It's just not cricket

Home run ... the Chicago Cubstake on the San Francisco Giants.
Home run ... the Chicago Cubstake on the San Francisco Giants. Photo: Getty Images

The "seventh-inning stretch" sounds quite technical, as if you would have to be an expert to appreciate its intricacies. This is, after all, a sport obsessed with intricacies - every individual trait of each player seems to be tracked by a series of pundits, assigned a numerical value and analysed and discussed endlessly.

So the seventh-inning stretch is obviously going to be some sort of key moment in the game, when teams make a play to "stretch" their lead, or someone decides to "stretch" the length of the match-up, or ... Or who knows. It could be anything.

Baseball can be an enigma to the uninitiated. On face value, it looks like a square game of cricket, with a bat to swing and a ball for fielders to chase, but you soon realise there's more to this thing than meets the untrained eye.

For starters, it's not a game, it's an event. A huge event. It's a rapidly cooling evening in San Francisco tonight. There's no one sitting on the dock of the bay; it's too chilly. Traffic has reached its usual level of insanity, but this isn't commuters trying to get home - it's fans trying to get to AT&T Park to take their seats before that first pitch is thrown.

There's a remarkably high level of excitement, given these teams play about a thousand home games a year. American baseballers are lumped with a relentless schedule, playing day after day, night after night seemingly forever, but that doesn't dim fans' enthusiasm for a trip to the ballpark.

You want culture? You'll find it here in the bleachers. Tons of it. A baseball game in the US is a carefully observed ritual, as packed with tradition as any ancient tribal ceremony.

What's happening today? Is it "bobble head day", when attendees are given a little wobbling figurine of their favourite player to stick in their no-doubt enormous cars? Or is it "bat day", when everyone brings their bats along? Or maybe "mitt day", when everyone brings their mitts along?

Looks as if it's just a plain old outing to the ball game, where there's a DJ playing in the bleachers, huge queues by the hot-dog stand and a buzz of excitement in the air. The Giants are back in town.

The first ritual is a familiar one: the playing of the national anthem. In the crowd, hats are removed, hands are placed on hearts, eyes are turned to the Star Spangled Banner's billowing namesake, and then we're under way.

It's San Francisco Giants versus Chicago Cubs. Game on.

As with most sporting events, the beginning of the game prompts a mass exodus of the crowd in search of fried food and beer. American ballparks have their quirks: in LA it's the "famous" Dodger Dog washed down with a huge plastic cup of lager; in San Francisco, it's garlic fries and Napa Valley wine.

The stench of frying garlic hangs over AT&T Park like fog on the bay - each serving comes with a mint to try to freshen the crowd's collective breath, but it's a losing battle. Just sip your cabernet sauvignon and go with it.

Back on the field, where there is actually a game of baseball going on, things are progressing at a cricket-like pace, which is interesting for a country that hates cricket because of its pace. There's the occasional base hit, discussion in the crowd of obscure statistics, and lots of fried food and beer. So, you know, totally different from cricket.

The Giants slug a home run, which gets everyone on their feet. Then there's an innings break. The big screen suddenly focuses on a couple in the crowd. It's "kiss cam"! The pair do their duty and smooch, the crowd cheers, the camera pans to another likely pairing.

The guy is down on one knee - he's proposing! She says yes. Everyone cheers. It's a classic play, and a good one.

We're approaching the seventh inning now, which means this mysterious "stretch" is before us. Top of the seventh, and nothing special happens. In the middle of the seventh, however, we finally get some action.

Everyone stands up. Everyone. There's a song played over the loud speaker - it's Take Me Out to the Ball Game, a tune that sounds so familiar thanks to all those American baseball movies. You can almost sing along.

Then the weirdest thing happens. Everyone in the crowd sets down their beers and their glasses of wine and their garlic fries and their bats and their mitts and their bobble heads, raises their arms in the air, and starts stretching. Arms above heads, tilting from side to side. It's like a stadium-size yoga class.

All those statistics, all those highly paid players, those expert pundits, those base hits and strikeouts and homers, and someone thought to set aside a time in the game for everyone to get up and have a little stretch.

It's part of the tradition, part of the ritual.

And now even I understand.

bengroundwater@gmail.com

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