TIME OF THE SEASON
A long season can lead to bouts of homesickness, and with so many Americans now playing professional soccer across the globe, one can almost hear heart strings plucked loudest when the boys of summer start to their work back in the States.
Think about it: barring US National Team trips home (something not all Yanks abroad receive), these players spend a solid nine months away from family and the familiar. Sure, expatriates can find some of the comforts of American life overseas, but there will always be little pieces of home missing - for instance, the appalling lack of Hawaiian Punch in the Netherlands.
Of course, not all homesick players are pining for the crack of the bat; Newcastle loan item Oguchi Onyewu finds the sport a yawner and Odd Grenland defender Nat Borchers would rather take in a basketball game any day.
But for many of our guys overseas, the beginning of a new baseball season kicks the already buzzing yen for home into overdrive. The smell of the grass, the crack of the bat, the sun shining brightly on our bleacher bum faces as we have a cold one with buddies... it all feels like Spring, time for new hopes and fanciful thoughts.
To many American males, going to the old ballgame is a continuing rite of passage. We go with our dads as kids, then with our friends as we mature into adults, and finally, take our sons to ensure that they understand the complex beauty of our national pastime.
For Americans busy with soccer far, far away from the smell of freshly roasted peanuts until May or June, the season's first pitch might signal that it is almost time to go home for a while - after all, one does not become less American by leaving America.
Some foreigners fail to grasp the romanticized nature of attending a baseball game, but the Midwestern boys, in particular, try to explain the lure to their soccer hosts; Watford defender Jay DeMerit feels there are few leisure activities so clearly American.
"It's a good day out," the told YA. "You go to the park and you bring the kids. Or if you go with your buddies, you have a few drinks and make an afternoon of it."
Added TOP Oss defender and Milwaukee Brewers fan Charles Kazlauskas: "Ever since I can remember, I have gone to the ballpark with family and friends. It is a tradition."
"It is the American pastime," West Ham back and faithful Cubbie Jonathan Spector simply offered. "I'd like to think soccer will compete with it in popularity in years to come, but baseball has a history behind it."
It may sound an unreasonable wish, but DeMerit does not believe MLS is hurt in any way by sharing the summer with their baseball counterparts.
"The good thing about baseball is there's so many games," he reasoned. "Maybe there is room for people to go to a soccer game one night and a baseball game the next. They know there's going to be another baseball game."
Since they can't be back in their hometowns on MLB Opening Day, the Yank baseball nuts go the extra mile to stay in touch with the action.
Computers certainly help and family does their part (I personally love St. Louis Post Dispatch sports section packages from home... thanks, Dad!), but none of it can keep Americans in Europe from staying up 'til the wee hours to catch live televised action once the playoffs roll around.
Sheffield Wednesday back Frank Simek, who proudly proclaims himself a Cardinals crazy, even made sure to watch the 2006 World Series champions receive their rings in front of the despised Mets (the New Yorkers promptly thanked their hosts for the gaudy hour-long show with a three-game season opening sweep, but that hardly matters to a St. Louisian after he watches the 10th title flag go up at their snazzy new Busch Stadium).
"It was great fun last year when they won it and I watched it all," said the recently capped US international, who surely had an odd sleep schedule last October. "I watched Opening Day this year. I had just got back from the States and was jetlagged (but) I stayed up and watched it."
"I follow the Brewers via the internet and I call my uncle once in a while in Milwaukee to ask him how they are doing," said Kazlauskas. "He is a big Milwaukee sport fan."
Current news courier isn't the only family connection to the game: DeMerit often gets to hear exciting tales from the old days, when his uncle John hit three home runs in 132 Major League at bats during the late '50's and early 60's.
"He played for the Milwaukee Braves," DeMerit instructed. "He was an outfielder and played behind Hank Aaron. When you're behind him and he never gets injured, it's hard to make your name for yourself."
"He had a good career, even though he was overshadowed by the guy in front of him. He enjoyed his time and he enjoyed to play with Hank Aaron because he was one of the greatest. He also played a little with the Mets. It's great to hear all these old stories."
And when these guy finally do arrive back home at the end of the season, it immediately becomes time to go catch a ballgame. "It is always a great experience going to the ballpark and I will definitely be making a trip again this summer," stated Spector. "I always make a point of going when I am in Chicago."
"I will go to one or two games during my summer vacation," promised Kazlauskas. "They just built a new stadium (Miller Park) a couple years ago, so it is a great ballpark to sit and watch a game whether the Brewers win or not. I just go for the relaxation and enjoyment of the game."
DeMerit, a Chicago White Sox man from Wisconsin, actually spends more time at Brewers games; he does, however, try to be strategic in his visits.
"They were never very good, so that made it hard to follow the Brewers (growing up), but we'd go to games in the summer because that's just what we'd do," explained the US defender. "We'd head down to Milwaukee and try to (go when the visitors were) one of the Chicago teams."
Just because DeMerit doesn't hail from the Windy City doesn't mean that he can't get caught up in a bit of trash talk with Spector from time to time. "That's how I got into (baseball) so much - the rivalry between Sox and Cubs fans," he recalled.
"I actually hate to admit it, but I went to a White Sox game before I saw the Cubs," snorted Spector, who surely took stick from Simek during the recent USMNT camp.
"A friend of mine was a Sox fan and got tickets," he rationalized. "I wasn't going to turn down tickets to a baseball game aged 10 or 11."
"Coming from the Northside, naturally I'd be a Cubs fan as it is a Northside-Southside divide. Brian McBride is from the same town as me, but I don't know if he is a Cubs fan," he pondered. "I would hope so... if not, I will have some strong words for him."
"I'm hoping that the Sox can reaggravate those Cubs fans (this season)," DeMerit said of his 2007 season desires. "I know the Cubs fans are talking about a big season."
Kazlauskas is much more likely to hold his tongue when the baseball boats start flying, even when his boys look pretty good to start the year. "I never really have any expectations for the Brewers in the beginning of the season," he sighed. "They usually end up below .500 at the end of the season."
Naturally, their love of the game goes back to childhood, when each might well have imagined themselves the next Ryne Sandberg, Frank Thomas or John Tudor.
"I played a lot of baseball games during my childhood, mostly pitcher and shortstop," said Kazlauskas. "I had fun playing the game, rain or sunshine."
"I played baseball up until high school," recalled Spector. "I wasn't bad actually. I am left-handed so every team wanted a left-handed pitcher. I also played first base and center field. I enjoyed all three positions, kinda like what I am doing over here playing a number of different positions. I can't get away from that, I guess."
"The one memory I have that sticks out most is a tournament I was in with my club team," Spector regaled. "I remember hitting a grand slam and it was a terrible pitch to swing at, probably neck level. It was great because it was on a really nice field with the grass infield and the outfield pen, and I hit it over the fence. I must have been probably about 12 at the time."
Until they can bathe in the sunshine at their favorite ballpark in the offseason, the players must watch the new season unfold from afar; Kazlauskas aside, there is plenty of horsehide hope to spring terminable.
"It is tough to call this year, but I am just hoping the Cubs with their new manager Lou Pinella can end their drought," Spector let on. "What is it? (Was) 1908 the last time they won the World Series or something ridiculous like that? We have tag of the lovable losers, so we need to end that soon."
Unsurprisingly, Simek has a different prediction for his international teammate. Since he supports the current kings of baseball, I'll give him the last say. "I predict a Cardinals repeat this year," he laughed. "How does that sound?"
It sounds like Spring, Frank... even from Sheffield.