Old Dogs and New Tricks: My Belated Attempt to Learn to Play Baseball with the London Mets

Here I am. The top deck (ahem, upper tier) at the London Stadium, watching the inaugural International Series game between the Red Sox and the Yankees.

Me: ‘They make it look so easy.’

Friend: ‘It can’t be that hard.’

Me: ‘It’s incredibly hard.’

Friend: ‘How would you know?’

Me: ‘Fair point. Beer?’

The Yankees had just turned a 6-4-3 double play, the second most common in the majors. To my eyes, it was artful – twirling ballerinas at work. A quick step, collect, flip to second, step on, fling to first – thwack! – leather in leather, the umpire’s fist pump, and the batters retired. It happened in a heartbeat, a maelstrom of arms and legs and grunts and precision, and as quickly as it had begun, it was over.

A curmudgeonly fellow in the row in front, who is either an unimpressed veteran of hundreds of games or a Brit without any real interest, yawns and reopens his newspaper. My friend offers to get the beers as he isn’t bothered about missing half an inning. But I am in my element. Watching professional ballplayers in action in my home country, within cheering distance, I inwardly vow to put my money where my mouth had been – I will give baseball a try.

Here I am. Strolling across Finsbury Park in Harringay, North London, over three years later, ready to test the theory. How hard is it? As it turns out, very.

Since that London Series game, I had intermittently flirted with the idea, but never took the plunge. During lockdown, I purchased a glove (it later turned out to be for softball). I watched some YouTube tutorials on how to pitch, how to swing, how to field grounders. But my concerns – about my weight, my ability, and my social anxiety – always won out. Until this year. In a better place mentally and having promised to step out of my comfort zone as much as possible, I committed. Flirting turned to courting. I would sacrifice my summer Friday evenings and see if an old dog could learn new tricks.

I left early for the first week because I knew I would fret and sweat and worry too much in the lead-up to taking the train across town – better to just get there. This meant I was at the field, a stunning piece of America’s pastime carved out of the corner of one of London’s prettiest and largest green spaces, way too early. I took it all in. There was a clubhouse and two diamonds, and an athletic-looking chap doing some mound maintenance. It felt way more professional than anticipated and utterly idyllic.

My concerns, as with most anxieties in my life when faced down, dissipated quickly. The moment I began chatting to the volunteers who had given up their Fridays to patiently and masterfully teach a bunch of beginners how to somehow resemble ballplayers (including Bat Flips & Nerds’ own Russell Eassom), I was blown away by the generosity and the inclusion. Some of the previous year’s class of ‘Baseball 4 Beginners’ graduates had returned too because it had been so much fun.

I loved every minute of the session, but boy, is it unnatural at first. Take throwing. We’ve all thrown. Many of us have thrown cricket balls, tennis balls, scrunched-up paper, whatever. But baseballs are different. The peculiar stitches – 216 in total, known as virgules – make for a bit of a lottery when you’re throwing without any grip mastery. Balls die on you, fly on you, and sometimes, terrifyingly, get big on you without warning, and you flail to protect your delicate features. 5.25 ounces of cowhide and cork and poly-cotton can hurt.

What of hitting the ball, the very lifeblood of the game? Unnervingly difficult, even off a stationary tee. The bat, longer and heavier than anticipated, is so far from the supposed ‘extension of your limbs’ that you wonder if you’ll get within two feet of the thing when you swing. Those of us who have handled, once upon a time, a golf club or a cricket bat, are at a disadvantage. My swing resembles a hodgepodge of muscle memory and assumptions and betrays a history of other sporting misdemeanours. But the tips from the coaches (‘weight back’, ‘swing through the ball rather than turning the bat over’, ‘watch it, no, seriously watch it’) are like magic spells. Immediate, tangible improvements across the board. Some of us actually make contact. Not exactly a bunch of Aaron Judge’s, but we live in hope.

Putting it all together defensively is the toughest yet. Coach hits you a gentle little grounder, and you hobble towards it unconvincingly, struggling to pick up the line; you crouch, glove on the floor, the other hand ready to swallow the ball whole into your glove defensive position. Picking the ball successfully and then throwing it (accurately, ideally) to a baseman in one fluid motion is rather tricky. Mostly I forget the baseball, coming up standing in my best José Reyes impression and flinging air in the general direction of first base, the ball trickling away from my feet and coming to a dead stop having never nestled successfully in my glove. On one such occasion, another would-be fielder nodded nervously in my direction, knowing their time was coming. ‘Next time, champ, but don’t walk before you can run’ – shouts one of the coaches, cheerfully.

Running the bases

Talking of running, once we get into mock game scenarios and you are lucky enough to get a hit, first base suddenly seems like 400 metres away. ‘Is this field regulation size?’ someone mumbles, half-jokingly. After any connection, however paltry, you drop the bat clumsily and take off, tunnel vision on the base, desperate to beat out whatever throw may or may not come (fielding, as we’ve touched upon, is hard). In our third week, I connect on a hit (from a toss, I’ll add, not a sincere pitch) right out the middle of the barrel, and I feel like a million dollars. ‘I’ve creamed it’, I think. Nope. Straight on a hop to centre field, who happens to be one of last year’s graduates with a cannon for an arm and a sniper rifle sight for aim. All thoughts of a double or a triple evaporate like the dust cloud from my cleats, trailing in my considerable wake. I’m three yards short and hilariously out. But I won’t forget how that hit felt, and I want more.

As the weeks progress, thanks to the wonderful coaches, it gets infinitesimally easier, and the sense of achievement is humungous. There is a camaraderie hitherto unmatched in previous team sports clubs in my experience. Someone hits a liner, and everyone cheers. Someone makes a difficult catch, and everyone applauds. One week we had a double play, and, no word of a lie, the decibel warning on my Apple Watch kicked in.

Baseball is ridiculously difficult but magnificently fun.

London Mets Friday night baseball programme runs every Friday from May until late August. More details can be found HERE.

Joshua Edwards is a long-suffering Mets fan and the London Series correspondent for Bat Flips & Nerds. You can follow him on Twitter at @Joshwa_1990

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