Sunday, July 04, 2010

The Game of our Youth

Tom Findlay lived in the last house on the block. It was 1960. It was budding suburbia, but just, and Tom Findlay had a yard that stretched nearly to the Elementary school we all attended. Nixon was running for President for the first time and we had not yet experienced the Cuban Missile Crisis that would soon rob us of our sense of invincibility and security. (Hiding under your desk in fear of an imminent nuclear attack has that effect.)
I had a little brother and a big brother and we shared a set of heroes. It was a patch of time when the world was ours - clear and comprehensible. Mickey Mantle, Willie Mays, Ted Williams, Whitey Ford; our heroes were baseball players and every afternoon we gathered in Tom Findlay’s corner lot and played the great American pastime.
My brothers were better at the game than I ever was or ever will be. They were lean, fast and agile. I was a fat kid, so I played right field, that lonely spot in the deep grass that only saw action when a lefty took the plate and then the fear was palpable. I can’t remember now, thank God, how many balls I dropped or never got close enough to fumble in the first place. I eventually found my comfort zone behind the plate and became a catcher, but that is another story.
Baseball is a game that even a fat kid can play. If he can catch, throw or hit a ball reasonably well, he can play. Running fast is important for some positions and has its place in the rarified zones of base-stealing and stretching out a base hit from a single to a double or a double to a triple, but if a fat kid can hit the ball far enough or play a position that doesn’t require a lot of speed in the first place, like catcher, then he can make a contribution to the game, and now and then redeem himself on the field of play.
Flash forward fifty years. I am writing this in Germany the morning after their stunning victory over Argentina in the 2010 World Cup. I am horse from hollering and have a slight headache from one-too-many beers slurped down during the intense heat and excitement that has enveloped the country this weekend.
Baseball, the game of my youth and homeland, is still embraced by its die-hard fans but since the glory days of the post-war, basketball, football, hockey and stock-car racing have stolen much of its thunder and many of its fans. There is no game in America today that unites the nation as baseball did when I was a kid, no game that works the kind of magic that soccer seems to work on the countries of Europe, Asia, Africa and South America. If there ever was a World sport – it is soccer.
Following yesterday’s match, I took a short walk through the neighborhood I now call home. I am married to a German and we are raising our son here. He is now the same age that I was when I played baseball in Tom Findlay’s back yard. He wears the German national team jersey and knows the players names and numbers, and yesterday he proudly wrapped himself in the flag of his mother’s homeland to cheer his team on to victory. And he was not alone. From street to street, corner bar to bakery, in every part of town the people were celebrating the win. Children, adults, retirees, black, white and brown – the streets and parks and sidewalks were filled with people who had spilled out of their homes after the match to join the celebration.
I lived in New York City most of my life and experienced a World Series or two, but I’ve never experienced anything quite like this. It is difficult to imagine how much more excited the fans might become were Germany to win it all.
The game itself has taken me a little time to adjust to; the rules and strategies are foreign to me. I played soccer a handful of times as a boy but it wasn’t the game I grew up with. We didn’t have soccer moms in the late 1950’s. But I have a prediction. If the kids of America embrace this game, if the kids on the street and in the neighborhoods start bouncing that ball off their knees and heads and chests, if the game catches on like baseball did when I was young, then America, and world of soccer, are in for change of monumental proportion.
Soccer moves. It’s fast, tough, and thrilling even without scoring – I know that may be hard to comprehend but it’s true. Imagine hockey without padding and skates, imagine 22 men running full-out for 90 minutes with nothing but shin pads and high socks for protection, executing plays that demonstrate a level of skill, finesse and raw power that rival any sport or art you have ever seen – that’s soccer as it is played during the World Cup.
And all you need is a ball. The kids in our neighborhood play soccer in the small clearing directly in front of the church. The local pastor doesn’t care much for the constant battering the front of the building takes every afternoon after school, but there is little he or anyone else can do about it. The kids roll the balls along with them as they go to school and whenever two or more of them are together, they match up and play. The young men who played last night in front of an audience approaching a billion fans, started playing the game as soon as they could walk. It’s not a rich man’s game and it isn’t that complicated once you learn the basic rules – anyone can play – or just about. One thing you don’t see is many fats kids. Soccer requires running and lots of it.

Last week I watched my son playing on the field behind his school. I was a little early picking him up and boys were playing soccer. He didn’t get his feet on the ball that often but he ran – man did he run. When I asked him later about his day and about the soccer game, he told me he had had a great time. He didn’t score, he’s the youngest kid in his class and with an American father, he didn’t receive the early and constant coaching that most of the boys received growing up, but he loved the running and he’s fast, so once he figures out how the running and kicking together thing works, he’ll probably be pretty good at it. Soccer will be the game of his youth just as baseball was mine.
In two weeks, we will be back in New York and I have promised him a Yankee game. It will be his first and I will be interested to see how he reacts to it. He’s been wearing a Yankee cap since he was two and being the only American kid in his school, he wears his cap as a badge of pride. Being an American is something that sets him apart and he loves America and everything he imagines it represents. But yesterday he was wearing the German flag and it was the sport of soccer that enthralled him. I want him to enjoy the Yankee game but I don’t expect he will ever play it, not like we did when we were kids. I suppose I want him to know the game so that he understands a bit more about his father, and the game I played and loved when I was his age. But if the truth be told, it is the game of his youth that I am learning to embrace. I will never lose my love of baseball, but I expect I may soon love soccer even more.


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3:25 PM  
Blogger G in Berlin said...

I've never felt that way about baseball. Perhaps because baseball is all about boys? For me, it was always soccer and field hockey and this was in the days when there were no soccer moms. But those were sports where girls were welcomed. And I love fussball and how wonderful the film angles are here. Next year I think about getting my 7 year old into a league- at the latest a year after. But here in Berlin,we don't have a backyard to practice in.

12:43 PM  
Blogger G in Berlin said...

Oh, I'm a long term follower:). We will be in NYC in two weeks, then upstate for two more. Perhaps it will be a bit cooler- it was 40C today in Berlin but the same in NYC yesterday!

12:17 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

I love this post - thank you. I was lucky enough to be in Germany when they won against Argentina and definitely felt the excitement and energy! I was rooting for them to win it all for the selfish reason of witnessing first hand how Germany would celebrate! It was a respectable end, nonetheless.

11:06 PM  
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