The Magazine

This Sporting Life

Real football returns.

Sep 10, 2007, Vol. 12, No. 48 • By GERARD BAKER
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Last month, after weeks of frustrating inactivity occasioned by an ankle injury, David Beckham finally made his debut in Major League Soccer. The owner of the most famous foot in sports, the head that launched a thousand haircuts, the talented half of one of the world's most recognizable couples, was at last ready to inject American soccer with its largest dose of charisma and celebrity since Pelé landed in New York more than 30 years ago.

For an Englishman like me, a lifelong soccer fan who has literally shed tears of joy and grief over the vicissitudes of my local and national teams through the decades, it should have been a big day. It marked an almost sacramental fusing of my English heritage and my modern American acculturation in the last ten years--in the happy crucible of a sports stadium.

What's more, it was going to happen in Washington, a few miles from my home, where D.C. United would host Beckham's L.A. Galaxy.

So what did I find myself doing that evening when English soccer's brightest star was going to be in my neighborhood? I drove 40 miles to see a baseball game. And not much of a baseball game, either, to be honest. As crowds of excited Americans tailgated at RFK Stadium, I hotfooted it up I-95 to Baltimore to see the comically inept Baltimore Orioles host the Seattle Mariners

Why? There was no coercion involved. This was not some curious assignment in self-abnegation. I chose to go. I actually wanted to go and see a largely meaningless professional baseball game rather than the biggest soccer event in recent American history. It was only later, as I dozed while watching the highlights of Beckham's first game that I fully appreciated what my choice that evening betokened.

That night marked a rite of passage for me, a sort of severing of ties with my homeland. If I had reached the point where I'd rather watch baseball nonentities (sorry, Erik Bedard) than a soccer megastar, could I ever go home again?

Not that I didn't embrace American sports long ago.

To be honest, and I say this sheepishly to the baseball fans out there, football was and remains my first love. I first lived in New York in the late 1980s and became caught up in the excitement of the Giants--Phil Simms and Lawrence Taylor, Mark Bavaro and Carl Banks, the Bill Parcells team that won two Super Bowls in the space of four years.

Michael Vick's savagery may have tarnished the game for some, but I can wax ever more lyrical on the deeper appeal of the game. I can repeat the line I first heard years ago from a similarly Americophile Englishman that football was like a cross between chess and rugby. I can tell you how it serves as an animated metaphor for America itself: the melding of Hobbes and Locke on the field of play--the brutest of force mediated by the most complex of regulations that only a nation in thrall to the law could ever devise.

Yes, football came first for me, but it wasn't all that long before other American pastimes impinged on my consciousness. Over the years, as I learned to live without football in those endless months from February to September, I discovered baseball. It looked vaguely familiar. Though I had grown up playing cricket at my English school, I had occasionally glimpsed a game on other fields, like baseball, called rounders. It was played by girls, which meant it was viewed with contempt by boys until we reached a certain age, when the sight of teenage females in short skirts and tight T-shirts suddenly became a spectacle worth lingering over.

Like rounders, but for very different reasons then, baseball began to grow on me. The games lacked the urgency of football--with ten times as many in the regular season, there didn't seem to be much at stake in any one event. But over time the sport--the graceful arc of a contest sweeping through nine innings, the spectacle of a full baseball stadium in a late summer light, and the data--the ERAs and on-base percentages--became an addiction for me.

I won't, I really won't, become a full convert to American sports. Basketball has mostly passed me by, and I don't think I could tell you the name of a single current hockey player. Nor will I completely abandon my affiliation with English soccer.

But on Thursday, thanks to a fine sports editor back in London, and the attention of a few like-minded readers of my newspaper, I'll be in Indianapolis to watch the Colts kick off the new season. If David Beckham showed up, I wouldn't even notice.

GERARD BAKER