Transatlantic Passion


Trevor Greenaway-Clissold

Game Five of the 2015 American League Division Series was one of the wildest that I -- and no doubt most other baseball fans -- have ever seen.  There was shouting, jumping, throwing drinks around -- and that was just me in my living room!

So this is playoff baseball.

In two decades of watching baseball, and the Blue Jays in particular, playoff baseball wasn’t something I’d given much thought to beyond thinking 'which team do I have a soft spot for that I’ll root for in this post-season?'.  There had certainly been some exciting moments, and some individual brilliance from my early baseball-watching days of seeing Roberto Alomar (still my all-time favourite Blue Jay) and the likes of ‘Doc’ Halladay, but when you have 161 other games in the regular season you never get too excited with wins or too down about the all-too many defeats.  Tomorrow’s another game.

Roberto Alomar doing what he does best!

Playoff baseball, I learned this past autumn, is a different animal altogether - right down to the heart-breaking but all-too-inevitable defeat to the eventual World Series Champion Kansas City Royals. The tying run 90 feet away with no outs, my fingernails chewed down to the stumps, the Jays crumbled at the crucial moment and three outs later the season was over.

As the dust settled, and the beer cans that had been thrown from the 500 level were collected, it gave me a chance to reflect on my first baseball post-season fan experience.  And there was one question that stuck.

Why did it mean so much?

I don’t mean that in the ‘it’s just a game’ kind of way.  I mean, this is a team 3,547 miles away, a team I've never seen in the flesh.  In fact, I only left Europe for the first time on my honeymoon to Cuba in 2013 and my one trip to North America was to New York in November 2014, and there’s not a lot of baseball being played then.

There was some obvious release here - two decades of mediocrity leading to a complete turnaround after the All Star break when somehow we became the hottest team in baseball.

But there’s an interesting word there – ‘we’.

My wife mocks me for referring to ‘we’ or ‘us’ when talking about the teams I support. “Were you on the field?” “Did you hit the home run?"  These are questions she’ll often put to me. For the most part it’s semantics and it’s done in jest, but it does pose questions about the mind-set of fans, about emotional involvement and a sense of belonging.

With football, and most other sports, there’s normally a historical and/or family connection to your local team.  In my case, my dad’s side of the family lived a stone’s throw from the Boleyn Ground, and without question I was born and raised a West Ham fan.  In fact, I’m even named after Trevor Brooking.

My namesake scores probably the most famous West Ham header to win the 1980 FA Cup.

In circumstances like this it’s easy to see your team as part of your family, with a tradition to it and, of course, a tribal element.  I don’t mean the literal hooligan tribal connection, but rather the ‘friendly’ rivalries that get built in your neighbourhood and at school.  It’s about wearing your colours and standing with others like you.

It’s that shared culture that often gives you the connection to your team, and clubs can almost seem to take on the identity of the town or area they’re based in.  Much of the rivalry between West Ham and Millwall goes back to clashes over the crossing of picket lines by the rival iron workers the clubs were founded from.  All of that was decades before I was born but it’s something you take on and that becomes a part of your passion for your team.  In some strange way, there’s an underlying and unspoken (and very grudging) respect between supporters of the two teams because of that shared history: you don’t like them but you respect their historical passion.  That’s why, growing up, you’d mock the so-called glory-hunting London-based Liverpool and Man United fans.

And yet we commit wholeheartedly to baseball teams not just from a different town but a whole other continent.

While completely different sports, football and baseball share many historical similarities.  Most teams were born out of manufacturing, created by the factory owners for their workers’ recreation (and, cynically, to get their pay going back into the company coffers!).  This was one of the main things that hooked me on the sport when I first discovered baseball.  The golden ages and the history of the sport, so closely tied to the modern history of America itself, resonated with me.  When you grow up supporting a team like West Ham you’re well versed in the rich and storied history (there’s not much recent success there to shout about!).  Visions of Sir Bobby and three straight Wembley victories (FA Cup, European Cup Winners Cup and, of course, the World Cup) - those black-and-white images are engraved on my brain.

The story of baseball, so wonderfully portrayed by Ken Burns’ masterful documentary series, felt so familiar to me.  The sociological history of baseball was a story I felt I already knew.

Left: Thames Iron Works, the factory team that would become West Ham.
Right: One of the many factory baseball teams that spread the sport across America.

It’s perhaps strange, then, that I ended up a Blue Jays fan, one of the new breed of expansion teams playing in the often-derided characterless bowl of the Sky Dome (yes, I still call it that).  But that choice was actually linked to another sport and passion – ice hockey.

Back in the halcyon days for minority sports in the early ‘90s, I grew up, like so many others, watching Grandstand.  For me, Grandstand’s demise from the BBC is a tragedy, not just for television but for sport in general.  For me, it offered a wonderful opportunity every Saturday to discover new sports.  The school I went to struggled to put on any kind of organised sport, and after the first couple of years they didn’t even put out a football team anymore, so I revelled in these strange and unusual sports.

I can’t quite remember what the event was, though I assume it was the British Championships, but from that moment on I was hooked.  I used to go to the library every week with my Nan and I got all three of the books they had on ice hockey.  In some ways, it proved to be a God-send: through most of my life I’ve suffered from insomnia and to find ice hockey being shown in the early hours finally broke up the monotony of staring at the ceiling contemplating what was at the end of the universe.  In much the same way that the history of baseball drew me in, it was the black-and-white images of ice hockey that captured my imagination, images of 15,000 people watching ice hockey in Britain and guys playing without helmets and limited protective equipment.  And one team in particular struck a chord with me.  A storied franchise with a rich history, that hadn’t had much success in terms of silverware since the ‘60s – The Toronto Maple Leafs sounded like my kind of team.

The 1967 Toronto Maple Leafs, the last to win the Stanley Cup. Note the lack of protective equipment!

So when the ice hockey season finished, it was a natural progression to follow baseball and I took my new-found Toronto affiliation with me.

I’d first discovered baseball through that other pinnacle of random minority sports, TransWorld Sport – the Saturday morning magazine show most known for making kabaddi famous to British viewers.  Much as TV brought new sports to my consciousness, so the growth of televised sports since the ‘90s is the main factor in fuelling the passion of international fans.

Modern media has made the world a much smaller place.

Back in November last year, the BBC Radio 4 show The Why Factor ran a programme on the long-distance fan, looking at just this subject.  While looking mainly at the growth of the Premier League in international markets, it also touched on British-based fans of North American sports.  Much of the commercial success of the Premier League, and clubs like Man United, Real Madrid and Barcelona in particular, is down to television.  The availability of live games to billions of people around the world (actually with more live coverage than we get here due to various legal issues I won’t bore you with) has created rabid fans thousands of miles from the traditional catchment areas of these clubs.  These are fans that are in bars in the early hours of the morning going crazy with just as much passion for ‘their’ team as those in the stadium.

In fact, this has changed the whole fan engagement for traditional fans as well.

There have been many articles in recent years on the issue of ticket pricing for football fans.  Gone are the days when your stereotypical family of four could easily go to every game.  At West Ham now the cheapest ticket is £49 and around £70 for the Category A games; it’s no longer a working-class pastime going to games.  I must stress that this is the Premier League I’m referring to here -- I can still go to watch my local team, Bromley FC, get a beer, pie and programme, and still have change from £20, with under-16s going free (shameless plug there for anyone wanting to go).

With a mortgage and young family, I seldom get to go to the Boleyn anymore.  This doesn’t make me any less of a fan and hasn’t diminished my passion: victories are still celebrated with the same exuberance and defeats still hurt (even if I’ve learned to accept them more calmly than I did in childhood).  But the rising cost of going to sports, and cost of living in general, has changed the way fans support their clubs.  Even clubs have changed the way they engage fans, embracing digital media and knowing very well that it’s not just about the people in the stadium any more.

Like most British baseball fans, I can wax lyrical about the Sunday and Wednesday nights we used to stay up glued to Channel 5.  From what I remember, Toronto was rarely shown, but you didn’t care - you got to watch live baseball (and in the winter, for me, ice hockey as well) and you didn’t care who was on.  It often feels to me that British fans actually invest more than many in North America, foregoing sleep to watch as many games as they can.

MLB on Five, so much nostalgia in one photo!

Fast-forward to today: Baseball on Five, like Grandstand before it, has sadly gone, and baseball and ice hockey no longer have a home on terrestrial television.  MLB TV in many ways seems like the most amazing thing for a baseball fan - we can watch any game we want, whenever we want.  Being able to watch every Blue Jays game is fantastic, although at the same time I probably know less about MLB in general now compared to when you watched whatever games and teams you could.  But, like foreign Premier League fans, I do now get to watch ‘my’ team whenever I want, and I see them play far more than I ever see West Ham or Harlequins or the traditional teams I grew up supporting.

Teams no longer belong to a town or city, they belong to the world.  And that’s why, when Joey did this, fans thousands of miles away all felt the same thing….

Jose Bautista Bat Flip

tagged under: baseball, mlb, bsuk staff, experiences, fandom

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About Trevor Greenaway-Clissold

Trevor Greenaway-Clissold

Trevor joined BSUK in January 2012 and is currently the Marketing, Communications & Events Officer, having also worked with the GB Baseball National Team as Media Director, Assistant GM and GM. Trevor lives in Kent and is a long-suffering Toronto Blue Jays fan since the mid-90s.

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