Falling in love with the World Series ... and America
It is hard to conceive, coming off the enthralling opening to baseball’s title-deciding extravaganza on Tuesday night, that I used to think the World Series was silly.
Not that the event was silly, or that baseball and foolishness somehow went hand in hand. It was just that — like many sports fans from countries other than this one — calling what is a North American franchise championship a “World” Series rankled somewhat.
I lived in the United Kingdom back then, which is where I was born and (mostly) raised. A lot has happened since, but most significantly to the topic I have spent the past 12 years living in the United States before finally, on Tuesday, sitting in a packed auditorium in Riverside, Calif., raising my right hand for the Oath of Allegiance and becoming a naturalized American citizen.
It was a proud occasion and a profound one. There were 752 new Americans in the building, from 73 countries. There were a lot of smiles, a lot of handshakes, and a lot of tears. However the American Dream has shifted, it still exists, and it has power. But the truth is that truly becoming an American takes place over all the time leading up to the moment when it becomes official. Living here changes and influences you in all kinds of ways, but as this is a sports column, let’s start with that.
Long before 2007, when I landed the temporary gig covering David Beckham’s move to the Los Angeles Galaxy that would ultimately turn into a new life, I already held a fascination for not just America, but especially its athletic pursuits.
From the outside, everything seemed larger than life. The uniforms, the team names, the flamboyant personalities, the giant stadiums, even the television graphics — it was all as amped up as could be.
The downside, from afar, was that it seemed a little contrived. In most parts of the world, rewarding the worst teams in a pro sports league — like the NFL, NBA, NHL and MLB do through the draft system — would be seen as madness. It sat pretty uncomfortably with me, too.
Furthermore, the extent of the playoff format in the American sports, where the best team from the regular season often doesn’t end up with the title, is universally mocked as being made for television, fairness and equality be damned.
But you start to realize some things over time. Working in this business, you appreciate that even the most garish of those uniforms, the outlandishness, the hype and hoopla, the postseason proliferation ... these are not just American quirks. It all serves a purpose. Quite simply, America packages, promotes, markets and disseminates its sports better than anywhere else.
None of the major leagues are perfect. All of them make and will continue to make decisions that a segment of their fan base will find frustrating and disheartening. Yet nowhere across the sports globe do major organizations do a better job of listening and reacting to what their fan base wants. If the primary motivator for that is money, then so be it.
I once thought a straight home-and-home system where everyone plays everyone like soccer’s English Premier League to be the ultimate in fairness. Yet now I look at the EPL, where I spent most of my early working life, and am increasingly frustrated by how completely lopsided it is, with the same teams dominating time after time. There will never be a draft in the EPL and probably never playoffs. That’s fine — but the upshot is no competitive balance, and often zero late-season drama.
Your tastes in life change over time, and so too with sports. Mine evolved in weird ways. Because of how television rights are set up, I have the ability to watch far more live English soccer than all my UK-based friends.
I watch less regular-season baseball now than when I lived in England, back when I subscribed to something called the North American Sports Network for 10 pounds a month and sat up late into the night catching games from romantic-sounding places like Cleveland and Pittsburgh. Yes, we live and learn.
Maybe we are wired to hanker for what we don’t have. I started playing darts — that most British of pub pastimes — only after moving to America. At times, you’ll find me scouring internet streaming listings in search of international cricket broadcasts. But I’ll also spend countless winter weekend days watching nine straight hours of college or NFL football and emerge from it with glazed eyeballs and that weird buzz of unease that follows prolonged physical inactivity.
Things were a lot different back in 2007. The idea of watching live sports on a tablet might as well have come from a movie. The primary use of a phone was still (gasp) to call people. Social media was what happened when a newspaper office threw a Christmas party.
When I arrived on these shores, the Washington Nationals were just three seasons into their move from Montreal and played at RFK Stadium. Now, they are the toast of D.C. and three more wins away from being the kings of baseball.
Through all the alterations in American life and upheaval in its society, one thing remains undimmed: the grip American sports has on its public (and the way that fan base clings on in return) is as strong as ever. Its hold on me could not be tighter, citizenship or not. I love being a new American, for all kinds of reasons, not least of which is that it makes me the same nationality as my baby daughter.
Sports makes America tick, designed and developed to mirror the joys and sadness of life ... and above all, to entertain.
If it means the North American baseball championship is still called the World Series, I can live with that.