation at the Arizona Charter Schools Association, and has been recognised for her work in school reform and her activism on immigration. She blogs at Considering the Lilies . . . and Lessons from the Field.