The old adage goes that every time you go to the ballpark, you’ve a chance of seeing something that has never happened before. This is as true of someone taking in their first game as it is for a seasoned veteran. This weekend, even someone who has called more than 20 World Series, and hundreds more memorable moments aside, has the rare guarantee of witnessing a first in the long, storied history of Major League Baseball. For the first time, MLB will be making the trip across the Atlantic and gracing European shores. Having played series in the likes of Japan and Mexico for more than two decades, the London Series represents a major step in what MLB hopes will be a successful international expansion program, as they seek to take America’s pastime to the world.
“Oh my God,” replies Fox Sports’ Joe Buck when asked about the sort of atmosphere he anticipates when the Boston Red Sox meet the New York Yankees at the London Stadium. “I hope it’s loud and raucous. It’s good for us on TV if there’s noise, it’s bad if it sounds like they’re playing the game in a church or a library. You want noise, you want yelling, you want clapping, you want whistling, you want all of that stuff.”
This isn’t the first time that MLB has been played in a country with little historic interest in the sport; Australia played host to a two game series between the Los Angeles Dodgers and the Arizona Diamondbacks in 2014. However, there is a sense that with the London Series, MLB and Commissioner Rob Manfred are making a far more sizeable commitment. 2019’s matchup between the Red Sox and Yankees pits arguably the sport’s two most recognisable names (the Sox’s profile has been bolstered by Fenway Sports Group’s ownership of Liverpool FC) against one another, while the Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals are already confirmed for 2020.
These are far from token games. “The fact they’re sending the Yankees and the Red Sox over there tells me how serious this is,” says Buck. “They’re not doing some throwaway series that would rate low in the US, this is as good as baseball gets. We’re bringing our best over there, and we’ll see if a seed gets planted.”
The timing is certainly interesting. As the first pitch on European soil is thrown on the 29th, less than 10 miles away New Zealand and Australia will be playing in the Cricket World Cup, which Britain is hosting this summer. England plays India in the same competition the following day, and later this year will be hosting the 71st edition of the historic Ashes series against Australia. The comparisons between baseball and cricket, the latter one of the former’s most notable progenitors, were inevitable, but the opportunity to make them so starkly will perhaps prove the ultimate acid test of baseball’s ability to translate across the pond.
For Buck, one of the biggest challenges facing the game will be the need for education about MLB’s occasionally opaque and Byzantine set of rules that lay just beneath the surface of an ostensibly simple sport. “It’s probably something we take for granted, how the game works. Using the cricket example, what [British cricket fans] would cheer over there, we’d be looking at going ‘what the hell was that?’ I can’t wait to see how they react to a strikeout or a pop-out that goes a mile high. I like the unknown as a broadcaster.”
Given the challenges facing MLB in the sports-saturated UK market, why pick London as the city in which to attempt to “establish a long-term footprint,” as Manfred put it when the Series was announced? For Buck, the success the NFL has experienced by moving regular season games to England’s capital (in spite of similarly high barriers to entry in terms of rules and regulations) has been a key motivating factor. “I think if you’re going to go to Europe, going to London makes the most sense to see how things go,” he says. Though the NFL had a bigger foothold in the UK when it first came to London in 2007 than baseball does now (despite the efforts of the intrepid Baseball Brit), Buck feels the brand recognition of the Yankees and Red Sox will help bolster initial interest. “I think as an international match-up, and international brands, the Yankees and the Red Sox win that battle. Whenever I am in Europe, I see a lot of Yankee hats and Red Sox hats. That doesn’t necessarily mean that the people wearing them knows what it means, I just think it’s an iconic symbol and logo that transcends MLB.”
Though the relatively small baseball-following community in Britain, and Buck himself, would be perfectly content with a classic pitchers’ duel, Fox’s leading play-by-play man is under no illusions of what type of games MLB will be hoping for in order to truly capture the imagination of the casual sports fan. “I think if they had their way, it would be a slugfest – it would be home runs, fireworks, and taking advantage of a short porch in left, just one run after another. Power sells, and power on the pitcher’s mound – I don’t know if that’s as sexy as home runs.” Which team is more likely to supply those home runs? “Baseball players are really routine-oriented… I think the team that handles the challenge of flying over there and playing a couple of games with the best attitude will likely prevail.”
While Manfred and MLB have their sights firmly set on expanding, what of fans back at home? “I think people will be genuinely excited. You get 81 home games, and if you have to give one of for the betterment of the game then you do it. For someone like me who’s looking for this game to be as big and as healthy as it can, then that’s the way to look at it.”