The Red Sox and Yankees will play in London. But what do the British actually know about baseball?
By JACOB BOGAGE | The Washington Post | Published: May 9, 2018
Two of Major League Baseball's most storied franchises will play a pair of games in London next season, in the league's first regular season action in Europe. The Red Sox and Yankees games next June at London Stadium, capacity 55,000, will make baseball the last major American sport to enter the European market.
And yes, British baseball advocates say, the crowds that watch the games at the "ballpark" - the usual home of West Ham United FC - and on television will have a good enough idea of what's going on to follow the game.
"I would go back to the NFL when they came to the United Kingdom. A lot of people had the same concerns," said Gerry Perez, an American expat who is now the president of the British Baseball Federation, the game's governing body across the pond. "They're not going to know all the rules, but they're going to know the general principles of the sport. They're going to know what it's like to strike out, which way to run on the bases, all that. And London is a very cosmopolitan town. Whether it's American football, basketball, baseball, there are fans here who love it. Londoners . . . know what the game's about, and they're going to be fans."
The NFL has played games annually in England since 2007. Every game, even snooze-fests between the Jets and Dolphins, has drawn a sellout crowd. The NBA's regular season games at O2 Arena since 2011 have also been popular.
But Commissioner Rob Manfred told the Evening Standard that MLB had targeted London independent of football and basketball's overseas success.
"We think that London is the perfect place and we're excited about bringing over one of the great rivalries," he said.
That could be because baseball can trace part of its history back to an 18th century British ball and stick game.
Called "rounders," it's basically baseball without the strike zone or gloves. You get a good pitch, you swing at it. The defense tries to throw you out at one of four bases. If you cross the fourth base, you score a "rounder" for your team.
It's still a common child's game in Britain, popular in schoolyards and in back lots. More than 20 percent of English children ages 11 through 15 reported playing rounders outside of school, according to a 2016 study conducted by the UK's Department of Digital Culture, Media & Sport. Another 13 percent of kids the same age reported playing cricket, another ball and stick game native to the British Isles.
"People are accustomed to [baseball] with rounders and cricket being played in a ton of schools," Perez said. "They're going to know the basic fundamentals."
But that's about it, Perez said, save for pockets of more dedicated fans and players, who root for one or two American teams and have studied the nuances of the game, like pitch selection or the finer points of base running.
Those dedicated fans include Aspi Dimitrov, 42, who joined his local baseball club northwest of London in 2002. He started to watch live late-night MLB broadcasts on a British television channel in the early 1990s, and then got hooked.
Now he plays outfield and pinch hits in one of the lower tiers of recreational play, and pays $115.99 a year to watch any Major League game on MLB.TV. As soon as Manfred wrapped up his news conference with Red Sox and Yankees leadership and London Mayor Sadiq Khan this week, Dimitrov preregistered to buy tickets to the games.
"There are fans in this country - not just in this country, but around Europe - just as passionate as those around Boston and New York," he said. "The fact that they don't have access to see these games all the time, there will be a tremendous hunger to see the game, and these particular teams."
Baseball is a growing game in Britain, according to data collected by the federation, which sponsors 33 clubs, up from 28 a year ago. The clubs provide various levels of youth leagues, plus varying levels of competitive adult recreational play.
BaseballSoftballUK, the federation's youth development branch, reported a 17 percent spike in enrollment in 2016, although 80 percent of "baseball" players actually play slowpitch softball, which BaseballSoftballUK considers a variation of baseball and not a separate sport. The Department of Digital Culture, Media & Sport did not poll for baseball participation in its 2016 study.
Since MLB announced its London series, Perez's phone has buzzed almost nonstop with people trying to get tickets or thinking about signing up their children for the next season of games.
He's told them to come watch a Saturday's worth of youth games at Wormwood Scrubs Park in downtown London. In the morning, dozens of parents descend on a two-acre parcel of grass and erect temporary backstops and dugouts. They lay out bases, and line fields, and then 400 children play the game Walt Whitman called, "a blessing to us."
"With these games coming up," Perez said, "it's going to revolutionize people wanting to play the sport."