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Original Issue

Grand New Game

A 30-year-old British rocker came to the U.S. last October and fell hard for his new love: the national pastime

AMONG THE challenges of being a touring band for more than 10 years are the risk of repetition and the well-documented danger of breakups. We in The Maccabees have avoided those pitfalls for the most part. In fact, we've had a pretty blessed run. So the prospect of returning last fall to a country as sprawling as the U.S., knowing we would be playing small bars and dealing with countless hours of traveling, was daunting. I knew it would require a distraction.

On our first night, in Austin, Texas, I stopped aimlessly skipping through TV channels when I came across a baseball game. There was a bit of magic in the way the floodlights bounced off the hitters' impossibly clean helmets. It was enough to send me cartwheeling, with impossible enthusiasm, toward the sport and to stay with it throughout the postseason.

I'd always assumed baseball was glorified rounders, a British bat-and-ball game. But suddenly it struck me that it might be a lot more. I quickly learned the rules. I began wearing baseball clothes. I even took to carrying a baseball everywhere so I could ask people how to throw a changeup.

By early October, when we arrived in New York City for a week of shows, I was completely smitten. I heard conversations about the Mets swell around me, celebrating a team that was so dynamic that the players resembled cartoon characters. Curtis Granderson marched to the plate looking equal parts Marine and your goofy best friend. Jacob deGrom and Noah Syndegaard looked like every teenage kid's projection of his future self. No player was more charismatic than Bartolo Colon. Strikingly overweight, he seemed indifferent to it all, which made him all the more heroic to me.

Calling in favors, I got two tickets to Game 3 of the Division Series, against the Dodgers. I clutched them tight inside my jacket on my way to Queens, while also cramming from my constant companion, the book Watching Baseball Smarter. I still wasn't 100% sure of all the rules, but I certainly understood why Chase Utley, who in Game 2 had broken the leg of Mets shortstop Ruben Tejada with a hard slide, was booed at Citi Field. In the middle of the seventh inning, an irrationally angry man two rows behind me gestured at everyone to take their caps off for the playing of "God Bless America." I was inside baseball, so I complied.

Throughout the tour I spoke to a lot of people across the U.S. about baseball. There was John, the taxi driver in Austin, who said, "I wasn't great at hitting the ball, but I was very good at getting hit by the ball." There was Mary, the owner of a small art gallery outside Pittsburgh, who spoke compassionately of Roberto Clemente and how the town had made him its own even before his tragic death. A middle-aged man barked across a Chicago bar that I was lucky to be watching the postseason because it's preceded by so many games that you can be sucked into a vortex of meaninglessness (not his exact words).

As the tour unfolded through autumnal America, my connection to baseball grew until I didn't need to find it. It would find me. I stopped and watched Little League games that I randomly came across, keeping distance from the adult coaches who whispered to 12-year-old sluggers-to-be, "It's a curve." Even from my limited time with the game, they didn't seem to be right. I think the kids knew that.

Eventually, it struck me that major league players are the least important thing about baseball. You can be the bruised cabbie, the aging art gallerist, the whispering coach or the touring English musician looking for an escape: Baseball finds a story and a place for all of us.

I'd already done the amateur self-analysis of why sports are so important to me. What jarred me in the U.S. was the thought that baseball filled something vacant in me, a need for belonging. Yet my relationship with the game was simple and uncomplicated. It was like falling in love, or at least being young again.

Home in London, I risked prolonging jet lag by resisting sunlight to keep in touch with the 111th World Series. I worried that my not being in America had somehow jinxed Daniel Murphy. And when David Wright hit a home run at Citi Field in Game 3, I wondered how anyone could not love baseball and how I'd been able to live so long without it. Yet when the Mets lost the Series to the Royals in Game 5, every one of these previously cartoonish players in their dugout looked more human than ever. I felt strangely hurt on behalf of people with whom I'd had no association until very recently.

Heartbreak, though, is usually a good place to start. I was grateful for it. Though baseball had meant nothing to me for 30 years, the crash course at the end of last year left me daydreaming of being there for even the meaningless stuff that comes before the postseason. I can't wait for Opening Day.

I wondered how anyone could not love baseball and how I'd been able to live so long without it.


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