According to the speeches given at my naturalization ceremony, the day marked my profound metamorphosis from an ex-Ukrainian refugee into an American. I didn’t feel it. For me, assimilation came not as a ceremony but as a series of small, often subconscious milestones. Ninth grade: Realized I knew all the words to a pop song (Sheryl Crow’s “All I Wanna Do”). Junior year of high school: Got fingers pinched in a door and unleashed a stream of profanity in English, instead of my native Russian. Oct. 20, 2004, the greatest achievement of all: Spontaneously rooted during a baseball game.
Almost everything in America — holidays, idioms, the 1980s — can be understood with enough time and effort, but baseball is where most immigrants draw the line. The reason sport is the universal language is because it follows the same universal format across the world: Team A tries to get a ball-shaped object into a receptacle defended by Team B, and vice versa.
Take buzkashi, the national game of Afghanistan: a group of five horsemen armed with whips aims to score by placing a headless goat carcass into the other team’s kazan, or goal. There are two timed halves, a rectangular playing area, and a referee. Buzkashi — an event with whips and a headless goat — makes sense. It especially makes sense when compared with an endless rotation of men making half-hearted attempts to break up a half-hearted game of catch. To the initiated, baseball is a contest of intricate strategy, endless adjustments, and counter-adjustments; to a foreigner, it’s four hours of madness.
My introduction to America’s pastime took place in October 1999, a month into my freshman year at Boston College. I had just walked into my dorm when the building exploded in screams. A heavy wooden chair sailed into the hallway, narrowly missing my head. More furniture followed, transforming the hall into a mangled yard sale. Apparently, the Red Sox had been playing the Yankees when someone ran somewhere, or someone touched someone, and the angry man who wears a mask and makes violent gestures said something the Sox fans did not like.
Boston went on to win that series but lost to the Yankees soon after. Over the next several weeks the city went catatonic on me. “Next year’s the year,” I said in my perkiest voice to a convenience store cashier with a backward Sox hat and the hollow eyes of a man who had just witnessed the world’s last giant panda being fed into a wood chipper. (I had no idea what “next year” meant, but it seemed to serve the same function as “my condolences” in Boston.) “There is no next year,” the clerk whispered, holding the credit card pen a little too close to his jugular. I signed the receipt, placed the pen well out of reach, and edged out of the store. That very evening, I came up to one of the Sox fans in my dorm.
“I know this sounds strange, but can you explain baseball to me? I’m not from around here and I need to understand.”
And so began the grueling crawl toward enlightenment. At times it felt less like trying to learn a game and more like grappling with Zen Buddhism. “What’s the infield fly rule?” Can you name the seven ways to reach first? No? Then you’re not ready for the infield fly rule.
“How does Tim Wakefield’s knuckleball work?” That’s between God and Tim Wakefield; let’s just pray it keeps working.
“Why do the Yankees suck?” Why is water wet? Why is fire hot? The Yankees suck — it’s an inherent part of their nature. You think too much.
On Oct. 20, 2004, I was in New Jersey, watching Game 7 of the American League Championship Series with Ozzie, a golden retriever I was dog-sitting for the week. I had rewarded Ozzie with an extra Milk-Bone treat whenever the Sox won, and by Game 7 he was a believer. Johnny Damon was batting with bases loaded in the second. The pitch came. Damon swung. Grand slam.
Next thing I knew, my body had vaulted itself out of the chair, and the house was shaking with a primordial, mindless roar. Ozzie, Milk-Bones dancing in his head, started howling. Time froze and the three of us shared a moment: me screaming, Ozzie howling, Johnny Damon circling the bases. I yelled because it was 6-0 and, judging by their expressions, the Yankee fans finally realized what every toddler in Boston instinctively knew — the Yankees suck. I yelled for the people of Boston who would not have to kill themselves this year, I yelled for Ozzie who was getting the rest of the Milk-Bones in the bag, and I yelled for myself, because I had just come another step closer to earning my place in America.
Lev Golinkin is the author of “A Backpack, A Bear, and Eight Crates of Vodka” to be published in November.
Correction: An earlier version of this piece misstated who beat the Red Sox in October 1999. It was the Yankees.