Sunday, August 11, 2013

From Springfield to St. Louis: 24 hours from Tulsa

Some traditions can never be extinguished. Being a Saturday, and with the football season returning (and I'm talking about the spherical-ball variety, played by 22 people with the minimum of padding), I have journeyed south-west on Route 66 to St. Louis with the intention of finally figuring out what on Earth baseball is all about.

However, the last thing I expect to see in the very heart of the Mid-West is people walking down the main street of one of its biggest cities wearing Ronaldo No.7 replica shirts.

Because, as soon as I turn off the highway, I encounter a 'tailgate' - the social pre-amble to a major sports event (as opposed to a Belgian motorist sitting on your rear bumper) - at the Edward Jones Dome, normally home to the St. Louis Rams "football" team, ahead of Real Madrid and Milan's Internazionale meeting in a pre-season "soccer" friendly. The area is crawling with homegrown fans, eager to see two titans of Europe fall over a lot and admire each others choice of hair product.

Undeterred, I wisely stick to the plan. Today's drive has been relatively short - just 100 miles or so from Springfield - taking me through lush green farmland, towering fields of corn and acres of grain silos, with Route 66 emerging outside the town of Edwardsville to an incredible view of the St. Louis skyline in the distance.

That vista is dominated by the Gateway Arch, the 630-foot high monument built on the banks of the Mississippi to symbolise the city's position as the gateway to America's western expansion.

Founded by the Frenchmen Pierre Laclède and Auguste Chouteau in 1764 and named after King Louis IX, St. Louis began as a small town on what was then the frontier. Pioneers like Lewis and Clark used the city as the starting point for their journeys up and over the Rocky Mountains and into the west.

Today, St. Louis is the largest city on Route 66 between Chicago and LA, and is a city used to being forever in flux.

A lively entrance to the West with an architecturally strident downtown, a staggering proportion of St. Louis' native population can claim German ancestry. Confusingly, one neighbourhood is called 'Dutchtown', but only because its original settlers were German ("Deutsche"). The American sense of geography has never really improved since.

© Simon Poulter 2013

However, it is here that Anhauser-Busch, the beer brewer was founded, which neatly brings me to Busch Stadium and baseball. I have previously seen two baseball games and understood neither of them. The last - the San Francisco Giants versus the Atlanta Braves at in San Francisco - was more than a decade ago and during Barry Bonds' legendary record run of scoring goals, slam dunks, touchdowns, home runs, or whatever it was that had everyone exceedingly excited at the time.

As I recall, not a lot happened during the game, although that didn't seem to dampen the wild approval of those leaving Pac-Bell Park claiming they'd just seen the most tactically brilliant game of their lives. If I leave a football (see above) game after a goalless draw, I am predisposed to boo both teams in the strongest manner possible. But this, apparently, was the Mona Lisa of baseball tactical brilliance.

© Simon Poulter 2013

So, my convenient coincidence, on the night I come through "Saint Loo-wee", is that the Chicago Cubs are playing "at" the St. Louis Cardinals. That, right there, is the first American sports convention to baffle me: in British football (ditto), your team plays at home and the visitors are the away team. Thus, Chelsea kick off their 2013-14 season in a couple of weeks' time at home to Hull City. Hull, therefore, will be away to Chelsea. Clearly not here. Perhaps it's a testament to America's openness to visitors that visiting teams are given such prominence.

But that's the least of my concerns. I'm told that baseball is a distant descendent of cricket, which I just about understand. This, however, is like coming across a librarian who can trace his lineage back to Henry VIII. Very little to connect the two points in history. True, both sports involve a lot of standing around, hitting balls with bats and occasional outbreaks of running, but there any similarities end with a dull thud. Well, maybe one exception.

Both sports go on for interminable lengths of time, are divided into "innings", and are watched by innumerate obsessives wearing hats and drinking beer. Thus, I'm beginning to appreciate that American sports viewing is a much about the social engagement as the sport itself.

© Simon Poulter 2013

The Busch Stadium is a mass of red and pink: red being the home team colors, with the predominance of pink due to the fact that almost everyone is wearing shorts. Kneecaps are everywhere. Throughout the game, people chat loudly to each other about everything and anything including, sometimes, what's happening out on the diamond. It's clear that Saturday night at the ballpark is a social convergence, a trip to a local sports bar only with reality replacing big screens.

And then there is the copious consumption of sodium and fat. Baseball helmets filled with popcorn, peanut shells carpeting the floor, hot dogs, burgers and fries, and bottles of "COLD BEE-YAR!!" brought to your row by vendors lugging around giant cool boxes. It's as loud and as colourful as any football match played at the San Siro, the commercialism as abundant as that which runs the Premier League, and the family vibe much the same as you'll experience at the Bernabéu.

There is theatre to the All-American baseball experience: from the children's choir singing America The Beautiful and the school orchestra performing The Star Spangled Banner at the beginning (OK, the FA Cup Final kicks off with Abide With Me and God Save The Queen), to the parade of Cadillacs during an innings change (something to do with Cadillac being one of the Cardinals' millions of commercial partners, to the goofball antics of spectators caught on the big screen, there are traditions to be honoured.

© Simon Poulter 2013

And of the game itself? Appropriately, I was successful on my third strike, and actually understood what was going on. Chicago won 6-5 thanks to runs scored in the eighth inning, with "the Cards" getting two spectacular home runs. I now know what the expression "bottom of the ninth" means: time to head for the exit.

Which is what I'm about to do. More than 400 miles of Route 66 lies before me in the direction of Tulsa.

Tomorrow:  From St. Louis to Tulsa

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