America's Pastime? Honk if you love Honkbal!
Well, tonight they'll be playing the All Star Game, and lest you think this is a meaningless exercise, the outcome determines whether the American League or the National League gets home field advantage in the World Series.
As in other major American professional sports - most notably basketball - baseball has become more and more international over the years. While I long remember Latin American/Caribbean players (think Juan Marichal from the Dominican Republic, Roberto Clemente from Puerto Rico, and Cuba's Minnie Minoso), there are now players, if not exactly from "all over", then from lots of different places.
In addition to several players from the DR - including All Stars Manny Ramirez and David Ortiz - the Red Sox have two pitchers from Japan (Daisuke Matsuzaka and Hideki Okajima).
There are quite a few Japanese players these days, as well as folks from China and Korea.
The Latin and Japanese connections are no surprise, given that there are many places south of the border with strong baseball cultures, and that the Japanese have been playing ball since the late 1800's. China and Korea are more recent converts.
Both China and Korea have berths in the upcoming Olympics, where baseball has been a medal sport since 1992. Although baseball in the Olympics have been dominated by Cuba - three out of four Golds, not that surprising given that it's more difficult for their stars to make it to the big buck pros than it is for players from other countries - the sport, along with softball, is being dumped for the 2012 games for being "too American."
What is surprising is that Italy and the Netherlands have made fairly regular appearances in the Olympics in baseball.
The Netherlands, in fact, is the only Euro team that's qualified for a slot in the 2008 Olympics. (The other seven qualifiers are: China, China-Taipei, Korea, Japan, Cuba, Canada, and the good old US of A.)
There is apparently some history of baseball in the land of Hans Brinker and the Silver Skates.
An article in the International Herald Tribune this past May says that Dutch kids played during WW II to stick it to their occupiers, a nice piece of passive resistance.
The sport retained some postwar popularity precisely because it is American (so there, Olympic Committee!), and because it could serve a role as a placeholder sport between soccer season and soccer season.
A few Hollanders have made it to The Bigs - according to the article, there were five Dutch nationals playing Major League Ball last year. (I'm guessing that includes Aruba and Dutch territories in the Caribbean.)
Robert Eenhoorn, who did a pro stint with the Yankees, coaches the Dutch national "honkbal" team. (I just checked on Yahoo's Babel Fish, and "honk" comes back as "limped", while "honkbal" comes back as "ball limped." The term obviously loses more than a little spin on the ball in translation.)
Even though they've made it to the Olympics, honkbal doesn't come all that naturally to Dutch kids.
Certainly, the Dutch Baseball Federation, with its 30,000 members, cannot compete with soccer, whose federation has 1.5 million members. Give a Dutch boy a ball, and he'll usually drop it and try to kick it.
A Dutch mother of two players on a youth team - and a softball player herself - summed up a bit of what makes baseball so great.
"It has tactics, and the game has a lot of variety," said [Yolanda] Silfhout, who plays softball. "You bat, you run, you catch the ball. It's a bit of thinking, a bit of doing."
(Another woman interviewed had sons named after Darryl Strawberry and Dwight Gooden, of all things.)
Naturally, once you start looking, there's a whole lot of baseball going on in Europe. The Confederation of European Baseball lists 40 member countries, everything from A (Armenia) to U (for Ukraine).
I get that baseball might have a cleat-hold in countries where there's a lot of young people going back and forth from the States, like Ireland; or places like Germany that had big American GI presence in the day. But Croatia? And Turkey? Georgia? Maybe there's a potential Ty Cobb out there who'll be the next Georgia Peach.
There's also an Israel Baseball League which was, in fact, how this whole thing got going.
For whatever reason, the other day I googled the name "Dan Duquette", the former GM of the Red Sox, and found that he has something to do with Israel's baseball league.
Again, given the close relationship between the US and Israel, it's not all that surprising that Israel would have some baseball going.
The Israel Baseball League has a great tagline: Holyland Hardball: It only took 5,767 years.
The League uses players from all over, but looks for players of "Jewish extraction," who would naturally have more of an affinity for - and maybe less of a fear factor about - playing in a place that's a little scarier than Fenway Park.
While the game's the thing,
...there is an extra element added to IBL baseball games that makes them “must see” entertainment. Before each game, in between innings, and often post-game, there are games, promotions, and interactive activities taking place on the field. Sack racing, “sumo wrestling” competitions, karaoke, and more all take place every day at the ball game. There are game themes, like “Wedding Day”, when the baseball field plays host to any couple that wants to get married and the league provides the rabbi, the chupah, the wine, the glass, even a piece of wedding cake to all fans in attendance, ending with a gala fireworks display – all free of charge to the lucky couples. There are “Speed Dating Nights”, where singles switch their seats every half inning, finding themselves beside a new member of the opposite sex each time to engage in conversation. And there are many more promotions to come!
No measly bat day for these guys! (And what must Hank Greenberg be thinking? He's probably laughing.)
I enjoy sports, but there's not one sport that I love and enjoy (and, at times, loathe) the way I do baseball.
I'm delighted to see that baseball is, if not taking off around the world, showing up in some new and exciting places.
But I have a hunch that, in most places, being a baseball fan is akin to being a Major League Soccer fan is here:
Nobody else really gets it.
Anyway, tonight's the night at Yankee Stadium: AL vs. NL.
Go, American League! You never know who might need that home field advantage. (And if it can't be the Red Sox, may it be the Chicago Cubs - so it just might be ok if the National League gets themselves a win this evening.)