Sweden: a world away from the World Series

Sweden: a world away from the World Series
Robinson Cano and the New York Yankees hope to reach the World Series this year
As Sweden hunkers down to face the onset of winter, contributor Joshua Gregory explains how fans of America’s favourite pastime cope with having their remedy for the winter blues remain a world away.

For many ex-pats living in Sweden, October can be a trying time of year. The intoxicating sun and lengthy summer holidays have faded away, leaving us facing the sobering reality of a prolonged period of dreary darkness, not to mention a long cold winter.

In order to cope with the physical and mental challenges that accompany a Scandinavian winter, people tend to seek out the simple pleasures and familiar comforts that provide them with the strength they require to face months ahead.

Some may dive into a novel, while others may look to take up a new hobby like ballroom dancing or knitting.

But for a particular subset of us who find ourselves marooned in Sweden in October, the cure we seek for the onset of the winter blues remains thousands of miles and an achingly wide time difference away.

No, I’m not talking about the beaches of Thailand or Florida. I’m talking about baseball – and more specifically, the World Series.

Known in my native United States as the Fall Classic, Major League Baseball’s World Series, which is set to start next week, normally acts something like a shot of vitamin D that counteracts the onset of October’s empty chill. It’s the end of a months’ long journey in which two teams battle in a best-of-seven game series for the sport’s ultimate prize.

For those not entirely familiar with the sport, baseball is a game of bats and balls (no not cricket!) in which teams score runs against each other by hitting the ball with the bat and running counterclockwise around a series of four bases situated at the corners of a diamond.

A complete trip around the bases constitutes one run and after each team gets nine opportunities to bat, the team with the most runs wins (incidentally baseball is the only sport that appears backwards when watched in a mirror).

It is a sport that resonates strongly with American’s of all ages, even those without a strong interest in sports. As historian Jacques Barzun, grandfather of current US ambassador to Sweden Matthew Barzun, once wrote, “Whoever wants to know the heart and mind of America had better learn baseball, the rules and realities of the game.’’

Of course, baseball is a sport played and followed in many parts of the world – even in Sweden, where baseball has been played for more than 100 years.

The first documented games was played outside Gothenburg in 1904. The inception of the first viable baseball team in Sweden, the Västerås Bäsbollklubb, took place only six years later, and in 1956 the Swedish Baseball and Softball Federation (Svenska Baseboll och Softboll Förbundet) was founded. In 1973 the SBSF became a member of the Swedish Confederation of Sports (Riksidrottsförbundet) and the Swedish National Baseball team was born.

Today baseball is alive and well in Sweden, although it has yet to become as common as football or hockey. Nevertheless, Sweden played host to the world last September when Canada, Netherlands Antilles and South Korea all descended on the brand new National Baseball Stadium in Sundbyberg outside of Stockholm to take part in the group stage of the 2009 Baseball World Cup.

The SBSF currently governs several leagues with 21 teams and close to 500 active baseball players. The Elite Series, Sweden’s top baseball league, is a blend of foreign and Swedish players and games can be seen at a field near you every Saturday throughout the summer.

And while American baseball fans like me appreciate the sport’s established presence in Sweden, it’s still a long way from providing the excitement and the drama of the World Series. Nor does it satisfy our craving for that October fix of championship baseball, a longing which has built up slowly over the course of Major League Baseball’s 6-month, 162-game regular season.

In a way, the World Series could be compared with the finals of European football’s Champions League tournament, both in terms of the build-up surrounding the event as well as the widespread general interest in the outcome.

Even marginal sports fans manage to follow the World Series, which leaves enthusiasts beside themselves with excitement, anticipation and a seemingly inexhaustible compendium of facts and figures regarding every game and player.

Box scores and statistics describing the events of a game can paint a picture of how any given contest unfolded, but it is often what happens between the box scores that make baseball special. Paul Richards, a former manager for the Baltimore Orioles during the late 1950s, said about baseball: “…it’s a beautifully put together pattern of countless little subtleties that finally add up to the big moment.’’

Baseball fans in Sweden may spend 3 to 4 hours watching games the day after they were played just to see for themselves how the previous night’s drama unfolded, even though they already know the outcome.

Stefan Fahlin, an outfielder for the 2010 Elite Series champions Karlskoga Bats, admits he has an addiction to Major League Baseball playoffs.

“Yes, I watch the playoffs as much as I can. For a World Series game, or a no-hitter I probably would watch the whole game the day after,” he says.

However, watching the World Series from Sweden remains a challenge. Time zones, limited television coverage and a relative lack of interest for the game can make it difficult to find games broadcast on television or shown at a local sports bar.

So how can baseball fans watch the World Series in Sweden?

Fortunately there are a few options, although none may be as gratifying as gathering on the couch to watch a prime-time game live with a group of fellow fans.

For starters, the earliest a World Series games will likely start is about 1am Stockholm time, meaning that deciding to watch means showing up to work looking as if you just came in from a svensexa.

But when history is at stake and you live in shaving-optional country, why not!

When it comes down to it, however, there are basically only two really viable options for watching the World Series in Sweden.

One is ESPN America, offered by most cable TV distributers in Sweden. It has only limited coverage of the MLB regular season but is broadcasting all playoffs games and the World Series both live and on tape delay.

But for the hardcore baseball fan the best option is without question a subscription to MLB.com, an online service which allows fans to subscribe either to the entire season or simply to the postseason. The cost is reasonable and the service is excellent.

Games are presented in HD quality and viewers can choose the television feed from either the home or away team. With a quick trip to your neighbourhood Clas Ohlson, you can easily get the hardware you need to connect your computer to your flatscreen.

And for those who also own a Playstation 3, MLB has free software that allows you to access your MLB.com account via the PS3 with a gamer friendly interface.

All games can be watched on demand in either the full coverage or in a condensed game mode that allows the viewer to see an entire game in about 25 minutes (condensed mode games can actually be viewed without a subscription to MLB.com).

For those who opt to watch the game at their desk at work the following day there is even a mini-viewer that fits nicely in the corner of your monitor and can be easily concealed from the disapproving eyes of your colleagues or supervisor.

“With the playoffs I’ve been watching the day games live on ESPN [night games here] and the rest I watch on MLB.com [hooking up my computer to the big screen],” says current Elite Series batting champion Shawn Vance, an American love-refugee living in Stockholm.

Aside from MLB.com and ESPN America, however, finding baseball on TV in Sweden is no simple task, leaving the burden on the baseball fan to find a way to catch a game.

“It definitely stinks that no sports bars ever show anything baseball related out here,” adds Vance.

But whether you choose to shield yourself from the sports page and watch the game on tape delay or sacrifice some sleep and stare into a flickering monitor in the wee hours of the night, hopefully the words of New Yorker magazine sports writer Roger Angell still ring true for bleary-eyed baseball fans stuck watching the World Series from Sweden:

“I felt what I almost always feel when I am watching a ballgame: just for those two or three hours, there is really no place I would rather be.”

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