In baseball land soccer’s achievements seem Lilliputian

Just last week Beckham and the LA Galaxy came to NY and played a match that lifted soccer and MLS and could make it potentially a start to a larger sporting ethos. But I suspect, this had equally to do with the golden goose finally getting on the statistical end of the sport, and expectations beyond that should be more circumspect.
Two weeks prior served a reminder of how enmeshed baseball is in the US national psyche. With one short sharp stroke Barry Bonds hit his 756th home run erasing Hank Aaron’s 33 year record of most home runs. The same week saw Alex Rodriguez becoming the youngest player to hit 500 home runs in MLB history. Only hours earlier, Tom Glavine recorded his 300th win as the Mets won against the Cubs. The nations newspapers and the big networks were on hand as they recorded these historic and personal milestones.
Two months ago, Landon Donovan tied Eric Wynalda’s 7 year national record of 34 goals when he scored against Mexico in the Gold Cup. A blip that was reported in soccer journals and some sports publications. The nations newspapers at best reported it in sports briefs sections and the big TV networks barely mentioned it.
756 vs 34. It is not just that the magnitude of the statistic cited is more impressive when we consider it in a black and white frame. After all, Bonds scores a home run every four games he plays and Donovan scores a goal faster with one in three. Donovan could realistically score a thousand goals in as many matches that Bonds has played. But statistics barely tell the story.
Walt Whitman brings up this singularity “…it’s our game; that’s the chief fact in connection with it : America’s game; has the snap, go, fling, of the American atmosphere; it belongs as much to our own institutions, fits into them as significantly, as our constitution’s laws; is just as important in the sum total of our historic life”
A month ago I saw A Field of Dreams at Brooklyn in a pub which organizes movie nights on Sundays and watching the movie put all these achievements in perspective. Kevin Costner can make eating a sandwich look schmaltzy but as you look at Ray Kinsella, the character he plays, discovering baseball became a way of bonding with his dead father, as he encounters characters along the way whose love for baseball exceeds any achievement that they might have ever wished for, as they meld into the cornfields of Iowa.
It’s the sport where the US creates its heroes, immortalized in Shoeless Joe Jackson, Sam ‘Wahoo’ Crawford, Jackie Robinson, and Joe Di Maggio, and turns to them in times of trouble and doubt. As Simon and Garfunkel sang “Where have you gone Joe DiMaggio, our nation turns its lonely eyes to you?” Baseball seems to have this redemptive quality even as controversy swirls around Bonds record and Pete Rose is continually denied entry into the Hall of Fame. Hank Aaron congratulated Bonds and Harvey Araton called for letting bygones be bygones and celebrating Bonds achievement.
This is not as if mens soccer lacks its heroes in the USA who are all from that quintessentially geographic location that suggests soccer too has a uniquely American heart. The movie “The Game Of Their Lives” documents a group of players growing up in St. Louis, part of the under rated US team who went on to beat mighty England, 1-0 in the 1950 World Cup. One of their members Gino Parisi, recently died and his obituary was recorded in major publications. But this is a quaint factoid. A piece of trivia that a bright spark in Alex Trebek’s show will be able to answer correctly.
As the present ESPN miniseries “The Bronx is Burning” shows a city reeling under record unemployment, bankruptcy, and rolling blackouts.
In this backdrop the Yankees win the World Series after 15 years with two outsize personalities in Billy Martin and George Steinbrenner representing the past and the future, clashing over Reggie Jackson, the player who came to define the World Series, uniting a city seething with anxiety over a summer of endless looting, mugging, and a psychopath on a killing spree. Baseball became a symbol of triumphalism in these trying times. A confluence of events begins as private citizen Curtis Sliwa and his band of Guardian Angels, provide security in the city’s subways to augment an overwhelmed police force slow to deal with these events and ends with Felix Rohatyn’s successful restructuring of city debts and a gradual urban renewal.
Soccer provides thousands of such examples in other countries as in the Ivory Coast and most recently, Iraq, where it can unite a country for an ephemeral moment. However, in this country it seems to engender exactly the opposite sentiment. The Fugees became a cause celebre as their soccer playing in Clarkston, Georgia, becomes an extension of a fear and anxiety taking over a older community towards the sudden influx of African immigrants, taking over town parks and and established lifestyle of baseball and barbeques.
Soccer is catching on but till we can string together a series of The Games of Their Lives with unfailing regularity from an entirely different cast of characters in a newer group of immigrants who can redefine the hinterland we can barely hope to touch the core that baseball has achieved. Till then all we have is detours, false starts, and smoke.

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3 comments on “In baseball land soccer’s achievements seem Lilliputian
  1. I’m a rabid baseball fan (from Boston, so, it’s tough to escape), because I was brought up on it. My dad took me to Orioles games as a kid in the old Memorial Stadium when we lived down there. His dad took him to baseball games before that. But in addition to that, we went to basketball, hockey, football games. And we also went to see the Diplomats. And that’s the difference; there have simply been more options for the generation that’s coming of age now, and soccer was one of them for a lot of us.
    The generation of people that are running the country, the boomers who were raised by the ‘greatest generation’, were brought up on baseball, and to a lesser extent, football. Other sports were strictly regional concerns in their formative years, and it took decades for them to catch on and snowball, thanks in part to exposure at a young age.
    That exposure has been happening to kids for the past ten years, and it’ll be another ten before past players are far enough in the rearview mirror to become myths told by parents to new kids. And it’s never going to be like it was with the baseball greats, of course, and neither is baseball ever going to be the same. The ’04 Red Sox are probably going to be remembered a century from now, but even they grew to be a creature of the media, as special as it was when it happened. The kinds of phenomena that happen all by themselves are few and far between in any sport, but the good news now is that there’s as good a chance of it happening in American soccer as anywhere else.

  2. Just as the English sailors brought soccer to Italy, the Englishman who brought footy to the Brazilians, it is obvious that decades from now, American soccer success will be penned to one man, one, David Robert Joseph Beckham!

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