A warm welcome back to George Martin of UK Astros Fans…
Looking back now, it was like a dream wasn’t it? The sun shining gloriously upon a combined weekend capacity of ~120,000 at the London Stadium as we saw a decades-held fantasy unfold in front of our very eyes: Major League Baseball live in Britain. I still have to pinch myself even just writing those words in the same sentence.
The London Series was not what was advertised – it was far more than that. This was the most joyous all-inclusive sporting celebration I can remember for some years, certainly since at least the London Olympics of 2012 whose heartbeat was coincidentally at the same venue.
Maybe this is hyperbole speaking, recency bias personified, however the London Series felt to me across the city somewhat akin to the vibe produced by football’s Euro 1996, for those old enough to remember.
This was the celebration of an entire community of fans ecstatic to welcome their distant beloved sport onto their doorstep. From the wonderful London Yards event at the Truman Brewery to the Softball60 tournament’s culmination, from the PlayBall initiatives set up by Major League Baseball in alliance with GB Baseball to the #MLBMeetupsUK events across the breadth of Britain – this was pure joy on the faces of all involved. It seemed almost as if everywhere one looked there was more baseball to be found.
Then came the London Series itself: and it was an absolute blockbuster.
Any concerns in the lead-up to the series over whether mid-June’s ‘inclement’ weather would persist were positively obliterated, with the Sun greeting the first ever arrival of baseball in Europe by delivering easily the hottest day of the year for Game 1. This set the scene for for the sublime to turn into the surreal.
The more seasoned campaigners amongst us baseball fans in Britain have been fighting for the sport to make its long-awaited debut on our shores for at least 20 years. MLB and MLB London were now, finally, about to deliver us this most precious of gifts. I will make no attempt to hide it: when the respective anthems of the USA and the UK were sung in succession in front of a near-capacity crowd who filled a London Stadium resplendent in full ballpark livery, with live baseball just moments away, I was rather choked up. The emotional impact of this moment must not be understated – at last, at long last, we had made it!
(A word here for the extraordinary efforts of Murray Cook and his team to transform the much-maligned football guise of the London Stadium into a truly spectacular ballpark. If you’re reading this, Murray, I offer you the very heartiest of congratulations. You made this magic happen, quite genuinely.)
Game 1 began in earnest and not even twenty years of expectation could have prepared us for what happened next. The New York Yankees, first, then the Boston Red Sox, treated and wowed the crowds to one of the most utterly thrilling and extraordinary first innings of a ballgame possible.
Pay absolutely no attention to the American media naysayers trying to sully this by labelling the opening offensive explosion as some sort of freakshow – this was the surpassing of thousands of fans’ dreams, an inning which defied explanation. An inning which saw two talented starting pitchers fail to make it to even the third out. An inning which lasted an hour. An opening inning which contained twelve runs. 6-6 for God’s sake! This was not ugly, this was exhilarating and breathless fare which – for British and European fans alike both in attendance and watching elsewhere – will go down in baseball history as a ‘Where Were You?’ moment.
The rest of Game 1 barely even attempted to quell the madness, with 30 runs on 37 hits by the time the fireworks erupted into the night to signal the Yankees’ triumph at the end of a marathon ballgame. Some people wondered if the length of the game was an issue, yet the mood amongst the majority in attendance was one of jubilation at having experienced the pleasure of this drawn-out slugfest. We had embraced the arrival of baseball and boy, was it rewarding us in return.
Tiredness from the night before was abound on Sunday morning – mercifully far less scorching than the preceding day – but the appetite for an encore of the baseball blitz in the opening game gave everybody the energy to go again. Game 2 did not disappoint.
The Red Sox appeared to have the perfect response to their defeat in the first game, with a triple home run barrage greeting the Yankees out the gate in the opening inning. The Yankees responded with two runs of their own but, following this, it seemed as if the Red Sox had them held sufficiently at arm’s length to deliver a series-tying win. Then in the seventh inning, the madness began again. The Yankees wowed a second consecutive near-capacity crowd at the London Stadium to drop a nine-run inning on the Red Sox and surely wrap up a two-game sweep. As in Game 1, the Red Sox served up a thrilling eighth inning comeback with the tying run at the plate, although once again it was to fall just short. No one in attendance outside of Red Sox fans felt aggrieved though – these two teams had embraced the unique occasion and put on a show for which we are all enormously appreciative, regardless of team allegiance.
It was this unity amongst the fans present at the London Stadium however that really made this weekend what it was. Walking around the ballpark before, during and after the ballgames one was greeted by a sea of smiling and approachable faces in every direction, sporting the uniforms of practically every Major League ballclub and many British clubs too. There was no tension and no awkwardness, just a community of excited, happy baseball fans looking to celebrate the sport which they love and welcome new fans on board. Drop the cynicism – wasn’t this all so wonderful?
These were the days of our lives. The afterglow will remain with us for some time but, cliched as it is, the golden memories of this weekend will last a lifetime.