London’s MLB crowd offers baseball a new land of opportunity

graceacupuncture - 10/04/2022 - NEWS - 286 Views

Baseball makes cricket look like an almost stat-free zone. This weekend in London records have been falling over themselves with a regularity that probably constituted a record in itself.

But the one that will resound through Major League Baseball’s executive suite is this: its first two games played in Europe drew the sport’s highest attendances in 16 years. US baseball no longer even has a stadium that can hold 60,000 spectators, never mind fill it, near as dammit, in mid-season. So by coming to London the sport seems to be on to something – if not big, then at least a regular sideshow.

After the wild Saturday night at the London Stadium Sunday afternoon initially followed the traditional pattern of such weekends: a slow, groggy return to normality. Then the bingeing started again. Fifty runs in two games is exhibition stuff.

Even the regular baseball writers, who have seen it all in every ballpark from the redwood forests to the New York islands, were groping for explanations of the London lunacy. Take the first ever inning of London’s first ever game. Runs are normally precious currency in baseball, like wickets in cricket. In that first inning both teams scored six.

That last happened in a major league game in 1989. There are 30 baseball teams who fulfil 162 fixtures a season (and up to 20 more if they reach the play-offs). So it is something like 75,000 games since that last happened. No big deal then.

London’s MLB crowd offers baseball a new land of opportunity

It was not actually a recipe for a great game. So much time was spent changing the pitchers – who had the life expectancy of mayflies – and going round and round the bases, that the clock was starting to threaten midnight. Game 2 was almost as extreme but not quite as enervating. Where’s the tea interval when you need it? Yet very few walked out of either.

What on earth was happening? Baseball is particularly like cricket in that it is dictated by its surroundings. Denver, the mile-high city, is known as a hitters’ paradise because of low gravity; the moon will be even more so when baseball gets really adventurous. But there are no mountains here. The ESPN commentator Joe Sciambi thought it was just one of those things. An outbreak of home-run hitting and high scoring has been the talk of the circuit all year. “Terrible pitching,” he summed up. “Random. Could have happened in Kansas City.”

Fans pose for a picture outside London Stadium. Photograph: Tim Ireland/AP

There are also whispers that there is something funny about the balls in use this year. But there were aspects of the London Stadium setup that must raise questions. The fielding, at this level normally as balletic as the Bolshoi, was notably erratic across both teams and both days. One problem may have been the artificial grass, which was much faster than nature’s own. No one was complaining, though. Baseball players these days are far too polite. This was grander than PR: it was an ambassadorial exercise. And they knew how to delight their hosts.

On Saturday 11-year-old Franklin from Essex was allowed to call the names of the incoming batters for one half-inning. Jeez, the way things were going he might have been called to the pitcher’s mound. There were plenty of other kids too. But the biggest cohort seemed to consist of members of Britain’s hidden subculture of stalwart baseball fans, a small, scattered minority normally, much less so crammed into a single stadium.

On Saturday I had a session asking people wearing Red Sox gear where they came from. I got to double figures before I found a real, live Bostonian. The homegrown Soxers included Jonathan Wall, MCC member and leading light of the UK Red Sox Supporters Club. “How many members have you got?” I asked. “2,000.” “And how many are here? “About 2,000.”

In spite of the results they still had fun. Being a British baseball fan is like having an obscure secret fetish, frowned on by polite society. But here they were, en masse, in an environment where they could just be themselves. This might be the start of a liberation movement.

Timelapse shows London Stadium turf transformed for baseball game – video

I am not quite convinced. What London loves is special occasions, of any kind. They queued for hours to pay for overpriced tat. Some even paid £6.50 for hot dogs that would be impounded before being allowed into any American ballpark. They sang Take Me Out to the Ballgame zestfully. I sensed a certain reserve about joining in the gyrations for YMCA, but this is Britain after all.

Yet I think that before baseball can really take hold in Britain it will need some unique traditions of its own. If it is just about revelling in Americana, it is more fun to see it in situ and take the A train to the game, not the Jubilee Line.