Welcome to 2019, arguably the biggest year in the history of British baseball since the national team’s 1938 triumph in the sport’s inaugural World Cup. The year Major League Baseball brings its two biggest franchises – the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox – to our shores for a marquee series at the London Stadium, home of West Ham Football Club.
The series should bring untold opportunity to increase participation, funding and interest in the sport in the UK, but does British baseball feel ready for its moment in the spotlight? That’s a moot point.
Let’s be clear, baseball (and softball) in the UK are a niche concern. The latter may have the goal to be ‘played in every park’ and boast laudable participation rates in its recreational leagues but numbers across both baseball and softball have tracked steadily in the low 20,000s for the last few years, with only a minority of these focussed on the ‘hardball’ game.
Likewise, many of us reading will have been heartened to find a blossoming ‘community’ of like-minded fans with whom to convene and share opinions, beers and bonhomie over the last 12 months. The arrival of fan led blogs and podcasts for teams such as the Mets and Blue Jays is also great news, as is the growing international profile of our dear friend BaseballBrit.
But we mustn’t kid ourselves that this is evidence of a broader trend. Every year a handful of British holidaymakers will stumble upon our sport anew in Chicago, Boston, New York and Tampa, but we aren’t yet witnessing a Damascene conversion to a new sport amongst unlikely adopters and fervent sports nuts, the like of which we’ve witnessed in recent times with the advent of NFL’s London Series.
Nevertheless, there is a kernel of positivity from whence to grow participation – both fanbase and players – if the opportunities of the MLB London Series can be grasped by all involved.
This goes both ways.
On MLB’s part, things have started poorly. The worst of the blame for the London Series ticketing farrago lies with Ticketmaster, who have form for this type of outcome. But the ticket pricing, and decision to get into bed with Ticketmaster in the first place, was made with a full understanding of the likely backlash – that it came must be duly borne with good grace. The secondary ticketing market for events of this scale is dispiriting, but unavoidable – for now let’s cling to the hope that plans to ‘pay the way’ with a couple of extra tickets (which seems to have been the plan of many of the US fans with early access judging by listings on sites such as StubHub) backfire and that some of our readers pick up a last minute bargain.
Their 2019 resolutions must start with a concerted effort to reconnect with those fans who missed out. A means to get access for those in the UK playing hierarchy who missed out should – if possible – top that list. But work to grow and embed youth baseball (and softball), working with the hardy folks at Baseball Softball UK (whose efforts were recognised in December by an award of a maximum grant by Sport England), and a ‘wraparound offer’ to draw in those who want to engage in the London Series’ atmosphere without the outlay on tickets, should also be in play too. Using this to draw in our European cousins, many of whom have more fertile baseball cultures than ours, would be a welcome move.
The British baseball community’s reaction to the advent of the MLB arrival, and associated problems, has been mixed and, sadly, wracked with the usual factionalism and one-upmanship that sees many of good temper and ideas turn away from hands-on roles. The decision by one major British association to publicise the personal details of MLB UK’s MD Charlie Hill was a nadir in proceedings, which hopefully marked a low point from which more constructive dialogue and collaboration can take seed.
Others, notably the London Mets laudable chair Drew Spencer, and GB Baseball’s indefatigable Head Coach Liam Carroll, took a different approach – urging that 2019 is a year to come together for the good of the sport in the UK to take best advantage of this once in a generation opportunity.
Their sentiments are shared by all of us involved in this website – 2019 marks our one opportunity to show the baseball world our best side. It’s our chance to prove that, despite a lack of facilities, resources and public interest, a cauldron of passion for baseball – and playing baseball – exists across the entire UK.
Passing up that opportunity would be a travesty as the fact is it is true. Our National Baseball League doesn’t rival those in more mature baseball markets, but the quality of play across it, the Northern Baseball League, South West League and Baseball Scotland is good, and driven by a burning desire to have fun with friends week on week. New teams contact our Twitter handle to push training sessions at an increasing rate, with brand new clubs in Worcester, Sheffield, Newcastle and Leeds in the last 12 months. Our university baseball and softball scenes go from strength to strength, and softball is – despite the protestations of some in the baseball community – increasingly popular, and an excellent gateway for those seeking a ‘pick up’ way to play four base, bat and ball sports with their friends.
In a series of excellent video posts before Christmas, Liam Carroll suggested that clubs should bite the bullet and associate with the beleaguered British Baseball Federation to highlight the unity and collaboration we hope to foster in future. The reasons for the fracturing of British baseball are raw, and they are real (their website was down as we tried to link it for this piece, which tells a story in itself), but this strikes us a sensible step on the right road – healing, magnanimity and collaboration are always hard, but the goal in sight is legitimate and it is huge.
Similarly, the notion of a truly federated approach to British baseball espoused by Liam is, to us, the right road to take. In the short run, even with a boost to participation, British baseball and softball will remain the home of hobbyists, but a drive to improve competition through ‘inter league’ rivalries and playoffs would be a fitting denouement to every British baseball season, and give a great showcase to the GB baseball hierarchy for the top talent, and maybe even a bigger shop window in the longer term.
The goal should be sustainability. The legacy of the MLB’s visit to Australia in 2014 has been the Australian Baseball League, a product which has developed into one of the world’s best winter baseball leagues. This itself overlays a well embedded club infrastructure across the country’s major urban centres. The standard is higher than the UK, but the structure not too different. An ABL style tournament in the UK is likely a long term pipe dream, but a feeder system which allows for a steady flow of British and European talent to the US professional ranks as that seen in Australia (32 in as many years) needn’t be.
If the legacy of MLB London is to be anything it should be to finally remove Keith Lampard‘s name from infamy as the last British born player to hit an MLB home run.
This – far more than the arrival of Giancarlo Stanton and Mookie Betts – will be the real driver of change and participation in British baseball. We’re likely a few years hence from a baseball equivalent of Jay Ajayi or Menelik Watson, but the aim should be there.
Stalwart GB baseball pitcher Michael Roth announced his retirement at the end of 2018, following former Reds AAA catcher Chris Berset in 2016. Fellow pitchers Chris Reed and Jake Esch posted good comeback figures in the independent Atlantic League and American Associations, but don’t feel like the future face of the game in the UK. Likewise, the outstanding clutch of Bahamians who took the WBC field on GB stripes are making their own waves – with Todd Isaacs and Lucius Fox‘s efforts to shine a light on the game on their island rightly posing questions about their own international aspirations. We may not be able to rely on them in the future.
In their absence, the GB senior and under 23 squads have limped to mid-pack finishes in the last few European tournaments. Pitcher/infielder Rich Brereton had a great year with D3 Emory, and Hull born pitcher Myles Janson inked a deal to pitch with the Menlo College Oaks in 2019 to join Ollie Thompson who is playing JuCo ball in New Mexico, but these are the only embers of hope for GB baseball’s Stateside future currently still burning.
The desired legacy of 2019 and the very first MLB London Series will differ dependant on who you ask. For fans it’s likely to be a prolonged commitment to yearly visits (and cheaper tickets), for those running clubs a boost in youth numbers, committee members and sponsor interest would be a welcome fillip. For British baseball and softball at large – including the national squads – it’d be the idea that the series has lifted aspiration, and impacted player quality and competition.
Without a commitment to stand together to grasp this opportunity, to place aside legitimate, well-founded and well-meaning concerns, and recognise that those who love this game and want others to love it too aren’t enemies, but friends, none of this should be achieved.
So the first and best legacy of 2019, this brilliant, signature year in British baseball history should be this: that we all – every one of us – did our own little bit to contribute to its success.
Let’s get to work.