Anthony Lane, usually the film critic at the New Yorker with David Denby, made me literally laugh out loud with his dispatch from the first week in Beijing.
“It was the same at Beijing Airport: the first thing I saw on arrival was a sniffer dog, but instead of some lunging German shepherd, with streaks of Baskerville-style foam along its jaws, there was a beagle. Now, beagles have been sniffing around U.S. airports for years, but this one was chasing a rubber ball. Running behind, at the end of its tether, was the dog’s keeper, laughing gaily, and behind him, somewhere in the seven years since Beijing won the Olympic bid, was a committee dedicated solely to canine propaganda. As long as one mutt-fancier from the tenderhearted West caught sight of the romping beagle and exclaimed to her husband, “Oh, look at little Snu Pi! See, they don’t eat them, they play with them!,” the committee’s job was done.”
Yesterday, Saturday, I snuck away for a doubleheader at Wukesong Park for the two medal round baseball games, the last two ball games to be played in the Olympics since the IOC has deigned to drop the sport (along with softball) thanks to a deadlock vote of 52-52. Baseball was on my pre-Games set of resolutions, and I am glad I got out to the western edge of the city to see the last games before they are gone. It is pointless to get into a comparison pissing match with “sports” that entail music, costumes, and judging. But I get pretty depressed when I look up at the television and see synchronized swimming instead of an epic pitching duel between Cuba and the USA.
International baseball is a strange beast. Of the truly global sports – football (soccer), Formula 1 racing, basketball – baseball has always had fervent support in a few farflung countries where the USA made itself known, but it is probably never going to expand much further than it has already. The Japanese are ardent fans thanks to their post-WWII introduction to besi-boru by the occupying forces under General MacArthur. Cuba and the rest of the Caribbean picked it up prior to Castro (who was a player himself). Taiwan consistently shows up at the Little League World Series and kicks ass. These Games marked China’s debut, but as my Chinese colleagues warned me last winter, baseball doesn’t have a chance in a country focused on events it can get a gold medal in, and football, their pervasive passion.
On the flight to Beijing from Dulles I sat in the second deck lounge of the United 747 with the coaches of the American team and overheard their general manager call the ultimate gold medalist, Korea. Last night I saw his prediction come true as the Koreans took on Cuba and won the gold 4-3 before a nutty mob of Korean fans at Wukesong. Earlier in the day I saw a better game between the USA and Japan for the bronze – though truth be told the Japanese deserve the gold for fan spirit – they had cheerleaders with whistles leading them in “Go Go Nippon !” chants for nearly every minute of the nine-innings, unflagging even after the USA extended their lead to four runs in the seventh inning.
Olympic baseball is a weird, indeed like most other western experiences transplanted to the East, hallucinatory experience. The sports organ guy, the snippets of rock and roll get-psyched music, the 7th inning rendition of “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” …. At least there was beer served and lots of it. I think the fans were pretty sophisticated and knew what was going on (reports said some Chinese fans were confused by the rules and didn’t know how to follow the game, cheering foul balls ((heck I cheer foul balls from time to time)). I would have had programs, I would have displayed some meaningful stats on the boards (pitcher’s percentages, pitch count, more batting averages, and for heaven’s sake the lineup), and skipped the obligatory appearance of the oh-so-cute Fuwa mascots.
The real action, as always, was in the stands. I continue to applaud the spirit of the Asian country’s spectators. These are truly their hometeam games and they are making the most of it. I wore my Dice-K Matsusaka Red Sox t-shirt with pride, and on my way of the USA-Japan game at least six Japanese spectators came up to me and shook my hand, beaming and repeating: “Dick-K Yes! Hideki Yes!” Boston was the only team represented on hats and shirts in the immediate vicinity of my seats. Interesting how a couple world championships will extend a brand. One Korean fan in a Green Celtics wifebeater screamed at me: “Go Go Gadget ARMS!!!!” in reference to the long-limbed Kevin Garnett.
So, now it’s all done and the temporary stands at Wukesong are going to be dismantled. Maybe we’ll see baseball rise gain in 2016. Let’s see which city gets the nod. If it is Tokyo or Chicago I’ll bet we witness the second coming of Olympic Baseball.