U.S. airmen playing hardball as American game grows in Britain
RAF FELTWELL, England — The national pastime has been exported to England.
Air Force members stationed at or near RAF Lakenheath and RAF Mildenhall can feel the pop of a ball in a leather mitt and the joy of watching the parabolic flight of a dinger.
“A lot of people are really surprised. ‘Hey, there’s baseball here?’” said Staff Sgt. Ken Jeltema of the 100th Logistics Readiness Squadron at RAF Mildenhall.
Jeltema is player-manager of the Cambridge Monarchs, a team of active-duty servicemembers that plays in the British Baseball Federation. The team, which has been around since the 1980s, plays 21 regular-season games and joins a few tournaments throughout the year.
Over the years, the Monarchs have had players who requested an assignment in England so they could play for the team. Others are pleasantly surprised to learn about the team once they arrive.
“I was excited. Very surprised,” said Senior Airman Eric Baxter of the 48th Equipment Maintenance Squadron at RAF Lakenheath. “I hated this place until I found out they had baseball.”
Spc. Andrew Mabry, a member of the Ohio National Guard contingent deployed to England to provide base security, learned about the league from a notice in the base newspaper.
“I came here in March and they had a practice the next week,” he said, still amazed at his good fortune.
Tech Sgt. Michael Cleveland of the 67th Special Operations Squadron at RAF Mildenhall said he found information about the team on the Internet before he moved to England from Florida.
Cleveland, whose father, Reggie Cleveland, pitched in the major leagues, said keeping a team of military members is difficult in these times of high operations tempo.
“But we have a large enough roster that we can handle it,” he said.
Another team of active-duty American military members plays out of the base at Menwith Hill in northern England.
The game of baseball has been growing in the United Kingdom. It is televised somewhat frequently, especially on the North American Sports Network, which shows professional sports like football, hockey and baseball from the United States.
The British Baseball Federation has several tiers of leagues, from beginners to polished players. Ian Cox, a federation official, said the number of teams has increased each of the past four years.
“It certainly is improving, becoming more popular,” he said.
Ed Bird, a British college student, plays for the Oxford Kings, a recent Monarchs opponent for a doubleheader at RAF Feltwell, the team’s home field after moving from Cambridge last year.
“There’s more teams popping up,” he said. He said youth teams are increasing in number so young Brits would get early exposure to the game.
Baseball has nuances that make it hard to learn as an adult. Cox, who never held a baseball until he was 24, said the idea of tagging up on base after a fly ball or pop-up escaped him for a long time.
The Monarchs take advantage of that, they admitted. They expect an outfielder to hesitate before deciding where to throw the ball, so they may take an extra base.
“There’s good teams and there’s bad teams,” Baxter said.
That, of course, gives the Yanks, who grew up with baseball, an advantage. After polishing off the Kings 13-0 and 17-2 on a recent Sunday afternoon, the Monarchs were undefeated in six league games.
“They’re not used to the speed of our pitchers,” Cleveland said. “In the field, they make a lot of errors.”
The Monarchs hold a practice at least once a week for those who can make it. They spend hours preparing the field before a home game and kick in a fee for equipment and the league. They may travel nearly three hours for a game.
But the opportunity to knock around the old horsehide makes the effort worthwhile and, for many, is an unexpected bonus for duty in England.
Baxter looked confused when asked why he joined the Monarchs.
“It’s baseball,” he said.