Best of British – Europe: Baseball Played Here

Matt Smith is the chair of the British Baseball Hall Of Fame, Oakland A’s fan and founder of the excellent BaseballGB – the original British Baseball (And world baseball) website.

For all the excitement at the thought of the upcoming MLB London Series, the trade-off us British baseball fans have to accept is dealing with the stupid comments that baseball’s supposed ‘arrival’ on these shores will generate.

“No one likes baseball here”

“It’s just glorified rounders”

“It’s only played by Americans anyway”.

We all know none of this is true. Equally we all know there are a fair proportion of Brits who will peddle such sentiments regardless of their accuracy. However, we can but hope the more curious among our country men and women will be willing to give us a chance to state our case and there’s no better way to do so than using that most potent of current topics: our relationship with Europe!

No one’s interested in baseball outside the U.S.?

Try telling that to those involved with the hundreds of clubs across Europe, from the Netherlands’ Curacao Neptunus, Italy’s Unipolsai Bologna and Germany’s Bonn Capitals, to Belgium’s Borgerhout Squirrels, France’s Rouen Huskies, Sweden’s Leksands Lumberjacks, Switzerland’s Therwil Flyers, Norway’s Oslo Pretenders and Belarus’s BC Minsk.

And, of course, our own London Mets, Herts Falcons and more.

Baseball in Brno

Recent Batflips’ podcast subject Peter Moylan, a veteran of 12 MLB seasons, announced his MLB retirement recently and that he will be plying his trade in the Czech Extraliga. That’s not a weird independent outfit in the States, although the name wouldn’t look out of place if it was, it’s the name of the top league in the Czech Republic and Moylan will be playing for the leading team, Draci Brno.

His journey to baseball in Brno typifies some essential elements of European club baseball.

The link has come about due to his friendship with fellow Aussie John Hussey who is the pitching coach and recruitment manager of Draci Brno. Moylan will add not only his skill on the mound to the team but also his years of experience as a pro at the highest level. Bringing in a couple of experienced players, helping with coaching and often much more besides simply playing, has long been a key part of European baseball and how teams both look to compete but also look to improve their homegrown talent.

It should also be recognised that European baseball clubs aren’t always on the surest of footings. Rumour has it that Moylan was all set to play in the Italian Baseball League for the well-known A.S.D. Rimini Pirates, only for their President to leave the club and join rivals SSD Nuova BC Citta Di Nettuno instead, plunging the Pirates down to the third-tier of Italian baseball in the process.

The Kepler Effect

Just this past week, the Hardball Times published an excellent feature article by Reuben Walker all about German baseball and their most famous son: current Minnesota Twins outfielder Max Kepler.

It’s well worth a read if you haven’t seen it already, both in how it delves into the way clubs in the (baseball) Bundesliga operate, and elsewhere in European leagues, and the unique talent that Kepler possesses. It would be wrong to suggest that there is a huge pipeline of talent ready to take MLB by storm, but Kepler’s success shows just what is possible.

If you have the athletic talent, dedication and desire to make it, European baseball does provide a place to help develop your skills and to create a pathway to a professional career in the game.

When Kepler signed a new 5-year, $35m contract with the Twins in mid-February, GB Head Coach Liam Carroll commented on the deal on his Twitter account. This wasn’t simply about ‘money, money, money’, it was to highlight what baseball can be worth to European athletes and what European baseball can mean to the continent’s athletes. If you think it’s a fun game but not something you can make a career out of here, think again.

GB’s place at the European baseball table

Leaving aside the ongoing Brexit omnishambles, where does Britain sit at the European baseball table?

Even the most ardent-GB supporter would accept we’re not at the head of table, either end historically being reserved for the Netherlands and Italy (experience suggests it’s also useful to keep those two as far apart as possible to keep the arguments down). Spain and Germany would be sat nearby and the likes of Belgium, Czech Republic and France would be next in line, but GB would be then be close by ready to spring a surprise every so often, as they did with a silver medal finish in the 2007 European Baseball Championship.

Some games from that tournament were broadcast on Eurosport and I can remember watching the Final between GB and the Netherlands thrilled to be able to see our national team on TV. Three years later, one of Britain’s stars of the event, catcher Mike Nickeas, would go on to become the first GB national team player to make the Major Leagues with the Mets.

Not that it helps at all, but it’s difficult not to look back at this period and wonder what further advances might have been made had the International Olympic Committee not decided to remove baseball and softball from the 2012 London Games.

What 2019 may bring

The Red Sox-Yankees games will ensure that 2019 is a big year for baseball in the UK, but MLB’s event itself won’t leave a lasting legacy. That’s the responsibility of how those of us in British baseball capitalise on the publicity that having MLB come to town will bring.

Hopefully at some point in 2019 we’ll be able to celebrate another GB player making his Major League debut. Jazz Chisholm is widely recognised as the Arizona Diamondbacks’ best prospect and may well get the call to The Show this year. Whilst Chisholm is GB-eligible (hailing from the Bahamas) rather than a product of the British leagues, his involvement with our national team is still a great story and goes to show the quality of players that can be part of our overall national team programme, to play with and learn from.

Meanwhile Great Britain will be competing once again in the European Championships, staged this year in Germany in September, with the added allure of the top five spots leading onto an Olympic qualification tournament.

And before the London Series, the London Mets and Herts Falcons will be playing in CEB Federations Cup Qualifiers in early June. It will be the first time in Herts’ club history that the team has played in Europe and manager Cris Hiche can’t wait. “We are excited to play in Europe and represent the Falcons, Herts Baseball Club, and also British baseball”, Hiche said.  “We have been working hard during the pre-season to do our best in the NBL and the European Cup. We hope we can win the tournament and show British baseball is growing and getting better.”

The Mets are relative veterans on the European scene as this will be their fifth consecutive appearance. The Finsbury Park-based club have missed out on the Qualifier Final by the narrowest of margins in each of the last three years and are determined to take the next step this time around. Their efforts have been helped by the return of their 2018 import Mike Hoyes. Manager Drew Spencer stated: “His ability to pitch in tense situations and come through in the clutch at the plate is essential to our goal of winning in Moscow”.

What better way to go into the biggest baseball event scene in the nation’s capital than with the London Mets and Herts Falcons showing to everyone willing to take an interest the baseball isn’t just about MLB teams, but that there is a long, proud and exciting culture of baseball already here in the UK and across Europe.

For more details on British Baseball history, head over to the Project COBB (Chronicling of British Baseball) website:

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