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  1. Wealth
August 4, 2010

Pitch Fest

By Spear's

When New Yorkers flock to Central Park to play softball, they’re really playing hardball. Still, it’s kinda sweet, says Daisy Prince

When New Yorkers flock to Central Park to play softball, they’re really playing hardball. Still, it’s kinda sweet, says Daisy Prince 
WHEN SUMMER ARRIVES in Manhattan it is not a gradual process. One day you’re shivering into a jacket, and the next it’s like walking into the blast of a hair dryer. The air conditioners drip on you as you walk under them and your bottom sticks to the leather seats in taxis, but the outdoor cafés are filled and everyone is euphoric about three months of good weather ahead of them.

Central Park is key to surviving a New York summer. It is known to locals as the ‘billionaires’ backyard’ and is one of the finest examples of landscape architecture found anywhere in the world. Even though it was designed over 100 years ago, the undulating hills and plethora of trees manage to camouflage the masses who seek refuge there every weekend and evening of the long, hot summer.

Gardening genius Frederick Law Olmsted had the foresight to realise that in order to survive in the thriving humanity of New York City people would need nature, as well as a bit of privacy. A traditional summer weekend in the city wouldn’t be complete without a picnic in the park. But Central Park is not only for picnics: another great New York tradition also takes place there, the softball league.

The idea of playing a sport with your work colleagues for the purposes of ‘team building’ is a staunchly American tradition; certainly I never encountered anything like it in England. The closest I ever came to the concept of team building in the UK was gossiping at the pub with a co-worker about everyone else in the office.

Team spirit is drilled into the American collective conscious and we are taught from a young age that a little healthy competition can only be a good thing (the image of the Kennedy brothers keenly playing touch football always comes to mind). The truth is that competition in the workplace is nothing compared with the displays of aggression I saw on the softball field.

All the false friendliness of the corporate culture disappears the moment you put a bat into someone’s hand. Every Tuesday evening, office workers are liberated from their suits and take the subway to 96th Street in anticipation of the evening’s game. All kinds of companies have softball teams, from law firms to banks and of course, magazines.

I was invited to observe the ritual by Vanity Fair for their game against Scientific American magazine. Not unlike when people look like their dogs, the softball teams reflect the content of their respective publications. The Vanity Fair team consists of a bunch of young, intense guys and girls in their late 20s and early 30s. They take their softball so seriously that they often practise together on their days off.

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The line-up is organised with military precision and every detail is accounted for, right down to the person who has to bring the beers and peanuts. The guys from GQ tend to play in skin-tight jeans, and button-down shirts with skinny ties. There is so much product in their hair that even when they run to first base, it never moves a millimetre. Like their articles, the people at Scientific American are either brilliant or really, really bad.

Surprisingly, the best team of all in the media league is the voice of the marijuana community, appropriately named High Times. They are the toughest fighters and turn up prepared as if they are going into battle. They cream everyone else in the league and are rumoured to get high during a game only when they are so comfortably in the lead that it doesn’t make a difference.

Because New York wouldn’t be New York without a certain level of eccentricity, there is another group of ball players that bring team sports to a whole new level of peculiarity. It’s called the Vintage Base Ball League, and every weekend the members of the league dress up in baseball uniforms from 1864 and play by the rules set in place a century ago. The entire team has to shake hands at the beginning of the game, they play without mitts, only the captain can speak to the umpire, and all the spectators have to wear their Sunday best, including hats and gloves for the ladies.

It’s a bit like that odd tradition in the South where people dress up in Civil War uniforms and react battle scenes in their spare time. One of the players told me he played in the Gotham 1864 team because it reminded him of a time when baseball was less of a commercial enterprise and just for pure fun.

An integral part of the team ritual is the drink after the game. After the sport is finished, everyone troops off to a dive bar called Tap a Keg and orders pizza and more than a few drinks. By the end of the night, the crowd is relaxed, slightly soused and chatting away as if they were the oldest of friends. Maybe there is something to this team-building idea after all.

Illustration by Sonia Hensler

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