British & European Baseball / Features

Baseball in Sydney, What About London?

March is a tranquil month in Australia, with autumn’s encroachment bringing cool air and a relaxed pace. It’s possible to find a stunning twilight vista or enjoy the thrills of a vibrant surf season. This year, one could even venture out to a ballgame between the Los Angeles Dodgers and Arizona Diamondbacks, who will play a two-game series at a transformed Sydney Cricket Ground in the continued expansion of Major League Baseball. The contemporary rivals will compete in the first big league games ever to grace Australia, a crowning achievement in the international mission of Bud Selig. A visionary Commissioner, Selig hopes to create a baseball boom in Australia, further expanding the game and opening new markets for merchandise and media. The teams flew seventeen hours around the globe following an abbreviated Spring Training, intent on planting baseball in non-traditional locales. I’m a little jealous. Why couldn’t it be us, here in Britain?

When the moment finally arrives, baseball will be the last of all major North American sports to play meaningful games in Europe. The NFL has ignited deep-seated interest with successful games at Wembley. Similarly, basketball is thriving in Britain following an Olympic Games which brought it’s biggest megastars to our doorstep. The domestic basketball league benefits from a neat TV deal with Eurosport, whilst regular NBA games in London and Manchester encourage sustained engrossment. Even ice hockey enjoys a rich history in Britain, with the Detroit Red Wings and Montreal Canadiens first playing a game here in 1938. Since, illustrious teams such as the Bruins, Rangers, Blackhawks and Maple Leafs have all played in the UK, whilst the NHL maintains deep ties to Scandinavia, Czech Republic and Russia, where games are regularly staged.

Whilst plans are finally afoot for MLB games in Holland, Major League teams have traditionally struggled to proceed past mere flirtation with the neurotic concept of baseball in Europe. Selig has been explicit about his desire for a “true World Series,” with foreign domestic teams competing against one another, but that vision may only extend to a commercial contest between North America and Japan, baseball’s defining powerhouses. Europe deserves to play a part in baseball’s evolution. It’s a passionate enclave which can help enrich the games international growth. In Europe, baseball has a unique flavour, a unique resonance, a unique following. Those who support the game are devoutly loyal, often sacrificing sleep to watch games and weekends to play their own. Surely MLB could bring joy to some of its most ardent fans, who sit glumly as NFL, NBA and NHL games come to town, knowing that baseball is unlikely to follow. We yearn for the opportunity to see regular baseball games in Milan or Amsterdam or Paris; Brussels or Munich or Stockholm; Madrid or Vienna or Prague. I dream of going to a ballgame in London or Liverpool or Manchester; Birmingham or Glasgow or Dublin. I want Major League Baseball to take hold in my homeland. Is that really too much to ask?

Apparently so, judging by the testimony of some ballplayers. The forthcoming Australia series hasn’t been greeted with universal appreciation; Dodgers starter Zack Greinke drawing the ire of international baseball fans by concluding that he had “zero excitement” for the trip. Greinke, an elite pitcher, believes that the series will disrupt any routine and momentum which Los Angeles has been working on throughout Spring Training. Thus, we’re granted a reality check in our pursuit of Major League Baseball in Europe; ballplayers are temperamental creatures of habit, and anything which interferes with their usual preparation is looked upon with suspicion.

But Grant Balfour, perhaps the most successful Australian ballplayer of all-time, was eager to set the record straight. “I think it’s cool,” said the Sydney-born closer who signed a two-year, $12 million contract with Tampa Bay following a 38-save season with Oakland. “I know it’s a long way, but it’s a beautiful country and it’s a great experience for a lot of those guys. I hear some comments from guys who say it’s too far to go. It’s annoying to hear that, to be honest. You’re getting an opportunity to do something that a lot of people don’t get to do. I kind of see it as being a little ungrateful.”

The mood of Australians rests somewhere in-between Greinke’s indifference and Balfour’s positivity. Whilst few tickets remain for the games which will see Clayton Kershaw battle Wade Miley and Hyun-Jin Ryu duel with Trevor Cahill, widespread interest is yet to materialise. Rogier Waalder, an avid sports fan born in the baseball-rich Netherlands before moving to Australia aged five, doubts that those attending games have genuine intentions of helping the game grow. “These MLB games will be well-supported through a mix of diehards, general sports lovers and those who will go because it’s an event and they need to be seen there,” says Waalder, who lives in Brisbane. “Baseball is a very niche sport in Australia and the general view is that it’s an American game that only appeals to Americans.”

The history of international baseball is littered with examples of similar skepticism towards the United States, with many nations fearing the impingement of American values on their own sacred culture. This is particularly evident in Britain, where the sanctity of cricket as our premier bat-and-ball sport has hampered baseball’s progress; an 1889 Lancashire Evening Post article arguing that “…to compare it [baseball] with cricket is a piece of audacity of which only an American can be guilty.” Such is the historical significance of cricket amongst British aristocracy, Alfred Lord Tennyson once concluded that “If baseball is to hold sway in this country, a new British nation will have to be born and that will never be. Give me cricket all the time.”

In spreading our gaze further afield, we see how this mild xenophobia has plagued the advancement of international baseball. In his phenomenal book Baseball in Europe, prolific baseball scholar Josh Chetwynd explains how World War skepticism hurt the game overseas: “During the world wars, being an enemy of the United States also generally meant forsaking anything American. With few exceptions, countries opposing the United States or those occupied by America’s opponents saw a halt to any momentum baseball was gaining.” In fascinating detail, Chetwynd proceeds to explain how communism had a similar impact on foreign baseball. “As for those countries under the Soviet sphere of influence, they also shunned baseball. In places like Czechoslovakia, Yugoslavia and Poland, where baseball had made some inroads, the fear of communist leaders, who saw baseball as a wholly American endeavour, slowed or stopped any growth.”

This concept of baseball as a political pawn has been used effectively for hundreds of years. During the late 19th century, Cubans adopted the game as a tool of individual expression and codified rebellion against Francoist Spain. The game became a powerful metonym for Cuban freedom; it’s exponents standing out by daring to play ball rather than attend the state-mandated bullfights which were a contrived homage to Spanish culture. The authoritarian dictatorship sought to nullify such individuality, fearing that artistic expression would promote the kind of singularity so dangerous to panoptic empires. Thus, baseball was outlawed by the Spanish government in 1869, stunting considerably it’s domestic progression.

It’s unlikely that such political theorising will provide a backdrop to baseball in twenty-first century Britain, but the aforementioned negativity towards America may be a stumbling block. Whilst historic allies, Britain and the United States have distinct identities, cultures and customs. What’s great in one place can look stupid in the other. A few examples include Piers Morgan, rugby and marmite; David Hasselhoff, jaywalking and NASCAR. Nonetheless, Britain and the United States occasionally get things just right, showcasing a keen understanding of mutuality. The growth of NFL in Britain demonstrates this succinctly; it’s successful Wembley Series showing how culture clashes can be overcome in the great race to expand our sporting lexicon.

In stark contrast to Major League Baseball, the NFL has played in London every year since 2007. It will continue to do so until at least 2016, bringing joy to the masses who enjoy ‘American Football’ in Britain. That immense fan interest is a major factor in the NFL returning annually. Wembley was sold out within ninety minutes of tickets being released for its first ever game. The Miami Dolphins and New York Giants played before 81,000 passionate fans. It was an instant success. Since, sacred teams like the Patriots, Bears, Steelers and 49ers have visited London for meaningful games. The Dallas Cowboys will this year, as part of three Wembley games in successive months. If you’re thinking of getting tickets, forget about it! All three games sold out rapidly, affirming the NFL’s surging popularity in Britain.

The NFL has now staged eight games in London, drawing an average attendance of 82,582. It’s lowest Wembley attendance (76,981 when the Bears and Buccaneers met in 2011), is still greater than the capacity of Old Trafford, a powerhouse venue of world soccer. That immense potential keeps bringing Roger Goodell back. He believes strongly that Britain could maintain it’s own NFL franchise, and that it can compete equally with traditional obsessions such as football, cricket and rugby. The NFL has been consumed by assertion and conjecture to that end. It even made an extravagant bid to become anchor tenant of London’s Olympic Stadium, which would have hosted such a team. Increasingly, it seems a question of when, not if, Britain will get it’s own franchise.
The NFL has been a tremendous success in Britain
The exponential growth of American Football in Britain is multi-faceted. Firstly, it benefits from immense media coverage. The sport is broadcast on terrestrial television, which provides a wealth of exposure to new fans. Similarly, commercial radio has jumped aboard the NFL bandwagon in recent years, whilst Sky Sports offers a lavish schedule of coverage. Nowadays, it’s difficult to miss the NFL in Britain. It arises in conversation, catches ones eye on adverts and in newspapers, and draws viewers from many walks of life. Such ubiquity attracts new audiences, but the game itself stimulates long-term interest. You see, American Football is a fitting microcosm of modern life. Once, baseball was king, a metaphor for America, it’s National Pastime. Now, nobody has spare time to pass. It’s all consumed by Twitter or Facebook or PlayStation. Thus, the NFL is more appealing to a techno-crazed, eat-your-lunch-whilst-working-at-your-desk, now-now-now generation which only has time to catch a few highlights on SportsCenter before rushing out again. Players, coaches and commentators obsess over seconds on a clock, instant replays and complex defensive paradigms. We like that type of thing, apparently. In this age of instant messaging, twenty-four hour news and fervent impulsivity, American Football thrives because it’s aggressive, it’s glitzy, it’s expeditious.

Baseball, it’s chilled-out Uncle, is struggling to keep up, re-brand and find a niche. In essence, it’s struggling to remain relevant. At times, baseball can be seen as anachronistic, with it’s sedate pace, melodic romanticism and 162-game schedule. It lends itself to radio, to lounging with family as the innings roll by, to summer weekends in the garden with beer and sunshine. It’s a marathon, not a sprint.

But new figures indicate that we don’t have much time for that anymore. The NFL is monopolising US television audiences. In 2013, it was responsible for 46 of the 50 most-watched sporting events. No baseball game made the list. It’s showcase World Series peaked at 19 million US viewers, whilst Super Bowl XLVII drew 108 million. Even College Basketball and the NBA are surging ahead. Here, we see that people increasingly want a dash of iconoclasm with their sport; a break from the drawn-out, slow-paced, superannuated traditions. Apparently, we want more flashing lights, louder music, and postseason permutations to be decided within weeks rather than months. We demand to see the entire narrative, including it’s conclusion, right now!

Baseball isn’t designed to provide these intangible and, if it’s struggling to capture the American imagination like it once did, Europe is at an even greater disadvantage. The lack of US television interest reduces the urgency with which international broadcasters will seek to ingratiate the game. This results in under-exposure, a lack of knowledge, and widespread apathy towards gaining such commodities. If pushed, a lot of Brits could name an NFL player, an NBA star, a golfer of global renown. Even casual sports fans know Messi and Ronaldo; Federer and Nadal; Tiger and Mickelson; Brady and Manning; Kobe and LeBron. But how many informal sports enthusiasts around the world can name a baseball star. Most would utter something about Babe Ruth or Joe DiMaggio, but Miguel Cabrera and Mike Trout barely register. Both rank amongst the most stupendously-talented ballplayers of recent times, but they struggle to carry worldwide gravitas.

Thus, to follow baseball from Europe requires almost insane levels of dedication. Essentially, we start from scratch. Increasingly, enthusiasts must go in search of baseball rather than it being eminently visible. But let me tell you: it’s worth it! If you get to know these players, understand their craft, and appreciate their precocious talent, you’ll see that they’re at least equal to their contemporaries in more popular sports. Once you acknowledge their standing in a universe obsessed with sport, you’ll become curious about other players, the teams for whom they play, the stadiums in which they star. You’ll fall in love with baseball history; with names and records and achievements. Then, baseball will become familiar to you, and you won’t be able to live without it. You’ll be hooked for life.

Obviously, the most difficult part of this whole process is actually getting people to realise the skill of these players, realise the heritage of this sport, realise that baseball deserves a chance to prove it’s worth. We need Major League Baseball to be a bit more forthcoming, to make itself more visible, more accessible, more forthcoming. If more seeds are planted, the crop will be more voluminous.

In the absence of an aggressive Major League presence, we have only hope. All across Europe, loyal baseball diehards are maintaining interest and working hard to attract the personnel and build the infrastructure needed to grow our game. In sequestered pockets, European baseball is thriving. A fantastic stadium has been built in Hoofddorp, Holland, with the stated aim of attracting top North American games. The £15 million project has been MLB’s European nest egg, nurtured from conception to hatching as the idealistic home of continental baseball. Inspectors have been present at every stage to insure the Dutch ballpark meets Major League specifications. To that end, special infield clay was shipped from abroad, clubhouse dimensions were expanded and improved shower facilities became reality. The result? A 30,000-seat baseball monument on the outskirts of Amsterdam which blends the rustic roots of European ball with the exceeding standards of it’s North American role model.

Hoofddorp hopes to attract Major League and World Baseball Classic games in the near future, providing economic and sociological benefits throughout the region. It’s well-placed to become the new epicentre of European baseball. A number of smart facilities have arisen across the continent, in places like Nuremberg and Florence and Utrecht; Nettuno and Haarlem and Trebic. In recent times, Regensburg, Germany has ascended to the top of European baseball’s hierarchy; it’s Armin-Wolf-Arena hosting a number of international games, including the continental championships and World Baseball Classic preliminaries. But Hoofddorp is unlike anything we’ve ever seen. The Dutch have built it, and Major League Baseball will almost certainly come.

Whilst this represents a quantum leap forward, I still wish it was Britain. I’ve always dreamed of Major League Baseball being played in the United Kingdom. Perhaps at Wembley. Perhaps at a futuristic, purpose-built ballpark. Just imagine it for a second. Let go of all the bureaucracy, all the speculation, all the doubt. Forget momentarily about problems with venues and dimensions; interest and funding; viability and logistics. Just dream a little. Imagine the Red Sox and Yankees playing ball against a crimson twilight over London. The bustling city whirs out beyond centre field. A sold-out crowd cheers and laughs and learns. Xander Bogaerts, or an as-yet unborn slugger, gets ahold of a fat breaking ball and launches it out to left field. You jockey for it, watch it against the darkening sky. You catch it, a souvenir to be clutched all the way home.

I believe strongly in the power of baseball. If we could find a way to host just one game in Britain, I’m sure an indelible legacy will be etched. Major League Baseball may fit in London just as snug as the NFL. Who knows? The only way to find out is to try, to experiment, to dare. One day, I aspire to see regular MLB games in Britain; to see fan interest and child participation grow; to see a strong domestic league supported by our American idols. I dream of a wealthy British game with enough funds and equipment and quality facilities to go around. I dream that baseball will bloom in this country obsessed with sport.

I dream, because that’s the very act which so defines European baseball.

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