Strike Three

Having written a couple of posts about cricket last week, I thought I’d complete my hat-trick of sports-related posts by going off on a bit of a curveball.

The term curveball is not, as far as I know, used in cricket. It is actually a baseball term, which is quite appropriate as that’s the sport to which I’m mostly going to devote today’s post.

One of my transatlantic friends commented (via Facebook) on the last post that cricket is “kinda like baseball”. She said it rather tongue-in-cheek (having lived over here for long enough to pick up a bit of a British sense of humour, I suspect) but there is a certain grain of truth in the observation, as there are some striking similarities (as well as some obvious differences) between the two games.

Baseball is not a particularly high-profile sport here in the UK and has never particularly grabbed my attention. Before doing a spot of internet research (i.e. reading a handful of Wikipedia articles and watching a couple of video clips) over the weekend, I knew little more than that it was a game a bit like rounders but played with a bigger bat and having a few more rules. I don’t know much more about it even now, but I’ve managed to glean sufficient understanding of the rules and culture of baseball to finally be able to understand the punchline of a musical joke that I first heard about 20 years ago and was able to recognise as a baseball-related thing without having a clue to the meaning.

The context of the joke is an orchestral performance (presumably somewhere in the USA, the home of baseball) of Beethoven’s 9th symphony. The bass section, faced with a long gap with nothing to play, take the opportunity of slipping out and nipping across the road for a swift half at the local pub (or a couple of beers at the nearest bar, or whatever) and take the precaution of tying together the last couple of pages of the conductor’s score in order to slow him down before he gets to their entry in case they are delayed in returning. Sure enough, when the basses stagger back in having enjoyed one half too many they find the irate conductor trying desperately to undo the bit of string round his music as the perplexed performers begin to falter. One member of the audience realises that something’s wrong but has no idea what it is until his friend points out that “it’s the bottom of the 9th, the score is tied and the basses are loaded.”

Although somewhat contrived as a situation for a symphonic concert, this same sentence (with one minor change of spelling) would make perfect sense in baseball and would be an exciting situation, as the next two paragraphs will hopefully demonstrate.

Innnings are a feature of both baseball and cricket and refer to a team’s chance to bat. Cricket (and I believe also rounders) uses “innings” as singular and plural; baseball reserves the final ‘s’ for the plural. Also, baseball splits each inning (of which there are nine) between the two teams, with the first team taking the top half and the other team the bottom half, while cricket teams get a whole innings, or two (depending on the format of the match), each. Hence, in baseball, the bottom of the 9th [inning] is the last phase of the game, although if the score is tied (i.e. both teams have the same number of runs) at the end there is a tie-breaker mechanism (the nature of which has temporarily eluded my memory).

In baseball, the batting team score runs by running round a series of bases laid out at the points of a diamond (i.e. a square viewed from the corner) and the fielding team try to stop them by getting the ball to each base before the runners reach there (each batsman becomes a runner as soon as he hits the ball, drops his bat and starts running). Often they don’t get all the way round in one go and if they stop part-way they have to wait at one of the bases; they need to get back home (i.e. to the point from which they batted) in order to score their run. You aren’t allowed to overtake a runner who is ahead of you and it’s not unusual for there to be runners waiting at several bases. If all the bases are occupied they are said to be loaded. Apparently this situation presents a good scoring opportunity for the batting team but also a good “double play” opportunity for the fielding team – i.e. a chance to get two of the batting team out in one go. If your bases are loaded when it’s the bottom of the 9th and the score is tied, the next pitch is crucial and the game could go either way (and the orchestra joke is actually at least moderately funny).

I have never played baseball and I expect I never will. The closest I’ve got was playing rounders at junior school (where I used to attend our after-school rounders club and on just one occasion was selected to play for our school against another school – albeit on the second team; sadly the match was cancelled due to rain) and a few games of softball at secondary school (it wasn’t one of our regular sports in PE lessons but we occasionally played it for a change and I’m fairly sure I enjoyed playing it quite a lot more than cricket).

Incidentally, the term hat-trick itself apparently comes from cricket although these days it’s perhaps most associated with football (the association variety, appropriately enough) and can be used for a threefold achievement in a variety of sporting contexts. Wikipedia tells me that the term originated when a bowler called H[eathfield] H[arman] Stephenson took three wickets with consecutive balls in a cricket match in 1858; the fans were so impressed they had a whip-round and bought a nice hat to present to him. Although the practice of buying hats to mark the occasion seems to have been a one-off the name stuck for similar performances and was soon generalised to other triple successes in sport, such as scoring three goals in football (I’m not sure whether they have to be consecutive to count as a hat-trick, or if other people can score in between them).

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