IT’S BEEN A rough week in the world news. Conflict, death, and violence in every corner. And amidst this, the turmoil forced a little bit of history to be made. While violence in Baltimore has virtually shut down the entire city, Major League Baseball almost never delays its season – in recent times only delaying it in 2001 after September 11. And so it was decided this week that in Baltimore, the show must go on – albeit in an extremely surreal way, in a completely empty stadium while security was busy elsewhere.
The determination to go ahead with the national pastime aptly reflects the quirky evolution of its place in US society. Players are on eight-figures-per-year contracts. Multi-million-dollar trades take place. Big corporates buy out teams’ heritage by securing naming rights to anything notable.
Nowhere could this be more pronounced than a stadium which, by naming rights, is called ‘Citi Field’. Yep. A stadium, built at the height of the Global Recession, to replace a completely functioning stadium next to it, to be named after a bank. Naturally, outrage in the local community ensues. So the management made some trade-offs – the entrance is called the ‘Jackie Robinson Rotunda’, after the pioneering first player to break the racial barriers in MLB, and out in the bleachers, the ‘Shea Bridge’, named after the man with the vision to create the team which calls the grounds home.
But amidst this, there is still a strong sense of grassroots, hometown tradition, as MLB fans still look to many of the game’s icons with affection and personal ownership. Citi Field, despite only being built in 2009, is still in the architectural style that is a throwback to the early days of the live-ball era. Kids still dream of becoming big-leaguers. They still chase after the mascots. There may be big-name sponsors, but the old Ma and Pa institution also gets a mention for its support in the gimmicks that the kids do in between innings. There are all-time halls of fame and museums. And the equipment isn’t made by a Nike or an Adidas, but a company that has been specialising in baseball gear for over 100 years.
When the home team comes up to bat, each player has their own chant. There are home town chants and team theme songs. In the seventh inning, the crowd stretches to Take Me Out To The Ball Game – another early-20th century folk melody. And yes, there is still an organ which plays random licks to psych the crowd up. Each baseball team’s home ground has a unique landmark representative of a tradition or famous cultural aspect of the city – in the Mets’ case, it plays upon the ‘Big Apple’ nickname with a giant apple hidden subtly in centre field, emerging in one of two occasions: a Mets home run, and a Mets win.
If you’re an underdog supporter like me, the New York Mets tick off every box. Constantly overshadowed by the near-global fame of crosstown rivals the Yankees, their fanbase is generally among the lower classes of NY, in districts rich with immigrants and their diverse cultures. They spent their first seasons considered a joke of a team with back-to-back wooden spoons and the worst record in their division, and suffered one of the worst season collapses in MLB history. But they’re resilient, having won two World Series – and so are the fans, and the traditions.
It may have been an eerie sight in Baltimore earlier this week, but it will stand as a testament to baseball’s resilience against any turmoil in the US, just like the traditions themselves continue to stand against the tides of consumerism and cultural decay. The very first baseball game played after the September 11 attacks – a Mets game at their old home ground – was, naturally, a celebration of US solidarity. The news of the successful operation to kill bin Laden was made at an ML game. The Detroit Tigers’ appearance in the 2012 World Series, the year that Detroit collapsed and defaulted, was hailed as a turning point for its recovery, regardless of the fact that they lost it to the San Francisco Giants. Public servants were saluted in the first Red Sox home game since the Boston Marathon bombings. Baseball has always hosted some of the biggest displays of diversity, solidarity and tradition in the US.
As MLB showed us in Baltimore this week, and shows us every day of the season in places like Citi Field, the culture never dies. And the show must go on.