When Americans talk about baseball one can almost hear the crack of the bat and the roar of the crowd as the hitter circles the bases. When polo comes up in a conversation, however, the images that come most readily to mind are those of suntanned tailgaters picnicking on shrimp and oysters and tamping down the divets at half time.
For many, the whole experience is regarded more as a social event than a sport. But the game itself can be pretty exciting when played at the top level, as has been evident during the past few weeks at the famed Myopia Hunt Club.
Appropriately, as America's oldest polo club celebrates its 95th anniversary, the sport is enjoying its finest hour at Myopia. Major tournaments such as the East Coast Open and the Chairman's Cup, which concludes Sunday, have featured players such as Argentina's Gonzalo Pieres, regarded by many as the world's finest polo player, and Tommy Wayman, America's only 10-goal player. (Players are ranked by ability level, with a 10-goal competitor at the top and a minus-2 player at the bottom, but the rating is not a direct reflection on goal-scoring skill.)
The appearance of these stars here in this picturesque North Shore suburb of Boston, the development of elaborate polo clubs such as the 11-field polo complex at the Palm Beach Polo and Country Club in Florida, and the steady improvement in the caliber of club play reflects the increasing interest in the sport in America.
Of course it's not the sort of game that is ever going to have the mass participation of some others (there are about 2,000 players in the United States), but all things are relative. Or, as Myopia's Peter Poor puts it: ''Not all of our club members are swapping their golf carts and clubs for a horse and mallet, but polo at Myopia is growing every season.''
Allan Scherer, president of equestrian activities at the Palm Beach club, says, ''Historically, the areas of good polo tend to shift. In the 1920s Long Island was a polo hot spot. Now, Florida, Texas, and California are very big. The success of polo in a given area is often attributable to a core of people who take an interest in the game and establish sound competitive programs.''
Certainly, this is the case at Myopia. Since the first match here in 1888, in which one spectator commented that, ''the best playing was done by the band,'' Myopia polo has surged to the top of the charts in terms of featuring a strong club program and hosting a number of competitive tournaments.
At the recent East Coast Open, more than 4,000 spectators were treated to a dazzling exhibition of ''high goal polo,'' in which all eight players on the field are quite accomplished. Besides seeing some of the better Myopia club players, onlookers were able to watch two outstanding Argentine players - Gonzalo Pieres and Christian La Prida. They were pitted on opposite sides, and the hard riding and long hitting style of the younger La Prida was countered by the deft stick handling of the more mature and cunning Pieres.
Both players dominated in the scoring column, illustrating what international high goal polo is all about. Ultimately, it was the poise and ball control of the veteran that paid off; 30 seconds into overtime, Pieres was able to weave through the maze of churning horses and thrashing mallets to move in alone on goal and whip a lofting 50-yard shot through the uprights for the winning score.
Much of Myopia's recent success in terms of tournaments such as the East Coast Open is attributable to Crocker Snow Jr. and Don Little, who was the club's polo captain for 14 years and is now executive vice president of the United States Polo Association. Snow says, ''In World War II the best horsemen went to war and the Myopia polo field literally went to seed. There was no polo for over a decade.''
Ironically, it was the army which led to the revitalization of polo at Myopia , because when Little was stationed in Arizona he started playing the game on the cavalry horses. When he returned East, he, Snow, and the late Adam Winthrop generated interest in the game in this area again. Over the past two decades polo at Myopia has burgeoned. Little and other members encouraged sponsors for Sunday matches as a means of subsidizing the program and exposing a wide variety of people to the sport. Sponsors range from banking and insurance firms to art galleries such as Haley and Steele, which features a substantial collection of equine art.
Little and his Myopia clubmates have also toured to Iran, Argentina, and Europe, and reciprocated by hosting teams at Myopia from these places. Ed Miller, who commutes from New York on weekends to play at Myopia, says, ''the best aspect of the sport is the good fellowship that is found among polo players - particularily at Myopia, where matches are often followed up with rib barbecues Texas style.''
Yet Miller notes that this fellowship among ''polo playing brethren'' is found worldwide. ''I played my first polo in Spain about 10 years ago,'' he says. ''I was visiting a club when one of the top players, I think he was rated at about 8 or 9 goals, started talking polo with me. I had never played the sport, but the next thing you know this man was offering me the use of his horses. I went out and knocked the ball around and absolutely loved it. The first thing I did when I returned to the states was buy a polo pony.''