TPA senior editor Sam Perry is currently gallivanting around the world on a four-month holiday with his fiancee Tori. First stop: America. What follows here is his account of a single sporting moment – or near-moment – that nearly changed his life. A moment that is brought to you from the city of New York, where dreams are made…
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After three weeks of travelling in America, I had hit the wall. Bars, beer and Broadway had taken its toll. And so my fiancé and I found ourselves momentarily paralysed for something to do that night in New York City.
It was a deflating reflection not on the city, but our imagination. Whether it was my mind’s lethargy, old habits or a combination of both, I turned to sport. I thought ‘Yankees’. It transpired they were playing the Red Sox in a few hours uptown. This is the same Red Sox that forms the other part of baseball’s most famous rivalry. I’m not too au fait with baseball but I was au fait enough to know that this was sporting bucket list material. New York City had, once again, delivered.
We stepped out of our East Village apartment and were greeted by a cool breeze providing some welcome respite from the unflinching humidity of the past three days. It was still 30 plus, we still had a red glow and a thin film of sweat, but the breeze tempered it nicely. It was an easy three block walk to Union Square Station. “My match day experience has commenced well,” said the sporting consumer in me. It’s something I probably would have said out loud to any member of the TPA payroll, but my fiancé wasn’t the right audience.
The subway was heaving before we even stepped on to the 4 train. There was no cool breeze here, just hot wind and reams of people. I spotted some Yankees hats so felt confident were going the right way, but had to ask myself whether the number of hats I saw was in line with the standard ratio of Yankees hats throughout the city. It is high. In any event there were both cheap and real ‘Jeter’ and ‘Texieira’ t shirts. I was experiencing US, franchise-driven, sport.
My fiancé and I were easily bustled out of boarding the first train; we clearly didn’t compete well enough. So we abandoned our misguided middle class, polite sensibilities and comfortably made the second. Our newfound attitude made it disconcertingly easy too. “Maybe we can make it in New York,” I wondered. I’m glad I played grade cricket – we employed strategy and self interest and shoulders and elbows and gamesmanship. It was primarily led by my fiancé. Her role was breathtaking and mine serviceable.
After 25 minutes we were in the Bronx – which never fails to sound cool – and the vista of Yankee stadium emerged from my side of the train. The Yankees may be a global sporting super franchise, but there was something admirably local about the hundreds of kids playing baseball in the park outside in fading light. Imagine your local park being set just outside Yankee stadium and mucking around as thousands from around the world set upon a Yankees-Red Sox fixture. The imagination should and would run wild. It’s an earnest comment but I don’t care: I’m in America, where earnest is king.
My main memory of the ticketing process is that it’s sharp and that there are lots of foreign accents from fans which are offset by unmistakably New York accents from staff. There’s something reassuring about a senior man with a weathered face saying “Welcome to Yankee stadium and enjoy the game,” Think if Barrie Cassidy was a Yankees doorman from Brooklyn and you’d be close. The administration had managed this with aplomb. Is it possible that sports marketing can be rootsy and real?
You know you’re at a good ground when you continually enjoy your first glimpse of it. Yankee stadium is clean and pure. The lights are strong, the grass is patterned and there is strong homage to their greats. We were seated around a couple of locals, including a father-son combination who were both wearing mitts. (Is ‘mitt’ legit baseball terminology or am I still employing early 90’s language from my tee ball era? I hope it’s the latter.)
I know the ground contains stories, but I don’t know what they are. I don’t really need to know. Babe Ruth, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig. I’m not right across what they’ve done but it doesn’t matter. They are doyens and I trust America.
Boston started hot. I recognised the name ‘David Ortiz’, a huge human who hits big. There were homers in innings 1 and 3, which took Boston to 6 runs. The Yanks were on the back foot very early, and arguably never recovered.
I was interested to follow the crowd as Boston took the game away from the Yankees. The behemoth franchise suffered an early setback and, as with many global superpower teams, their fans were affronted and lacked resilience. The Yankees pitcher, whom I suspected of being ordinary early on, bore the brunt of the fan-driven trash talk. The boos that followed were well in line with the impatience that seems to accompany fans accustomed to success, regrettably.
However, unlike a football fixture where errors can decide a match, there’s always hope in baseball. And failing that, there’s always the jumbo tron and myriad other distractions where you can get involved. Given the players change innings and ‘at bats’ pretty often, Major League Baseball has to work hard to entertain people during the continual swapping that takes place. The underpinning theme is ‘the self’, with endless shots of people either dancing or smiling or some slight variation of both, set to some novel, trashy track that people deep down actually really like. Cotton Eye Joe, for example. Whatever it says about our obsession with ourselves doesn’t really matter. We were distracted and it worked.
As in Australia, tickets for the match are arranged in price groups. However, unlike in Australia (which has about four or five different categories), this Yankees match had 21 different price groups. And like wanting to order cheapish wine at dinner without looking cheap, we opted for price category 18. While they were on the cheap side, they suggested the potential for upward mobility. The category was also classed as ‘field level’. It was about 15 rows back from the barricades; it wasn’t foul ball territory, it was home run territory. It was cow corner.
A couple of balls had flown quite close during Boston’s early onslaught, but you never really think it’s going to come right near you, do you? Yet you still plan, still dream. For me, I was thinking about whether competitive instinct would see me out-muscle the 7-year-old and his Dad in front of me, regardless of their mitts. Even so, given their obvious preparedness to sit for four hours in 30 degree heat with a gigantic glove on, I wondered whether I would be compelled to hand the ball to the child after the preceding ‘hanger’. It would be regarded as a chivalrous act and would impress the crowd and my fiancé sitting next me, and also define me as non-materialistic for eternity. On the other hand, home run ball.
I was reflecting on precisely this when it happened. Prado had crashed the ball out into what I presume they call left centre field. The motion of his swing didn’t suggest a long, high trajectory. This was a flat, hard swing.
When it comes to anticipating the flight of any ball or missile, I have always considered myself supremely gifted. If somebody ever kicked a football in my direction I would arrogantly position myself where I believed the ball would eventually arrive before it bounced, for example. If I was slightly unsure I would point in the direction of its bounce as it landed, again with excruciating arrogance.
Unlike other imposters at school, I was aware that a right footed torpedo would curve from right to left (left to right for the receiver), and position myself accordingly. In cricket, I was the batsman who would be at pains to convey my deep awareness that somebody had bowled me a wrong’un in the nets, even if no such information had been requested. I was implacable at mini cricket too, where alien spin is often king. In short, I pride myself on my supreme understanding of the behaviour of balls.
Baseballs are interesting. Whereas I once marvelled at the far superior throwing arms of baseballers to cricketers, the wonderment was somewhat tempered when I threw a baseball myself. They fly. They stay up. If one was to throw both a cricket ball and a baseball at the same trajectory and velocity, one would find the baseball would travel way further. This comment is not designed to commence a nerdish discussion about Why Andrew Symonds Would Have Been A Great Baseballer though, it’s just a comment to say that – although baseballs and cricket balls are of somewhat similar circumferences – they behave differently.
This realisation struck me in its entirety as the ball travelled. It kept rising. I should note, having reviewed the video, that Prado smashed this. It wasnt a stroke. He smashed it hard. It was good. And it had a beautiful little arc on it. The kind of light draw that good golfers aim for, and that ordinary golfers lack the natural biomechanical habits to impart.
My first realisation was that the length was good. This would land in our row. But due to the beautiful arc it was always going too far to my right. Either way, though, I was standing up. The crowd around me were standing up. There was a cacophony of noise and squeals and shrieks. It was the same kind that accompanies most crowds when a ball arrives near them. I had experienced it at many rugby league or union grounds when a ball is kicked into touch and thuds into someone’s arms or crashes into a concrete aisle. They are moments that take place multiple times in a game, and which are entirely unspectacular as you watch from afar in the crowd. But somehow it feels special when its near you.
And so the ball was pretty bloody close to us. It was never in the aforementioned ‘hanger’ territory though. My dreams of a speccy over the top of the 7-year-old were dead.
The ball crashed hard into the steps about 5 metres to our right, and the next thing I can remember is some sort of scrum around the ball. A messy ruck, like something from U13s schoolboy rugby union where we were close to the ball but very scared. The notion that the ball might ricochet off the steps and through the ruck had 85% loaded in my mind when the white blur of glory seemed to pop out and scream right across my face.
By instinct, I flung my left hand fast and wild at the white missile. As I hurled that desperate hand out I could hear the words of a senior Sydney cricketer in my ear. “Great catch Sammy,” he had said at training. “Best technique at the club.” The encouraging words had been uttered in 2003 as I stuttered up and down the grades.
Like so many other cricketers before, and many after, I had become known as ‘good in the field’, which was ultimately a euphemism for ‘ineffective batsman or bowler’. And while I averaged 15.6 and now rarely bowled my previously ‘promising’ legspin, what I could do was catch a ball. I revelled in the sweaty and boisterous fielding sessions, where groups of players unimaginatively tried to get 10 successful things done in a row. ‘Let’s get 10’ was a common refrain. I rarely scored many runs for my team, but I could ‘get 10’ at training with relative consistency. It was something.
And it was these mid-evening training sessions that informed my response to Martín Prado’s flat blast to left centre field. It was that desperation to contribute something, anything, of value to the club which taught me that, even though the ball was past me, I still had time. Much like my cricket career though, I was close enough to see it, but realistically nowhere near it. It was gone and my attempt was nothing more than low percentage opportunism.
If any other ball had hurtled anywhere near me at that velocity in any other endeavour my true character would have been revealed – I would have been fundamentally scared, which would have manifested in what they term ‘flinching’. And while the ball was realistically gone, I am proud because this effort was earnest – much like America itself. I actually wanted the ball and that felt good.
And so I nearly had my moment. Home run ball at Yankee stadium. Jeter’s final season. A confirmed connection to New York City for life. Ten years of grade cricket fielding sessions actually paying off. All of this in one white flash screaming past my face – that infinitesimal intangible difference between good and great. A desperate left hand slung out, but coming up short, and in one instant generating a life time of ‘what ifs’ for this scribe.
I can still see Martin Prado’s home run ball in front of my face.
By Sam Perry