Where are the British sluggers?

Baseball is one of the staples of the American sporting calendar and has a broadening global appeal. But while many countries revel in playing ball, Britain lags far behind

THE DIAMOND: the world’s glitziest and most precious gem. The definition pretty much ends there for most. It certainly doesn’t register even the remotest of sporting flickers for the vast majority of British folk. But across the pond, eyes are locked on the diamond from April to October as America indulges in its favourite pastime. Baseball.

Every year, two leagues of 15 – the National League and American League – do battle to determine their most proficient team. Then, the victor from each goes on to the World Series – the annual showpiece where the ‘world champion’ of Major League Baseball (MLB) is crowned. It is pure sporting theatre laced with that special, infectious buzz only the US of A can offer.

Baseball has played host to tumultuous achievements and scripted some of the most magnificent tales too. Last year, the Kansas City Royals looked poised to end 29 years of hurt and be crowned world champions once more, as they capitalised on the wildcard that granted them a post-season appearance. But they hadn’t bargained on the pitching might of Madison Bumgarner, the San Francisco Giant whose unrivalled performance earned him Sports Illustrated’s coveted Sportsman of the Year award.

Romanticists are not without a generous serving of entertainment either. The American League Championship Series of 2004 spings to mind: the New York Yankees versus the Boston Red Sox – two of baseball’s most iconic franchises. The Red Sox looked down and out when trailing three games to none, but multiple escapes that Harry Houdini would have marvelled at ensured the dreams of a city came to life. Boston won 4-3 and went onto trounce the St Louis Cardinals a week later to claim a first World Series title since 1918.

But one cannot kid oneself. Such folklore is not etched into the minds of Britons. Baseball goes almost totally ignored in the United Kingdom, labeling it a minority sport is perhaps too kind.

It’s not as if the existence of the game here hasn’t been acknowledged – you will find a smattering of the world-famous Yankees caps on the streets of Britain’s towns and cities. But ask one who dons it whether they saw A-Rod’s crunching blow over the Green Monster at Fenway Park the other week – an effort which saw him tie Willie Mays for fourth on the all-time home run list – and you will get more than a quizzical look.

Cricket – the most classic of English sports – is baseball’s closest relative. The parallels are clear. The ball is dealt, players attempt to hit it and fielders do their utmost to snaffle it. Both games are statistic-laden too. At times, one wonders whether the plethora of records for every nook and cranny are necessary, but they sure are fun to delve into.

However, on closer inspection it is crystal clear that while they may belong to the same family, they are now nothing more than cousins. The combination of precision hitting and agility found on a ballpark has yet to be perfected on a cricket field, even with the birth of the sport’s brashest offspring: Twenty20. And unlike in cricket where 360-degree shot-making is fast becoming the norm, the rules of baseball means a slugger is forced to “hit in the V”. Geoffrey Boycott would be proud.

Capturing the market

While cricket is constantly struggling to innovate and attract newcomers, baseball has a contrasting problem. According to co-host of the now defunct MLB on Five, Josh Chetwynd, the MLB has a fanbase, it is just neglecting it.

“It’s very telling that both the NFL and the NBA have staged regular season top professional games here in the UK and baseball hasn’t. MLB has a presence here but they need to be aggressive about the market.

“The fact that they let a domestic-based show on baseball slide and have basically been willing to just allow people who are already fans to either pay for a premium channel, or for MLB.TV, isn’t a great commitment,” laments Chetwynd.

On a potential MLB on Five comeback in the future, he is hopeful but currently unexpectant. “It would require MLB to make a commitment in this market. The NFL did just that and I think that’s why they remain on terrestrial television. Until that happens, it may be a long wait.”

Matt Smith from BaseballGB, a UK-based website which covers the sport in this country as well as in America, thinks that bringing a Major League game to the UK could be a stepping stone.

He commented: “Behind the scenes, MLB has had discussions recently about the potential of doing that (playing a game in the UK) in the next few years – potentially playing somewhere like Surrey Cricket’s Oval or at the Olympic Stadium – and we’ll have to wait and see if that comes to fruition and exactly how British baseball could really make use of that short burst of publicity.”

Smith is also acutely aware of the versatility some sports have over others when it comes to staging events – something which has held baseball back.

“Sports like basketball and ice hockey have been able to create this (presence in the UK) by playing in multi-purpose arenas, which provide a good viewing experience for paying fans and a good backdrop that sells it to TV companies like Sky, who have shown highlights of games from those domestic leagues. We really don’t have anything like that in baseball as whilst you can shoe-horn a baseball field onto a cricket field, it’s not quite the same.”

Scope for growth?

That American football and basketball have cut through into the British market and baseball hasn’t says either one of two things. That Britain doesn’t care about baseball, or more likely, investment and promotion is lacking. The game of rounders adopts many of baseball’s principles and is played regularly by schoolchildren on these shores, which indicates we are not averse to the concept, the interest just hasn’t been harnessed.

Chetwynd understands the problems and, with the right measures, he thinks progress can be made.

“We lag behind greatly in infrastructure. The creation of a proper field at Farnham Park was a great step forward, but there needs to be three or four more facilities before you have a critical mass that will start attracting kids. To paraphrase the movie Field of Dreams, I do believe that if you build it (over and over again) people will come. We just need nice purpose built baseball facilities,” he said.

Yet British baseball is not only lagging far behind America, Japan and the Dominican Republic – the game’s powerhouses – but mainland Europe too. While the Netherlands stunned all to grab a fourth-place finish in the 2013 World Baseball Classic – the best showing from a European side – the UK failed to even qualify for the 16-team tournament.

The British Baseball Federation (BBF) has been in charge of the sport’s affairs in this country since its foundation in 1987. The organisation oversees the National Baseball League (NBL) – the biggest senior league competition in the UK – and eight other divisions in three lower tiers.

The perennial difficulty, and one that is yet to be overcome, is to craft something that will not only give baseball a sustainable base in Britain, but a system that encourages more people to both participate and spectate.

Chetwynd added: “I believe that the BBF and the developmental organisation Baseball Softball UK (BSUK) have come a long way in offering support for aspiring baseball players. There are lots of clinics and efforts to help teams in pockets without any baseball experience get going.

“That said, I’m always cautious on this front as British baseball’s history has had tons of ebbs and flows where it looks like the sport is gaining traction, only to have a few key figures who are driving expansion lose interest or have other factors derail their efforts. I do believe BSUK is more structured than most of those previous efforts, but you never know.”

The future

It’s difficult to predict if Farnham Park – a fully-fledged ballpark in Slough – will prove to be a trailblazer or whether it is destined to be an anomaly within the UK’s sporting landscape.

“I won’t be happy until we have every boy in America between the ages of six and 16 wearing a glove and swinging a bat,” Babe Ruth, one of baseball’s best, once chimed. While such an event here would be pure fantasy, taking heed of the aspiration would not be a bad thing. Baseball in the UK is a niche market, but essentially, that market is there. Ensuring the game is accessible to those who want it is key.

The MLB lost the luxury of terrestrial TV in 2008 after 13 unbroken years – it was a hefty blow. It’s tough enough for a mainstream sport to be bereft of free-to-air coverage, nevermind a plucky outsider.

“Never let the fear of striking out get in your way,” goes another Ruth gem. The road may be long, bumpy and at times without hope, but the desired destination is never totally out of reach. Just ask the Red Sox.

Fact Box

Playing ball at Stamford Bridge

Over 100 years ago, before World War One had begun and the New York Giants were known as a baseball team, Stamford Bridge – the home of Chelsea Football Club – hosted a match between the Giants and the Chicago White Sox. King George V and 20,000 others watched on a February day in 1914 as the final game of the teams’ world tour went to extra innings. The White Sox eventually prevailed 5-4 – thanks to Tommy Daly’s home run in the bottom of the 11th inning – to wrap up the series 24 games to 20.

Britain were world champions?

The first version of the Baseball World Cup (it was then known as the Amateur World Series) took place in 1938 and was contested between Great Britain and the USA. The five-match series was held across the north of England over a week in mid-August. The Brits raced to a 2-0 lead with wins in Liverpool and Kingston upon Hull before the Americans kept the competition alive with a triumph in Rochdale. Great Britain were not to be denied in their bid to win their first, and so far only World Cup though, sealing the title with a 4-0 victory at the Shay in Halifax.

The Northampton pitcher

Few English players have ever made it into the Major Leagues and even fewer have become seasoned campaigners. Danny Cox was an exception to the rule. The Northampton pitcher enjoyed plenty of moments in the limelight in an 11-season career, most notably for the St Louis Cardinals. Cox pitched twice in the 1985 World Series – which the Cardinals lost to the Kansas City Royals – but his finest moment arguably came in Game 5 of the 1987 World Series, where his winning performance gave his team a 3-2 lead, only for the Minnesota Twins to fight back and be crowned world champions in a deciding seventh game.

Contracts

The MLB has a reputation for being lucrative and it currently boasts 27 of the 30 largest contracts in all of sport. Alex Rodriguez broke the record twice when signing deals with the Texas Rangers and the New York Yankees but he was usurped by Venezuela’s Miguel Cabrera, who penned a $292 million 10-year contract with the Detroit Tigers in 2014. Miggy was then toppled just months later by Giancarlo Stanton when he struck a $325 million deal with the Miami Marlins. However, since his agreement is set to last three years longer, Cabrera remains the highest earner per match.

 

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