It looks just like a real dugout at first, until you notice certain things: the donkeys out in left, the patio where the mental outpatients sit, asking why you’re not allowed to kick the ball when it comes your way. The outpatients live in the psychiatric facility behind the third-base line, next to the stable sitting in home-run territory. Behind home plate is a refugee asylum, where little Eastern-European children ride tricycles out of their sandboxes toward the bleachers when there are games. One of the players brings a blowup tent that he puts over the stands, and there’s a plastic sign somewhere: Ballpark PZ Hard Embrach, home of the Embrach Mustangs, second-best semi-professional baseball team in Switzerland.
It’s a perfect dugout, even if it is above ground. A banner hanging from the top says in garish font: Home of the Embrach Rainbows. (No longer the organization’s name—there was a change after the Americans on the team explained the insinuation—but old habits die hard). The bench inside is splinter-free; the section closer to home plate has bunkers for helmets and gloves. The concrete floor is spitted with sunflower seeds, happily strewn. You can pretend that you’re in some forgotten corner of America where this plot of land was all that was left to build a baseball field on. You can overlook everything, the bumps at third base, the soccer goal in center—but it’s impossible to glance towards the first-base line and ignore the conspicuous lack of an away-team dugout.
Baseball stopped being America’s urban game many years ago, overtaken by basketball and football. In inner city fields, in Boston and New York, Los Angeles and Austin, dugouts lie overgrown and neglected, filled with beer cans and shadows. Some dugouts are left without even a bench to sit on: just a little chain-link fence, no canopy to protect from the sun. Without fail, however, there will be two—one dugout for one side, one for the other.
Because baseball is a symmetrical game. It’s why people don’t mind paying twenty dollars for a cheap seat thirty stories up—from there the diamond is laid out for you in all its night-game splendor. Baseball’s a fair sport, too. Everybody gets the same number of outs, and the home team has to stay until the away team’s done, no matter how long it takes. There are rules on how hot or cold you’re allowed to keep the balls you use in games, so no one has an advantage.
Which is why it’s just not baseball, just not right, simply unsportsmanlike and downright un-American, to have no dugout for the visiting team. It’s something I never feel confident enough even to joke around about with Roger, our Swiss coach, ace pitcher and roofer-by-day, who discovered baseball at nineteen while on holiday in New York. He’s been pitching ever since. Everyone knows the legend of how he got three wins in a weekend, pitching three complete games. The day we played the Therwil Flyers, European Cup finalists and kings of Swiss baseball, he threw nine innings after spilling boiling tar on his forearms. He explained to us while we were stretching that you have to just let it cool on your arm, otherwise you’d take the skin off along with the tar. People that competitive don’t necessarily care much about the physical comfort of the opposing team.
No one else seemed to find the missing dugout odd either. True, one day while playing Bern in a near-constant downpour, our right-fielder ran to his car for umbrellas to lend to the Cardinals so they could keep their gear dry. But this was Carly, Australian-born, who shouted God Dahmmit after he struck out, and he wasn’t quite Swiss anyway, though he’d lived here all his life.
Switzerland is not an obvious tourist hotspot, unless it’s for financial transactions or enjoyment of the country’s physical beauty—the lakes that reach fingers out to mountains scraping snowy tops toward the clouds. The lifestyle blends with the outdoors. In Zurich there are no prohibitions against outdoor drinking, so the lakeside grass fills up with all age-groups, day and night, swimming next to sailboats when it’s hot enough and setting off candle-powered balloons in the dark. The summertime Street Parade brings millions to Zurich’s streets, which grow crowded with truck-drawn floats pumping trance music for hundreds of gyrating bodies. There are city-government tents scattered around where you can get drugs checked for safety. But look in the newspaper the next morning, and you won’t see any incidents of knifings or late-night assaults. The streets are swept clean by noon.
Baseball in Switzerland conforms to Swiss principles. Nowhere else in the world, probably, do baserunners slide into second with their spikes politely down, to avoid injury to players from opposing teams. After a game when some of our American players got into a good-natured trash-talking match with the Barracudas’ second-baseman, our coach received an email from the opposing coach saying that he should really talk to those unruly players, that such conduct reflected badly on them and the team as a whole.
Still, there is something very Swiss about the away-dugout situation that is more revealing than neutrality and chocolate. They are a people who like things the way they are, on the left side of the infield or behind their portion of the mountains. If you don’t like it, you really will get out. Here, the visiting teams are visitors, made to feel not entirely at home—squatting in front of the bleachers with their fans and supporters and bags of belongings. That attitude makes sense in a country where it takes twelve years to become a citizen, where you can give birth to a daughter who will never be Swiss, though Switzerland is the land her feet first touched. There is a marked separation between in and out, between foreign and not, in a place that doesn’t allow minarets in the same cities where Zwingli once pounded on vaunted, unornamented Grossmunster pulpits.
But baseball is baseball, wherever you go. People make errors on ground balls hit right to them, batting practice takes place two hours before game-time, teams sit on the sidelines while they watch the rain on the field. Seasons are won and lost. The smell of pine tar mixes with the smoke from the sausages on the grill. Baseball is apolitical. Teammates from Cuba talk about the price of beer in Berlin with Austrian nationals who’ve lived here all their lives. Switzerland has been the happy home of the Swiss National Baseball League—a vibrant, pulsing group of Americans, Dominicans, Germans, year-after-college-students, itinerant bums—for forty years, even though baseball is anything but a homegrown sport. And besides, what does the lack of one dugout say about a national character—how can you characterize a country, city to city, farm to farm, on the basis of a sports construction? Maybe they ran out of money before building the second.
There’s the business of the name, the Rainbows. How many American dugouts, even if there were two of them, would have Rainbows painted across one top? It’s still there, on the Embrach dugout, the Swiss team-members refusing to take it down or paint it over. They like telling the story of how the Rainbows got their name; it goes like this:
It was a hot day out in Embrach, one of the ones where you wear only a T-shirt to take infield before the game starts. The sort where you carry two pairs of socks and change them before the first pitch, wringing the water out of the dirty pair. It was a big game, vs. the Flyers, and the whole Embrach baseball community was out—the friends and family, the refugees kicking soccer balls in their compound, the outpatient who was our biggest fan who told us the scores of all the games in the country, the donkeys out in left. It was a close game until the seventh when a light rain started, and the Flyers put together three runs, on the basis of some bunt-hits and stolen bases. The bottom of the ninth came and Embrach’s cleanup hitter was up, with three men on, two out, a fastball on the upper outside corner, when the rain stopped, and. You understand. Under this sign conquer.
The name was changed last year after a competition. Mustangs won out over Jets. Still, it doesn’t have the same ring.