Category Archives: Sport

Mensur Mania reigns in Cardiff

I won’t feed you any PDC propaganda about Mensur Suljovic winning a “major”, because he hasn’t. But as far as exhibitions go, this BBC gig, the Champions League as its called, is just about the best of them. And if anyone was going to become the first new TV winner in a full-strength field since Michael van Gerwen scooped the 2012 World Grand Prix (not including World Series events or Peter Wright’s 2017 UK Open – a tournament without van Gerwen and Taylor), who better than Big Mensur?

One could say that Suljovic was at an advantage over his rivals, in that he likely didn’t give a damn that this tournament was on the BBC — unlike Peter Wright, who frittered away eight match darts against Gary Anderson in their group-stage decider.

Taylor stitches up van Gerwen once again

What to make of van Gerwen, who has now suffered consecutive humiliations on telly to Taylor? There’s no doubt he’s back in Phil’s pocket, who, in what he promises is his final year, has craftily orchestrated the crowd to ensure they give the Dutchman hell. Imbued from his 16–6 dismantling of MvG at the World Matchplay, Taylor felt confident enough to break out the Green Machine’s double fist pump celebration as he dumped him out in the group.

I don’t buy the line that Phil is on a free roll on his last lap of the circuit — his bratty antics in losing to Corey Cadby in Melbourne last month reek of a sorer loser than ever. He cares alright, and after van Gerwen’s dominance over him in recent years — a sustained run Phil had never experienced in his career — he’s revelling in landing a few blows of his own.

Just desserts for van Gerwen, one could argue, having been so overconfident at the Matchplay to text fellow Dutchie Vincent van der Voort during the interval of his second round match against Simon Whitlock to say that he’d already beaten him. Not that we can glean too much from Taylor’s word salad interviews nowadays, but it was clear that had riled him, as he made sure to mention it in his post-match spiel after beating the world number one in Blackpool.

He mused again in Cardiff on how van Gerwen was a bad loser. Hypocritical, but that doesn’t stop it being true.

After storming to his second world title in January, the Dutchman has found himself facing some unlikely adversity. He’s going to keep getting it in the neck against Phil, and right now, he can’t hack it. Frustrating, really, that the PDC’s greatest, most intriguing and genuine rivalry will be no more after January. They really do not like each other.

Taylor has opted out of next month’s Grand Prix, denying us of a showdown there, but we’ll hopefully see them go at it in Wolverhampton for the Grand Slam of Darts or at the World Championship.

Darts in capable hands on the BBC

Unlike the BDO, the PDC has given the BBC something to work with, and they did a capable job once again. Jason Mohammad fronted the coverage well, while Paul Nicholson and Mark Webster proved good sidekicks.

The only real downers were the showings from Adrian Lewis and Dave Chisnall, who both failed to record a win. That and a boring Taylor-van Barneveld match, which flatters to deceive more often than not now — even their quarter-final at the World Championships felt flat for the majority. Taylor won this one 10–6, for the record. ‘El Dartico’ or ‘darts’ El Clasico’ is rather generous.

It was a far superior event to last year, which was dulled by far too many one-sided contests. Mensur, whose personality we’re starting to become more acclimatised too, was the highlight throughout — his ballsy 160 match-winning checkout in the semis versus Raymond van Barneveld really was a cracker. And he held his nerve well in the final against Anderson, rallying superbly in the latter stages to finish the job, since he looked tetchy after being pegged back to 6–6.

Suljovic winning with a sub-88 average — that was more than 10 points inferior to Anderson’s — was also a delight. It won’t deter those drunk on statistics; we’re sure to keep seeing “leg averages” and being told “you can’t win with anything less than 100 average”. But it’s nice to know darts remains a game of checking out 501 more quickly than your opponent, with each leg being independent from the other.

More darts on the BBC? Yes please. More Mensur Mania? Yes please. More El Darticos? No thanks.

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Michael van Gerwen fires fantasy darts in performance for the ages

Picking the correct adjectives is essential when describing sport – labelling every significant moment “fantastic” or “great” just serves to devalue your lexicon. Very rarely do we see the stuff of fantasy that would equate to being fantastic, or an act of true greatness. We have to find ways of separating the highest tiers of brilliance in sport, or we cannot do them justice.

Last night Michael van Gerwen was fantastic. Last night Michael van Gerwen was great. Raymond van Barneveld fell barely short of both descriptors, yet he was still hammered 6-2 in the PDC World Championship semi-final by his ruthless Dutch counterpart.

Yes, van Gerwen’s romp was nearly 10 points shy of his imperfect – yes, imperfect – 123.40 world record average, but you cannot compare eight exhibition legs with eight of the hugest sets in darts. This semi-final showing was the best performance of all-time, beating a subjective honour previously bestowed upon Phil Taylor for his 7-1 thrashing of van Barneveld in the 2009 world final, where his average nudged 111.

Here comes the van Gerwen stats barrage: the highest ever average in a World Championship match 114.05 – almost three points superior to Taylor’s destruction of Shayne Burgess in 2002 –15 180s, 29 140s and a further cluster of big scores utilising the treble 19. Compared to van Barneveld’s two-out-of-three doubling, the 26-year-old was found wanting, but he still nailed more than half of his attempts. Oh, and he missed double 12 for a nine-darter too.

Barring Barney, the least enchanted by this darting wizardry was van Gerwen himself, who espoused the same brutal and commendable honesty he has for weeks. Some call it arrogance, that it may be, but we all know it’s what he’s thinking, and we’re thinking it too. Should he not win seven sets before Gary Anderson does and lift the Sid Waddell Trophy on Monday evening, the year will go down as a failure for Mighty Mike. Beating van Barneveld was another step towards that goal, the manner of it was just a happy little bonus, and something he won’t dwell on or coo over – the rest of us can do that.

Van Gerwen’s stunning second-half assault makes it easy to forget that for the first four sets this match was looking like a classic to end all classics. One constant of this famous rivalry has been van Barneveld’s feisty fight, a trait he has invariably brought to this contest even if it’s been sorely missing elsewhere – last year’s World Championship scalp is well-documented, but the less-talked about 2012 Grand Slam of Darts final is an exquisite example too.

Van Barneveld, seeking a first TV title in more than five years ran into a rampant young protagonist finally finding his feet in the PDC. Van Gerwen had blown away the field, including Phil Taylor, and was seeking a second PDC major to go with his first at the World Grand Prix a month prior, and he was the undeniable favourite to claim it.

But the elder Dutch boss hadn’t read the script. Clutch 180s and key finishes tormented a van Gerwen who just wanted to bulldoze, but he was unable too. Nerves crept in for van Barneveld near the end, but he banished them with a match-winning 11-darter against the throw to pinch the tournament 16-14. For four sets on Sunday we were seeing that same resolve, but in overload.

It was the best van Barneveld, a veteran of more than two decades and a winner of five world championships, had ever played on television, and it came because van Gerwen is the only man able to extract such darts from him. Not even Taylor could inspire Barney to this standard – in fact, after a while, he would rather quit than battle.

In terms of this match, van Gerwen started like a sloth, as van Barneveld cruised to the opening set 3-0 with a settling 107 and a gorgeous 131. All doubts surrounding which RvB would turn up following his long overdue scalp of tormenter Taylor 48 hours earlier diminished.

Red-hot Ray was in an even meaner mood after the break, sinking a never-in-doubt 160 to break – van Gerwen, who was waiting on 25, cast a slightly stunned look but was unperturbed. Then came the most crucial leg of the match, and had van Barneveld won it, he would have taken a commanding two-set lead. But he was never winning it, despite being on double 12 after 12 darts thrown.

Bish, bash, bosh. Triple 20, single 14, double 20 for MvG. A 12-darter, a break, a set back on throw and a dagger in the heart of his opponent. Van Barneveld positioned himself on the same double in the deciding fifth leg after four visits – once again, he never got a shot.

The bizarre was happening at Alexandra Palace. The averages were north of 110, the crowd were watching darts, and ‘Chase the Sun’ had been shunned for ‘Freed from Desire’.

Van Gerwen whizzed to the third set flinging yet more fire, but he was kept honest by his adversary, who pinned a routine 127 effortlessly on his way to levelling the scores after the Green Machine missed tops for a 94 that was, in the context of this match, a blink.

With no precedent for such mastery, one wondered whether the pummelling would eventually tell on somebody. It surely had to, and it did. Van Gerwen, somehow, got better while van Barneveld lost a couple of percentage points – but it was no more than that. MvG didn’t run riot for fun in the latter sets, he did so because he had to. The ageing Dutch master was nipping at his heels throughout, and even flirted at a comeback in the eighth set, before being savagely snuffed out.

A gutted van Barneveld oozed class in a beautifully miserable interview in the backroom after. He was devastated, not in awe. He couldn’t give a jot that he averaged 109 or played in the most mind-boggling match of all-time. Why give a valiant loss the time of the day when you’ve been crowned five times? Van Barneveld and van Gerwen have the same champion brain – there’s no substitute to this tournament and being successful in it.

It’s why van Barneveld has reached the semi-final at this event four times in the last five while generally being a pale shadow elsewhere. He doesn’t care about the rest. Victory in the Premier League was nice but it’s a mere career footnote.

For van Gerwen, oodles of expectation will be on him versus Anderson, who has staved off 11 World Championship challenges as the hunted – however, the 12th will be the Scot’s toughest by far. If van Gerwen has an outing remotely similar to the semi-final, Anderson will have to be more powerful and clinical than ever before. A rubbish cliché, granted, but it is true: if anyone can do it, he can.

The third and possibly deciding part of the Michael van Gerwen-Gary Anderson World Championship saga promises everything. The former won the first but invigorated the latter’s career in doing so, and Anderson repaid the favour 12 months’ later on his way to his first world title.

The darting world awaits a showdown usually only sports entertainment can provide. Buckle up.

Two years on, what to make of the PDC’s monster?

Two years ago I wrote an article on why I considered the Professional Darts Corporation’s decision to sell its events as a party rather than a sport was a gamble. Safe to say, the piece attracted a lot of attention – around 10,000 reads, about 70 percent of the total views this blog has garnered in two and a half years.

The response was mixed, although it was more positive than not, and as it’s still applicable, the post continues to receive comments today – especially at World Championship time. With a lot of water under the bridge, now is the appropriate time to revisit it. Much I continue to believe, although a few comments were admittedly slightly naïve.

In suggesting the PDC has become slaves to a monster, I dare say the past 24 months have vindicated that. Crowds have worsened, so much so that we now hear as many football chants as darts ones, while it sometimes feels as if few would notice if the players just packed up and walked off, given the backdrop behind the players is often a sea of backs instead of faces.

There’s nothing that can be done about this now. Indeed, referees seem to realise the once customary “thank you” is as useful as a Kevin Painter lesson in bottle. That’s the route they’ve gone down and it’s fair to say we’re not near the tipping point yet. A night at the darts remains mighty appealing, even if a night watching the darts doesn’t. With more – albeit anecdotal – evidence that I’ve had from people who say they no longer attend PDC events because of the crowd situation, it’s inevitable that things will keep moving in this direction.

Sadly the PDC revels in drunken tomfoolery. During Wednesday afternoon’s second-round session, the corporation’s official Twitter page shared a GIF of somebody taking a “PINT TO THE FACE!!!” – along with that god-awful crying with laughter emoji –before later deleting it after copious criticism. I cannot think of any other sport that not only allows its spectators to behave like idiots, but actively endorses it.

Any attempts to exercise crowd control are fruitless – they will do what they like when they like and make a lot of noise while doing it. And, as far as the PDC’s finances are concerned, that’s fine for now. But there are undeniably sustainability questions – surrounding having a darts crowd that isn’t there to watch darts – that will become pertinent eventually, although it’s hard to say when. What could change things is a serious kick-off at a UK event that makes headlines outside darts – the likelihood of that seems about as improbable but not impossible as it has ever been.

All of this gloom isn’t to say darts hasn’t made some huge strides, and my comment that the World Championships should have stayed at the Circus Tavern was a mistake borne out of pernicious nostalgia. It was a special place (sort of) and it’s a shame it’s not used for anything, but looking back, moving was the correct decision.

Purfleet’s finest was never the Crucible or a second Lakeside. Ultimately, the Circus was merely a venue that happened to stage darts’ most iconic match as its last World Championship salvo. With darts bidding for the big time, it wasn’t worth saving. The deteriorating atmosphere over the past decade hasn’t been caused by the change in arena, but by the PDC’s refusal to firmly stamp out the nonsense behaviour when it started.

Painting the PDC a “bleak long-term future” was clumsy. There’s plenty of reason to believe, with the growing European market at least, that further expansion is likely and forthcoming. Shipping a big major, ideally the World Grand Prix over to the Netherlands or Germany seems a logical step with the Citywest Hotel in Dublin having the most trouble filling the hall up of late.

That pretty much falls in line with what I said at the time, although it’s slightly bizarre that aside from now hosting a Premier League night, the Dutch are still being ignored. Encouragingly, folk out there and across the continent – while in for a good time – appear to care about what’s happening on the board too.

I still reckon the PDC will have long-term problems keeping its product fresh in the UK, but with other countries chomping at the bit, the organisation should stay in rude health providing it harnesses that potential. Finding a marketable replacement for Phil Taylor will be the bigger challenge.

Nobody has the lure of the Power, not even Michael van Gerwen. Taylor’s world finals against van Gerwen and Anderson in 2013 and 2015 respectively brought in around 1.2 million viewers apiece. Contrast that to the 668,000 who tuned in for van Gerwen versus Peter Wright in 2014, and the 908,000 who switched on for Gary Anderson’s title retention against Adrian Lewis last year. If nothing else, it’s a warning signal, as was the PDC’s foray onto the BBC back in September – despite getting the showpiece Taylor-van Gerwen final, fewer than one million watched it.

So, all in all, I’d like to think I’ve largely been proven right, despite being a tad heavy-handed in certain areas. The PDC has certainly created a monster, but for now, it’s a stable one, and they should be able to keep it so for a while yet. For real fans, who enjoyed going to the darts to watch the darts – such a novel concept – the long-term future is indeed bleak. Darts sold itself to reach new heights, and Barry Hearn concluded neglecting his core, dedicated audience in favour of a wild, carefree gang was for the greater good. Time will tell whether he’s right.

Johnny Cueto’s high-stakes gems ensure Royals fans will remember him fondly

Royals fans will be hoping they have seen the last of Johnny Cueto. Not because of his performances, but because it would mean when the club returns to Kansas City, they would be doing so not for a high-stakes Game 6, but as World Series victors.

Cueto’s three-month rental at the Royals has had more ups and downs than a dodgy romcom, but ultimately, when the franchise has needed their hired ace to deliver, the Dominican has swaggered around the mound like no Kansas City hurler has for years. It was a win not just for Cueto or Kansas City, but for his fellow countryman Edinson Volquez, whose father tragically passed away before the start of Game 1.

In Game 5 of the Division Series against the Houston Astros, Cueto threw eight innings of magical two-run ball, retiring the last 19 batters he faced. On Wednesday night at The K, Johnny Beisbol went even better, firing a two-hit complete game to shut down the New York Mets – the best performance from a starting pitcher in the World Series since Greg Maddux’s gem for the Atlanta Braves in 1995. Cueto’s first feat kept the Royals dream alive, his second gave them a 2-0 lead in the Fall Classic, and a prime opportunity to end their 30-year wait for a world championship.

Cueto knuckled down after Luis Valbuena’s two-run dinger in the ALDS, and he mirrored that effort against Houston in his dismantling of the Mets. Only in the fourth inning did any trouble arise, and had Mike Moustakas’ throw from third to first been more on target, Cueto would have escaped with no damage. As it was, Lucas Duda’s bloop into left field landed safe and allowed New York to scratch out a run. Lesser men would have wobbled, but the only wobbling Cueto did was with his “rocking chair” wind-up – he proceeded to retire the next 15 batters, his solitary lapse came when he walked Daniel Murphy with two outs in the ninth. A night off for the bullpen added the finishing touches to a perfect night.

The Royals bats continued to stick firmly to their mantra. Making contact, getting the ball in-play and keeping the line moving. The most telling statistics from the first two games were deGrom and Matt Harvey’s strikeout count. They totalled just two apiece which prevented from blowing their adversaries away as they have all year. The Royals made them grind, and that persistence paid off.

After leaving the bases loaded in the fourth, Ned Yost’s men got straight back to work, bashing deGrom for as many runs in one inning – four – as he had conceded all postseason. Alex Gordon walked, Alex Rios singled, Alcides Escobar clobbered an RBI single, Eric Hosmer drove in two, Kendrys Morales got aboard before Moustakas drove in a fourth. Similar frenzied hitting in the eighth tacked on a further three runs and gifted closer Wade Davis the night off. A comfortable win was the exact tonic needed after the 14-inning roller coaster ride which had taken place just hours before.

Forget Cueto’s horror show in Toronto, his troubles working with catcher Salvador Perez, and all of those face-palming regular season starts that added fuel to the doomsayers’ fire. When Kansas City gave up Brandon Finnegan, John Lamb and Cody Reed in July, this was the impact they weren’t just hoping for, but expecting. To echo Ned Yost’s words all season, the 2015 Royals are a ballclub borne entirely out of expectation.

Yet, even when the dreadlocked star was struggling on the mound, his presence radiated and aided a marked upswing in form for the Dominican Republic’s brightest young prospect, Yordano Ventura. Kansas City’s Opening Day starter endured a testing first half of the season, blighted by injury and a frustrating knack of instigating on-field fights, notably with Mike Trout. Ventura’s command was awry and his inability to knuckle down with runners on base saw his ERA balloon above 5.00. But after, the Cueto signing and a near demotion to Triple A, the 24-year-old talent began to light it up. One burgeoning ace looked to impress a bona fide ace. The result? A 9-1 finish to the season with a 3.10 ERA. It provided the Royals rotation stability and confidence while their prized asset suffered. Tie in “Steady Eddie” Volquez, one of the best off-season pick-ups, and the deadly Dominican trio was complete.

The mystery of Cueto’s tenure as Royal will have bothered him as much as anyone. He turned up and produced as expected, pitching a four-hit shutout in his first home start, but he then combusted with five successive horrendous starts. With free agency looming, his chance to escape the freefalling Cincinnati Reds for a winning team presented an opening to show the baseball world what Postseason Johnny Cueto is all about. That he is more than the man who dropped the ball after being relentlessly rattled in the 2013 National League Wild Card Game at PNC Park.

Indeed, the Blue Jays and their fans still rumbled him north of the border. Chants of “Cuueettoo, Cuueettoo” rang out, and murmurs of Toronto stealing signs left him confused. But at home, Cueto has been a different beast. Beating Jacob deGrom, the Mets ace-in-waiting, and handing Kansas City command of the World Series sent out an assertive message to all teams eyeing up a move for the 29-year-old in the off-season. When it matters most, chucking the ball to Cueto will give a side as much assurance of triumph as baseball ever can. On the road he remains an enigma, however on his own patch, he has thrived.

Yost knows this, and has used him expertly. For all of the seemingly baffling decisions which come out of the Royals dugout at times, Kansas City’s general manager has enjoyed unprecedented success in October – his 20-8 postseason record is the best-ever. Royals fans joke, but for the most part, it’s the opposition who have been “Yosted”. Even the Chiefs picked up a win when Yost was in attendance – perhaps it is destiny.

Maybe the Royals will not win the World Series. They are still two games from glory and the next three are in New York and, as ESPN will make sure you know, the last two teams to come back from two behind in the Fall Classic were from the Big Apple. However, Kansas City looks in magnificent shape, and with Ventura and the ultra-consistent Chris Young to follow, snaring baseball’s grandest prize is within touching distance.

If the Royals do take the crown, none of it would have been possible without Cueto. The late August and September waters were choppy, but once again, Dayton Moore has been vindicated. The all-in move has paid off, and the Royals faithful will remember Cueto fondly rather than fretfully. Now, it’s up to the rest of this historic Kansas City unit to finish the job. Missouri’s keenest baseball town is euphoric, excited and expectant.

Mike Trout shows the future is now as MLB delivers at Midsummer Classic

As the most-watched All-Star event in professional sports, Major League Baseball has a duty to put on a spectacular show each year, even more so in an era where interest – particularly among the youth – is apparently on the decline.

And as eyes descended on the Great American Ball Park in Cincinnati, it’s fair to say baseball delivered.  The revamped Home Run Derby brought with it new excitement, while the continued emergence of Mike Trout as the sport’s brightest young star was welcome, even if the MLB does do everything possible to shoehorn him into the limelight – no, “hitting for the cycle” doesn’t count if it takes you four games.

The showpiece All-Star Game saw the American League secured home advantage for this year’s World Series with a 6-3 victory over the National League – their 15th triumph in the last 19 Midsummer Classics. Trout homered off the fourth pitch of the game; Brian Dozier sent his first at-bat as an All-Star into the crowd as well, while Aroldis Chapman’s superhuman arm fired 12 out of 14 pitches over 100mph, striking out Brock Holt, Mike Moustakas and Mark Teixeira.

Dispelling the myth that a mass invasion of Kansas City Royals into the game would threaten the American League’s chances, their three eventual starters – Lorenzo Cain, Alcides Escobar and Salvador Perez – went 3-8 and Perez also reached first base after being struck out, courtesy of Madison Bumgarner’s wild pitch, in a painful rematch of the final out from last year’s World Series (if only that had happened in Game 7 at Kauffman Stadium). Wade Davis threw a typically filthy eighth inning, retiring two, while the other Royals pitcher, Kelvin Herrera, did not get on the mound.

Trout was MVP for the second year running – the first time that has happened in All-Star Game history – but the award perhaps should have gone to Cain who was the only player with two hits, which he complimented with an RBI and a stolen base. The MLB’s desperation to find the “face of baseball” is an understandable one however, and it’s a decision that is hard to take too much umbrage with.

Derby Delights

In Monday’s Derby, hometown kid Todd Frazier saw off the impressive challenge of the Dodgers’ Joc Pederson.  The competition still managed to thrive despite being bereft of Giancarlo Stanton, Bryce Harper and Trout, who were unable to take part due to a broken left hand, a father not well enough to pitch and a humble 23-year-old who wanted to allow his Angels teammate Albert Pujols a chance for glory. No complaints there.

The new time format sped up the contest and made for an exciting couple of hours, even if the repeated “back-back-back-back-back” line from Chris Berman in the commentary box became slightly tiresome.

Pederson showcased his big-time talent in his first full season as a Dodger and his match with Pujols made for the most touching moment of Monday evening when the latter hugged Pederson’s brother, Champ. The two met for the first time earlier this year and Champ, who suffers with Down’s syndrome like Pujols’ older daughter Isabella, struck a chord, with Albert signing a jersey for him.

Champ said that Pujols was his favourite player at the time although was supporting his brother when the two faced off – the family bond is pretty unbreakable, especially in baseball.  It was one that tugged the heartstrings.

Viewing figures were reportedly down once again, which was in part due to the “Derek Jeter” effect. New York tuned in en masse in 2014 for the Yankee shortstop’s final All-Star Game and their interest in this year would have been muted further since there were no Bronx Bombers starting. An absence of Red Sox starters too marked the first time in All-Star Game history that there were no starters from either the Yankees or Boston. However, in comparison to other All-Star Games, baseball still towers above its competitors.

There were plenty of concerns ahead of the 2015 Midsummer Classic, the fan voting, the injuries – losing Miguel Cabrera, Alex Gordon and Stanton to name a trio were big blows – and the new Derby format. But by and large it worked, and in Trout, baseball is in possession of American sport’s hottest young property. The future may yet be bright.

 

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.

 

Guthrie pitches six scoreless to give Kansas City Royals best ever 40-game start

Jeremy Guthrie (4-2) pitched six scoreless innings, struck out three, and walked two as the Kansas City Royals cruised to a 7-1 win over the Cincinnati Reds in front of over 30,000 at Kauffman Stadium on Wednesday evening.

The win ensured the Royals moved to 26-14 on the season – a franchise record after 40 games – and cemented their lead at the top of the American League Central, courtesy of victory in both Interleague matches against the Reds.

Guthrie’s efforts also aided the Royals to tie another franchise best with 24 consecutive scoreless innings, a streak stretching back to the beginning of Sunday’s game with the New York Yankees.

Jason Marquis (3-4) opened proceedings for the Reds but was replaced after conceding four runs inside the first four innings.

A 10th double of the year for Eric Hosmer helped the Royals take the lead in the second and a grounder in the fourth allowed Mike Moustakas to score – marking Hosmer’s 30th RBI of 2015. Kendrys Morales’ sacrifice fly also meant Hosmer could reach home in the same inning.

Moustakas continued his hot run with the bat, going 3-for-4 with three singles, taking his season tally to 51 hits and his batting average to .342.

Alex Gordon’s sacrifice fly scored Homer in the second but his night will be remembered for his catch on Todd Frazier in the fifth which saw him crash into the left field wall.

The Royals added further pain with two more runs off of Raisel Iglesias in the eighth inning, but by then the Reds looked a spent force, as they slipped to 18-22 on the year.

After a day off tomorrow, the Royals will return to action on Friday evening when they open a three-game I-70 series against the St Louis Cardinals. Chris Young (3-0) will be on the mound, fresh from a win over the Yankees last Friday.

The Reds also have a break and will be back on the diamond on the Friday evening, as they take the trip to play the Cleveland Indians.