Why cleats beat other treats

This blog is rarely preoccupied with shoes, or hats. Normally you would have to look at Vogue if you wanted that. But 2017 was not like other baseball years for your correspondent, writes Rob Jones.

Shoes were central to this year’s experience. Or, more specifically, cleats. Red cleats.

Way back when I started playing baseball, I stumbled across a pair of red Converse cleats going cheap from a guy who ran a baseball shop out of an industrial lot in north London. I bought them because I had credit with him, and just because they were there. But they became an emotional part of my game.

When my young children first came to see me play, they could identify Daddy from all these guys on the field by the fact he had red shoes on. One of our team-mates with a talent for photography immortalised the red cleats one year with a close-up picture.

They became me, and I became them.

In early 2017, they finally gave up the ghost. I don’t actually play that often, and would sometimes use different shoes on hard ground (the pair in question have metal cleats). So they had lasted years. But, in the end, they had too many holes and cracks to make them viable.

And so they were retired. And when I travelled to the United States this Spring, for the first time in about 8 years, my mission was to find new red, metal cleats. That was my request to each of the sports stores we visited.

And shiny Nike “Mike Trout” shoes were the result. I joke to my children that Mike Trout wears “Rob Jones” shoes, but I don’t think they are convinced.

Now, I accept this is all frippery. I mean, really, shoes?? But in the sporting world, good luck and superstitions can come in all shapes and sizes (a size 8, in this case). And a bit of bling never hurts.

The old and new, side by side

Those old cleats had won the famous 2016 playoff game in Tonbridge. They helped me to a couple of batting titles (no, I didn’t hit the ball with my feet, but you know what I mean). I could read into all of this a message about breaking down, and wearing out. But I am choosing to find a message of longevity, and of renewal.

The cleats won their last game, in the Herts Spring League.

And the new guys won theirs too, at home to the Bracknell Inferno.

This was the start of the serious business of baseball. It was a season with lots of promise for the Herts Raptors, after winning their first ever playoff game in 2016. Lots of the guys who contributed that that run were still on board — though we lost some to higher divisions — and fresh new talent arrived, too.

My season started with an early 1.000 batting average. The last time that happened there were comparisons to the great Ty Cobb, and I became Rob Cobb. But fortunately that name didn’t last. The batting was a bit up and down this year, but it evened out just over .500 which was acceptable.

In the Kent Mariners game, I debunked my own theory that my bat gets slower and weaker as the game goes on with my biggest hit in a last-inning attempt at a rally. Not actually a hit, in scoring terms, as it was caught in the outfield. But enough to give me late-game optimism!

A man and his shoes playing Bracknell

The cleats and I played almost all of the season at shortstop, barring a few moments as catcher. Again, it started pretty well, building to the home game against the London Musketeers as the defensive pinnacle of my year. At that point, I thought the magic shoes might finally take me to an infield gold glove.

But as the year wore on, maybe I slowed down a smidgen (see previous batting theories). But I did get to turn a double play at Guildford, and hopefully my work helped to keep the team in games on other occasions.

The Raptors ended with a 7-7 record, an excellent recovery from a hole we got into in the middle of the season. We just missed the playoffs but everyone is keen to come back for more next year and get into post-season action again. The shoes are definitely keen for more.

The other sartorial element of 2017 to be mentioned  is hats. I also acquired a new Herts cap this year, because I had lost mine on a ride at Disney World in Florida. There are worse — or more boring – places to lose a hat. It ruined my plans to represent the club when we went to a Minor League baseball game on the same holiday, but it does mean that somewhere deep in Disney World, a mysterious black cap with a red H is repping Herts for an American audience.

Luckily, my son was able to represent Herts at the ball game with his hat. He had only lost his Red Sox cap!

Even while visiting one of the world’s leading entertainment attractions, I couldn’t help but take note of all the baseball caps I saw. And I ended up, essentially, counting them.

Most common were Cubs and Red Sox. But right up there with them were the Detroit Tigers. Which felt strange, as you don’t see a whole lot of Detroit hats in the UK. I don’t know what that tells us — are the Tigers way bigger in the US? Or do people from Detroit go on vacation in Florida?

San Francisco Giants fans seemed to prefer Animal Kingdom, as I saw more there than anywhere else. I was slightly surprised by the number of Blue Jays hats.

And according to my deeply unscientific poll, the Seattle Mariners are the least popular club in America, as I didn’t see a single one of their hats. Sorry, M’s. Following close behind, with maybe one or two hats spotted during the fortnight, were the Colorado Rockies, the Oakland A’s, the San Diego Padres and the Houston Astros.

Clearly, the fact that lots of these teams are on the west coast might simply mean that their fans go to Disneyland in California, instead of travelling thousands of miles to Florida! And if the Houston Astros win the World Series, they probably won’t care that I have just suggested they’re among the least popular teams in the US. If they do win, they might even celebrate by buying some new shoes….