A disclaimer: I’m a sucker for a ball game. I played them for many years and I’ve never been able to resist watching them, There’s something about going to a game that gets me every time, even though I’m increasingly aware of the problems with commodified sport and its ideological power.
Last night I went to watch the New York Yankees play baseball against the Philadelphia Phillies at Yankee Stadium. It was an exciting game, which my local team – the Yankees’ nickname is The Bronx Bombers – eventually won. One of the features of baseball and most other US sports, is that you keep playing until there’s a winner. (it was past 11pm when the game ended), one of several ways US sport reflects some US values.
I walked to the game through the South Bronx and the neighbourhoods that were most battered by the city’s financial and housing crisis of the 1970s and left to burn by politicians and policy makers. The much-vaunted recovery was inspired and driven by community effort and from a very superficial perspective, I’d say the South Bronx today looks no more, or less, troubled than most of the other bits of the borough I’ve seen.
However, as you come over the brow of the hill at East 161st Street and Grand Concourse and catch your first (thrilling for me) glimpse of the massive bowl of the stadium, the jarring contrasts between a multi-billion dollar business in the heart of an impoverished community become stark.
But there’s something about the atmosphere before a game that can still distract attention from what’s going on around it. I suppose that’s the point. Sport is escapism and watching the thousands of fans arriving for the game with genuine joy is hard to begrudge, particularly now. There is also a noticeable contrast between going to a game in the US and the UK. In particular, the ugliness, tribalism, racism and potential violence that still stains football back home is virtually absent over here. I wasn’t counting, but I’d say the crowd was a reasonable mix of gender, age and ethnicities, including some hijab-wearing Muslim women which I don’t remember seeing at a baseball game before. I also think there’s something particularly beautiful about baseball.
However, I took a stroll around the perimeter of the stadium, where some of the problems with the impact of massive sports stadium development and the baseball industry became apparent. The Yankee Stadium I visited last night is not the original one. That was demolished and replaced with an almost exact replica two-hundred yards away in 2009. The most spurious reasons were concocted for this move, but in reality, it was another example of what’s been termed “Ball Pork”, a reference to politicians and private businesses taking public money to build their private sports stadiums and egos. The examples are now too numerous to mention, but London’s Olympic Stadium is the one that sticks most in my craw.
On the site of the old Yankee Stadium, I got chatting to a small group of men who were practicing their game. Apparently one of them is on the edge of playing professionally (you have to be near to a player of that standard to realise how hard they throw the ball) and was being coached by another who had made it to the top level of US baseball. They were all from the Dominican Republic, from where, along with other Caribbean and Latin-American countries, baseball is seen as a route out of poverty. They told me that, in any year, 1,000 young Dominicans may be absorbed into the US professional baseball system, but that only one or two will ever get to play at venues like Yankee Stadium. This farming of sporting talent is not, of course, unique to baseball. A very similar pattern exists in UK football and is also a product of imperialism past and present.
As well as their athleticism and dedication, I couldn’t help noticing the standard of the pitch they were playing on. I’ve played on better surfaces over Hackney Marshes! This was one of the areas the Yankees’ organisation promised to preserve and maintain for the local community.. They’re clearly not doing it, any more than most property developers keep their pledges to invest in public facilities in return for being bank-rolled by public money.