CALISTOGA — It's a lazy game of the summer time, a much-loved national pastime, a game tinged with romantic memories of a youth spent around tossing the ball, thrilling to the crack of the bat.
And it's coming to the Napa Valley.
The game is cricket.
Starting on May 20, Calistoga will become home to Napa Valley's only organized cricket team, playing on the area's only permanent “pitch,” or playing field, installed just a week ago at the Napa County Fairgrounds.
That inaugural game will pit Australian expatriates against players from the rest of the cricket-loving world.
Matches later in the summer will see the new Napa Valley Cricket Club playing clubs from around Northern California, including well-established teams from Davis and Marin County.
“We're essentially a bunch of expatriates here in the valley. Most of us are here because of the wine industry,” said club vice president Andrew Healy, an Irishman who who founded and runs 3 rock marketing.
The idea started two years ago with a couple of Australian employees of Treasury Wine Estates in Napa who were nostalgic for their favorite sport and decided to take part in an informal game with the club in Davis.
By last summer, they had rounded up 17 interested Napa Valley residents, including two Americans, enough to field a complete team and then some. With little fanfare, they played five games in Marin and Davis just to see if they could sustain enough momentum to organize a formal team.
They won one of those five matches, Healy said, but they had so much fun, they formed a team, incorporated as a non-profit, and secured permission to establish a playing area at the fairgrounds, in the lawn area that is used for carnival games during the annual Napa County Fair.
Fair Executive Director Carlene Moore was eager to see the cricketers come to the fairgrounds, which has been searching for new users and new ways to draw crowds from downvalley and elsewhere.
“I think it has the potential of doing what bocce ball does in St. Helena,” which has a well-established competitive league for that sport, she said. “It's a very social experience. You could wind up with food vendors and whatever else goes with cricket: food and wine and cricket being played.”
Healy said the club is starting modestly. Although it will play teams from the Northern California Cricket Association, it won't do so competitively, at least for the foreseeable future, because the team members said they can't commit to the rigorous schedule that would require. They hope eventually to host weekend-long regional tournaments at the fairgrounds.
Already, clubs around the region have contacted him to schedule matches, known also as “fixtures,” lured by the prospect of playing the sport amidst the beauty of Napa Valley, league officials said.
The Napa Valley club is going to try to introduce the game to Americans as well. The games are open to the public and the club plans to march in the annual Silverado July 4th Parade, walking down Lincoln Avenue in their full traditional dress-white cricket uniforms. They are being manufactured for them now in Pakistan, one of the world's most cricket-crazy nations.
Of course, drawing in Americans is no easy task, members admit.
“It's like American expatriates and baseball,” Healy said. “It's one of those games you have to grow up around to really enjoy.”
To Americans familiar with baseball, cricket can be both hauntingly familiar and maddeningly obscure.
In its broad outline, it is similar to baseball: 11 men on each side, with a man throwing the ball toward a batter, who tries to smack the ball and score runs while his opponents scramble to get him out.
But there, the similarities largely end.
“It's not a quick game; it's a slow game,” club President Phil Bourke, an Australian who works at Treasury, explains. “It's like a game of chess, lots of tactics and strategy.”
Players say, it seems to be even more intricate, subtle and tradition-bound than baseball.
Traditional cricket matches can go on as long as five days. In recent decades, many leagues have gone to a compressed one-day match.
The Napa Valley team will go for an even shorter form of cricket, with each team getting one inning at bat and one inning in the field. With a long, sociable lunch between innings, Healy said, a match should take about three hours.
The most obvious difference in play between cricket and baseball is that instead of a single batter running around a series of bases, two runners (the batter and a teammate) run back and forth between wooden stakes, known as wickets. The defenders get the runners out either by catching a fly ball or by touching one of the wickets with the ball.
Until someone touches the wicket, however, the runners can keep running back and forth between the wickets and racking up runs. In theory, they could score an unlimited number, but as a practical matter — given that the team is mostly 40-something guys in only moderately good shape — the most anyone can expect is four or five runs from even a strong hit, Healy said.
Another major difference is that instead of having one pitcher, every member of the fielding team throws the ball, or “bowls,” in rotation. The throw can range from an American-style fastball to a long, slow, overhand lob that twists, spins and bounces on the ground in ways that a baseball pitcher can barely imagine.
As for the rest, you can pick it up as you watch. Team members said they are happy to explain if you ask.
It's not impossible for Americans to get into the game, said Jared Thatcher, one of two Americans on the team. Thatcher's promising baseball career was cut short by a shoulder injury in college, but he fell in with some cricket-playing Indians in his dorm and leaned that he could manage the motions of that game more comfortably.
He hadn't played in years, he said, but when he heard a cricket club was forming in Napa Valley, he was eager to join. Now he leaves early from his job as controller at Six Flags Discovery Kingdom in Vallejo every Wednesday to practice with the team.
“Now I can't imagine anything else to do Wednesday night but play cricket,” he said.