Exploring the sporting traditions of different cultures can provide some of the best insights into the soul of a people—their gladiatorial preferences echoing who they are at a very deep level. People brought up in a sporting culture have a difficult time explaining just why they love a particular game—and the surrounding traditions—as much as they do, but that’s okay, because there is no better way to explore foreign sports than to dive right in!
Unfortunately, attending a top-level match to watch the pros handle the balls, bats, rackets, wickets, clubs, and other athletic accoutrements—while absorbing the stadium atmosphere and pre- and post-game traditions and celebrations—can sometimes be intimidating, even a bit scary. Without proper preparation, one might not know how to handle oneself at the game, and may even commit such faux pas as calling runs “points” or being genuinely concerned for a soccer player’s health as they writhe on the turf in “pain.”
Never fear! In this series, I’ll be guiding my non-American friends through the tricky ins and outs of American sports events, from pregame tailgating to umpire heckling to the important-but-subtle difference between charging and blocking. Today, we’ll take a look at the history-soaked American pastoral pastime: baseball, and what a newbie might expect on a first visit to the old ball game.
Americans are very proud of baseball, and see it not only as part of our heritage, but our national identity. We wear our American pride on our sleeve more enthusiastically at baseball games than at any other activity. After the standard American pregame anthem ceremony, expect to be inundated with American imagery and iconography around the ballpark and throughout the game. This unchecked nationalism may seem a bit disturbing to Europeans, who generally keep national pride a bit under wraps to avoid offending anyone, but rest assured, these red, white, and blue displays—like baseball itself—are harmless.
We love a mascot in America. Whether it be a cute animal, a threatening animal, a natural phenomenon or disaster, or an insensitive depiction of a group of humans, we just can’t seem to identify with a team without a unifying image that can be worn as a heavy, uncomfortable suit.
At baseball games, look for not only the official team mascot (or mascots, some have a whole lineup of sweaty humans buried in a sea of felt and team pride), but also for a variety of food-related entertainers keeping crowds happy between innings. This hotdog was just cheated out of the the fast-food race title by a tricky taco.
Baseball, despite having roots in English cricket, reeks of nineteenth-century America. Its slow pace and relaxed atmosphere were the perfect place for the Industrial Revolution working man to take his family—or enjoy a day away from them with the rest of his hat-wearing friends.
The two sides take turns batting and fielding, visiting team batting first. The pitcher delivers the ball to the batter, who tries to put the ball in play so as to advance through the…
You know what? Let’s ignore the rules of the actual game—they aren’t really important for the casual fan, anyway. If you have questions about a particular play, just ask…
Baseball is a game of numbers, and no one loves numbers more than nerds. When a nerd attends a ball game, out comes the scorecard.
You’ll see these nerds watching each pitch closely, taking note of the pitch speed on the scoreboard while telling their friends and family to, “Stop bothering me with your fun, I’m trying to watch the game!” After each play, the nerd goes to work on the scorebook, pencil scratching and head nodding as he evaluates the action and translates it into cryptic scorecard shorthand.
If you want to know what happened on a particular play, simply sit within earshot of a nerd and ask your companions in a loud, clear voice. He will surely hear you and provide you with an overly-long explanation. How do I know so much about baseball nerds? Let’s move on.
Every country has its own local favorite stadium snacks; I was intrigued when I first smelled the spicy aroma of curry chips—what I now call “Irish Nachos”— at Dublin’s Croke Park. Brits and Irish coming to a baseball game can expect no such faux-Indian fare. If it’s baseball season, it’s hotdog time.
Frozen at a factory in Wisconsin somewhere; steam-thawed with a few hundred of its brothers; spun for a few miles on a warming roller; and groaning with ketchup, mustard, relish, sauerkraut, pickled jalapenos, and anything else available at the serve-yourself condiment stand; the American conclusion to the traditional German frank is almost a mandatory purchase at the ball game.
Alternatives include, but are not limited to: buttery popcorn, American super nachos piled with seasoned meat and cheese, ice cream served in a novelty baseball helmet bowl, and torso-sized masses of nausea-inducing cotton candy (candy floss).
To wash down the salty ballpark snacks, nothing is better—for those of age, which is 21 in America, mind you—than a cold, cheap American lager. The Busch and Miller families will be the most common brands, but look for small, local specialties like Old Style at certain parks. All beers will be served either in overpriced, watered-down drafts or in overpriced aluminum cans and bottles hawked by cooler-bearing vendors wandering the stands yelling, “Beer here!”
After roughly 3/4 of the game has been played—between the top and bottom of the seventh inning—you will be asked to join the rest of the fans for the “seventh-inning stretch.” This tradition is commonly attributed to US President W. H. Taft standing to stretch his sore legs at a baseball game in 1910, with his fellow fans rising out of respect. The story is probably exaggerated but lives on nonetheless—like most 1990s steroid-fueled baseball records.
It is common to spend stretch time singing the American Tin Pan Alley classic, Take Me Out to the Ballgame, performed hundreds of times across America every summer day to follow tradition and to avoid paying copyright royalties for a modern stretch song. If you are trapped in the stands, surrounded by boozy singers belting unintelligible words out of sync with the PA announcer, don’t worry. Just fake your way through the first 40 seconds and remember the last line:
For it’s ONE, TWO, THREE strikes you’re out at the old ball game!
At the end of the game—who won? It doesn’t matter—the grounds crew brings out the tarp and begins preparing the field for a night of rest and a game the following day. The stands empty, and the parking lot fills with angry, impatient drivers trying to get 25,000 cars onto the highway at the same time. This is your time to strike!
Many ballgame snacks and drinks are served in souvenir cups and bowls. These are supposed to be a memento of your day at the park—and sit awkwardly in your kitchen cupboard for a few years until you finally throw them away. Sadly, many visitors abandon these treasures in the stands when they leave. Happily, scrapers and scroungers like us can get our hands on as many souvenir cups as we can carry—without spending seven bucks on the beer. Go ahead. Get in there. You might be surprised at how much you can find.
Get Out to the Ballgame
Armed with this knowledge and confident in your ability to blend in with the American baseball fans and nerds, put on your biggest Uncle Sam hat, skip breakfast to save room for your hotdog, don’t forget your sunscreen, and get yourself to the park to experience America in under three hours…unless the game goes into extra innings!