Alex Massie

Cricket and Baseball II

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Ross responds to my gentle tweaking about baseball and cricket here. He makes some fair points. But thinking about it just now, it occurs to me that there's another major difference between British sports and their American counterparts that sets British sports apart. Namely, participation.

With the obvious and notable exception of basketball, it's notable that very few people actually play the major American sports. Sure, kids play American football and baseball in school and some - a minority obviously - will do so in college but very few adults actually play these sports. I know that there are adult hardball baseball leagues and there are still some independent leagues in which small towns play one another, but for the most part adult Americans are reduced to either watching sports or playing a watered-down version of them, such as softball or flag football (a sort of American football version of touch rugby). Now there's nothing wrong with that and given the physical difficulties and demands imposed by the gridiron game and baseball respectively it's not, perhaps, a great surprise.

But it is a difference and an important one at that. In Britain, by contrast, the parks are stuffed with people playing soccer in the winter and cricket in the summer. Rugby too, obviously. None of these games are presumed to be the preserve of children or professional athletes with next to no tiers in between. At the most casual level many, perhaps even most, offices have a staff soccer or cricket team that will play at least occasionally and, generally speaking, also play the game properly and according to its proper rules. Social or occasional cricket and social rugby clubs also continue to thrive; my brother is organising a cricket match in Paris for his friend's stag party next month; other friends are members of cricket clubs that travel for overseas tours each year and so on and so on. Perhaps it's the American circles I moved in, but I can't recall ny of my friends (in, admittedly, Washington) playing real baseball.

Why is this significant? Well, I think it matters because it's a great unifying force. The world's best are, in the end, merely better at playing a game we play ourselves. The 40 year old turning out for his village cricket side is still connected, however tenuously, to the cricket played by the game's greatest stars. The carpenter or butcher or lawyer still trotting out to represent his home town's rugby club is in a similar position.

What this also means, of course, is that the pleasures of cricket or rugby or soccer are, like those of golf or tennis actually, still there to be enjoyed on a participatory as well as spectating basis. Saying this isn't meant to denigrate American sports, merely to observe that this is another area in which the United States ended up proceeding along a different path. Still, in a definite sense I think this participatory element matters: it pools ownership of the sport and its history and rituals and connects us all, whether brilliant or hopeless, to those who've gone before and those at the top tier of the sport. Equally, broadly speaking the principles of the game remain the same, regardless of the level its played at and, again broadly speaking, it seems to me excellent and beneficial that a sport is open to more people than simply the very best athletes.

From a practical perspective too, I think there's much to be said for a game that can still be enjoyed even when it is not played at a particularly rarified level. Obviously there's an element to which this is the case in America too, but there's no real equivalent, as best I can recall, of village cricket let alone the sense that watching (as well as playing) the sport at that low level can still be an enjoyable element, let alone the highlight, of your weekend.

Now of course there are millions of Americans who take part in sporting activities every weekend. But what they don't, generally speaking (and I use the term generally advisedly), I think, do is participate in team sports and the team sports they ignore most especially, seem to be the great American sports.

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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