MLB Meetup: Finally Facing my Waterloo

I am not weird; I’m just a little socially awkward. When you get to know me – and it takes a while – I’m an ok guy. And you’ll probably never be aware of the demons I battled when we first met.

So, it was not easy for me to leave the security of my country-bumpkin home and venture on a five-hour round trip to meet up with a bunch of baseball-loving strangers in central London. But, I had decided that 2022 would be the year when I dragged myself out of my comfort zone more often.

It is frequently acknowledged that there is something very special about the UK baseball community. It didn’t seem to matter which team you supported, the ambience at the Waterloo Watch Party at the end of October was relaxed and welcoming. For someone who doesn’t like new people/new venues/new situations, I felt surprisingly at ease when I walked into Passyunk Avenue. And seeing big Russell Eassom straightaway certainly helped. He is one of the UK baseball community’s good guys, and make no mistake, Russ is a big lad. An hour or so later, when Chase Utley, the star of the evening, arrived, he said “Hi” to Russ, and only one of them looked like a career 200+ home run hitter.

The venue was perfect for the GB baseball/softball celebration and Game One of the World Series. There was plenty of room in the two bar areas and outside, although, let’s just say the Waterloo arches bore no resemblance to my usual Suffolk environs.

The arrival of the Phillies’ legendary second baseman signalled the start of the evening’s schedule. Utley joined a panel of esteemed GB luminaries to field questions posed by the shockingly youthful Max Whittle. Sporting a Phillies jersey for the evening, Max admitted to being a Dodgers fan, although you might not believe it by scrolling through his Insta.

Max was assured and confident, and his effortless knowledge of the game will surely continue his propulsion into stardom.

We were introduced to a sextet of sages on the stage (yes, I know there wasn’t a stage, but “sages on the stage” was too good to pass up).

Chase Utley

In my early baseball-watching years, I adored the double-play partnership of Utley and Jimmy Rollins. I remember Utley homering twice in the 2008 World Series when Philadelphia edged out Tampa Bay. That team of Utley, Rollins, Shane Victorino, Ryan Howard, Brad Lidge, Cole Hamels, and Jayson Werth still gives me tingles.

Utley, according to Fangraphs WAR, is the eighth-best player this century – a fraction behind Barry Bonds and just ahead of Robinson Cano and Joey Votto. I bet you didn’t know that!

Unfortunately, younger baseball fans remember him for a rule-changing challenge on Reuben Tejada.

Drew Spencer

GB Baseball’s Manager & Head Coach is the embodiment of a “top bloke.”

The heroics of the Great Britain team to overcome the odds in Germany and qualify for the World Baseball Classic in March were extraordinary, and the final game when they came back to beat Spain 10-9 in extra innings, despite trailing for the entire game, was one of the Top-10 highlights of my baseball life.

I thought the phrase “GB had to overcome the odds” was appropriate until I met Drew in person, and then I realised that he had no doubt that the team would progress from Regensberg. The guy speaks so enthusiastically and instils such confidence, I suspect that even I could homer for him if kitted out in a GB jersey.

Kellie Whitaker

I’m not sure if Kellie has a business card but her title would fill most of it: “Team Operations Manager for GB Co-ed Slowpitch and GB Men’s Softball”

While the Q&A session was in progress, one of the most familiar characters within the UK baseball community whispered to me “What is Slowpitch?” which suggests that baseball and softball still have a long way to go to convert MLB-watching spectators into recreational players.

The layman’s differences between Slowpitch are (1) as you would expect, the ball is pitched slowly with a high tossing motion so that players of every ability can make contact. And (2) the sport is usually mixed male/female.

Kellie, a Mancunian Aussie, suggested that other ex-pats should get involved to educate people about the game. This seems to make sense.

Colin Barrett

Another ex-pat, South African, Colin Barrett is the Performance Pathway and Development Manager for Baseball Softball UK. A former international softball player, Colin’s entire family are involved in the UK baseball and softball community. His wealth of experience is invaluable in helping grow the game(s) in the UK.

Rachael Watkeys

Former head coach of GB Women’s Softball, and British Softball Federation Hall of Famer, Rachael oversaw the spectacular performance of the Senior Women’s National Fastpitch Softball Team to clinch the silver medal at the European Championship in July 2022.

Laura Bailes

It was GB Women’s Baseball star, Laura Bailes, who made a comment that still resonates with me.

“Volunteer,” she said. “Get on the socials, work with the youth, don’t be just a player – get involved.”

As someone whose window for playing closed before I even realised it was slightly ajar, the thought of volunteering at my local club had never occurred to me. If events like the Waterloo Watch Party do nothing else, they recruited a new volunteer for Cambridge Baseball.

After the group discussion, Max gave the audience an opportunity to quiz the panel members, and three aspects stood out.

Firstly, it seems inevitable that the London Series 2023 will be even better than the historic games in 2019. With MLB committed to a four-year investment in Europe, the momentum is growing and June 2023 should be breathtakingly good.

Secondly, GB Baseball is not going to the World Baseball Classic to make up the numbers. Imagine listening to Walid Regradgui (manager of Morocco’s men’s football team) three months ago talking up the country’s chances at the World Cup. No one expected Morocco to play more than a supporting role to the elite nations yet they reached the semi-finals. I’m not saying that GB will reach the semis, but I am suggesting that you disregard them at your peril.

And thirdly, from an outside observer’s perspective, the participation of baseball and softball in the UK seems on a dramatic incline. My social media feed is crammed with clubs holding taster days and beginner’s training sessions. You should get involved. You can find details of your local team here.

With excitement for Game One of the World Series building, the ever-growing crowd embarked on pre-game rehydration and sustenance enhancement. If you haven’t yet tried one of Passyunk Avenue’s Philly Cheesesteaks, then you’ve missed out.

The appointment of Chase Utley as an MLB brand ambassador yet again proved MLB’s supreme casting skills. Like Nick Swisher for the Home Run Derby X series, Utley was charismatic, engaging, and exceptionally generous with his time. I doubt there was a single person at the event with whom Chase didn’t interact.

The event organisation team of MLB Europe, Passyunk Avenue, Bat Flips & Nerds, MLB UK Community, Baseball Softball UK, and GB Baseball continued the entertainment until first pitch. There were so many MLB-merchandise raffle prizes (including London Series tickets) that I felt like one of the few to walk home empty-handed.

And while we are on the subject of the London Series, check out the Bat Flips & Nerds dedicated London Series thread on the website. All updates about tickets, meetups, and other news will appear here as the excitement builds towards another fantastic baseballing summer in the capital.

While wise scholars of the game like Liam Carroll and Russell Eassom discussed aspects of baseball too complex for my little brain in quieter areas of the bar, a home run derby was underway on the big screen in the top bar. Phillies fan, Liam Happe, was victorious after a dominant display and won two tickets for Cubs v Cardinals in London. 

[EDITOR’S NOTE: Just before we hit publish, former GB Head Coach, Liam Carroll, was appointed Boston Red Sox MiLB Manager. This is fantastic news and we could not be happier for him. For those who don’t know him, Liam is THE foundational figure in the renaissance of British baseball. And he appeared on our fourth-ever podcast back in 2016.]

It was a little after 1:00 am when Justin Verlander threw the opening pitch to Kyle Schwarber. By the end of the third inning, the Astros enjoyed a flattering 5-0 lead. A dwindling number of fans remained at Passyunk Avenue, and the mood of the Phillies fans was one of deflation. Philadelphia finally got to Verlander and suddenly the scores were tied at 5-5.

I admit that I wasn’t at the venue at 5:45 am when J.T. Realmuto’s tenth-inning homer proved decisive to give Philadelphia a 1-0 lead in the series.

I realise that these events take a lot of organisation and you need a venue like Passyunk Avenue, but stuff like this really helps grow baseball in the UK. Let’s hope there are more meetups during 2023… and maybe some outside of London.

Agree? Disagree? Join the discussion on Twitter @BatFlips_Nerds

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