Still all American

Amid steroid accusations clouding baseball’s respectability and far weightier concerns both at home and abroad, cynics might question the game of baseball’s relevance in today’s world. Is it still “America’s pastime?”

To answer this question for myself, I set out while recently in San Francisco to SBC Park, home of the San Francisco Giants, to catch a game against the Arizona Diamond Backs. What I found was much more than a beautiful, thoughtfully constructed stadium, one that at barely five years old remembers to pay homage to the past while providing excellent sightlines, no matter where you sit.

What I found was a near packed house full of kids, parents, grandparents – the point is a ton of people showed up on a Monday night to support a losing team. That a sea of Giants hats, coats, banners and jerseys (okay, I was wearing my Red Sox hat) was floating amiably through the park, hooting and jeering at Arizona and pulling for their own young starter, Noah Lowry, was impressive considering how poor of a team the Giants really are.

How many Blazer fans regularly come out to see their struggling team? The Rose Garden only sold out twice in the 2004-2005 season and the Garden’s capacity is less than half that of SBC Park.

Once you live in or simply visit a baseball city, it’s easy to see how baseball-starved Portland truly is. There are Giants banners hanging over the street as you near SBC Park. There are Giants pennants in the windows of stores and shops. It’s a city in love with baseball. But those who live by the Bay are lucky, because when summer fades, the 49ers start playing and a whole new mania takes over. And those who don’t like football can drive over to Oakland to watch Baron Davis and the Golden State Warriors.

It’s not the availability of choice that makes baseball’s popularity in San Francisco so rabid. Fair weather fans these are not. The key to baseball’s popularity in the Bay City and in every baseball city in America is tradition. Some places have it and some don’t; don’t be fooled. San Francisco and the Giants are soaked in tradition from their start in New York to their current home in the sun soaked state of California.

To enter the ballpark, one walks through the “Willie Mays Plaza” and enters through the “Willie Mays Gate.” A huge bronze statue of the “Say Hey Kid” resides just to the front of the entrance. Hall of fame pitcher Juan Marichal has his own statue as well. Stats and quotes from former teammates and sports writers dominate each statues base. They are a friendly reminder that there was life before Barry Bonds. And life was good.

The Giants and SBC Park haven’t forgotten tradition. Baseball has been around for over a century, and one cannot look down on a baseball field as the daylight is fading and the huge banks of lights come on and not think for a small moment that this could be any game, that the men on the field could be playing in 1905 or 2005 and it wouldn’t matter. The men have changed. But the game is largely the same.

And that is the real point. Baseball has other competitors in football, basketball and globally with soccer. But baseball’s longevity and tradition are what make it America’s pastime. However, the influx of international players in the Majors means baseball isn’t just about America anymore. Strong followings in Latin America and Asia have turned baseball into a global event.

Indeed the first true “World Series” is being organized for this spring. Nations from around the world, including Japan, the US and many Latin countries, will square off to determine what country has bragging rights. And don’t be surprised if the U.S. team doesn’t win. As in basketball, some of the best talent is no longer home grown.

Yet, even if the U.S. fails to win a world championship in 2006, baseball still has a healthy place in America because, well, it’s baseball. It’s tradition.