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Sunday 9 June 2019

Baseball Goes Global

Take me out with the crowd

  • The Yankees and the Red Sox are bringing baseball’s biggest rivalry to London this month
  • Major League Baseball has never been more profitable, thanks to business success rather than drawing large crowds
  • Yet how exportable is a sport that has such obscure rules and is obsessed with impenetrable statistics?

By Greg Atwan

Major League Baseball is thriving in its 150th year, but from the half empty stands of Citi Field on a cloudy early season day, visitors could be forgiven for not spotting that they are watching a sport on the rise.

The New York Mets, hosting the Milwaukee Brewers in the colossal omniplex of a park that replaced crumbling Shea Stadium a decade ago, was at about half capacity, though it looks like a lot less staring out on the empty bleachers.

Citi Field, New York City, this time with a packed crowd for a Mets game

The fans who have turned up seem less occupied by the game – a duel between the teams’ best starters that ended with a 5-2 home victory –than by the stadium’s luxe diversions: video games, a rotunda of shops, sushi, fried chicken sandwiches from Fuku, by celebrity chef David Chang. In my half-empty section behind the home dugout, a few spectators gather at the rail to await the T-shirt cannons that seem to fire after each inning, ignoring one of the day’s most significant hits at one point to stake their spots. One sizeable fan leaps absurdly and unapologetically over me to snag his prize, which is most likely too small for him, as if he’s diving for a fly ball; my foot has yet to recover.

Sunday afternoon in Queens might have a sleepy air, but MLB’s revenues set a record for the sixteenth straight season in 2018, taking in $10.3 billion, and it is the world’s second most profitable league, right behind the NFL.

LA Angels’ centre fielder Mike Trout has just signed the biggest contract in the history of sport – $430 million for 12 years. Lionel Messi and Lebron James still make more per annum, but Trout, whose smashing spring suggests he’s worth every penny, is still guaranteed at 27 enough to buy himself an Airbus A380 when he retires – or, if he prefers, almost half of the cheapest MLB team. That’s currently the Miami Marlins, valued at a meagre billion dollars.

Mike Trout of the LA Angels, left, has just signed the most lucrative contract in sport

Ticket sales themselves are the only decreasing portion of the league’s otherwise healthy profits. The ballpark experience, so often eulogised as central to American civilisation, is falling away. Attendance is down sharply this year, 9 per cent across the board after dropping for three straight years; the Toronto Blue Jays attendance is on track to fall 34 per cent.

This is, of course, the story all over sports: high-definition TV and streaming are slowly rendering the in-person experience quaint and obsolescent. For a game rooted in nostalgia and continuity, though, in the veneration of a slow-moving opera witnessed by a sentimental concoction of generations, this presents a serious problem.

All sports are voracious for expansion, but baseball’s path is particularly unclear. One experiment will be live on display in London at the end of this month: the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will play two games at London Stadium, the 66,000-seat former home of the 2012 Olympics. This is not a mere exhibition, a sideshow display. These are two real, consequential regular-season games between two famous names, one of them the reigning World Series champion. MLB is hyping the event accordingly. The superstar Alex Rodriguez (“A-Rod”) has already come over as an envoy, telling reporters that “London is open for business and baseball”. Apparently in that order: tickets sold out fast, at prices many fans grumbled were extortionate; BBC picked up the rights to the games, as did BT Sport, who also extended a rights deal with MLB until 2021. MLB commissioner Rob Manfred and London mayor Sadiq Khan have gushed publicly about the prospect of bringing the sport, and its attendant enterprise, across the Atlantic. A game between the St Louis Cardinals and the Chicago Cubs, another great rivalry, is already planned for next season.

A-Rod, Alex Rodriguez, at the MLB Baseball Clinic at London Stadium, 2018

Londoners are familiar by now with American sportsmen popping in; the NFL continues to play multiple games in London every year. American football expressly hopes to expand with a UK team in the next decade. But that’s not a likely endgame for baseball, where clubs play up to eight games a week and intercontinental travel would be impossibly onerous.

The London series is about spawning MLB fans 3,000 miles from the nearest big-league ballpark. Can it work?

 

It’s a hard thing to imagine on a drizzly opening day in Finsbury Park, north London where the National Baseball League, the highest tier of baseball in the UK, plays most of its games. The Herts Falcons are taking on Essex in one of the league openers. It’s a good game: one very clever and nimble base running play, two long home runs, a few dramatic diving plays in the field, and finally a dramatic win to break a 3-3 tie. It would be an advertisement for the sport, had anyone turned up besides a few players’ girlfriends and one American reporter.

A plurality of the players, it turns out, are expats themselves: guys who played some college ball in the States, and then got transferred to southern England for work. Besides the US, Japan and Central and South America are well represented in the league. The London Mets’ talented first baseman is British; he’s played since he was a kid and describes the sport as “chess on grass”. When I ask how he came to it, he points across the street and tells me he grew up in a home overlooking this baseball diamond. In the extremely unlikely event the Great Britain team makes the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, where baseball is coming back after a decade’s hiatus, he would probably play infield.

The league has thinned this year to just four teams after several clubs went bust. But others exist across the UK with promotion and relegation, and league officials say the contraction has concentrated talent into the top tier. I’ve seen a few NBL games on Sundays in Finsbury Park now. Except for the dreary weather and the seven, not nine, innings, it looks like semi-professional baseball, even Minor League in America. The players are passionate and devoted. They chew and spit sunflower seeds. They warm up diligently on deck, and they crack open Guinnesses when it’s over. The equipment is good and the uniforms look professional. Managers input stats to sabermetric powered tablet apps. Most of the games, a half mile from Arsenal’s Emirates stadium, are good fun and basically unattended. Major League Baseball has its work cut out, one London Mets’ player jokes to me pointing at the empty bleachers dutifully put out every Sunday.

The first extant mention of “base-ball” is in Northanger Abbey; but since Jane Austen, the British Isles have proven a particularly infertile soil for the game. Simon Chadwick, Professor of Sports Enterprise at Salford, describes European baseball as “a niche sport with an essentially cult following”. He says the rules, “not necessarily easy to understand”, are one problem. Another off-putting obstacle are the reams of stats they produce—wRAA (Weighted Runs Above Average) or IR-A% (Inherited Runs Allowed Percentage). A sclerotic, meticulously accounted game is a tough sell to anyone who didn’t grow up with it.

Budding stars in Havana: Cuba dominates international competitions

But then sport, like everything else, is globalising. Á-la-carte matches and appetites for the foreign are driving games into unfamiliar places. Witness association football, or soccer, which according to an old quip “is the future of American sports and always will be”. Though nowhere near baseball or America’s indigenous football, soccer is finally a profitable business in the US after years of stagnation. Big European teams draw sellout crowds for US friendlies, but more importantly, Major League Soccer clubs, now the final stop for the likes of Beckham, Rooney and Ibrahimovic, are averaging $32 million in revenues, after being nine figures in the collective red five years ago.

“Sports consumption behaviours are currently in a state of flux,” Chadwick, the Salford professor, says. “Many of the old certainties around sports fandom are changing as millennials and GenZ consumers buck the trends long established by baby boomers. As such, there’s a sense that there’s all to play for.” The decline of Formula One, and longer forms of cricket, depending on who you ask, is opening up space that it’s not inconceivable that baseball could fill.

Amateur sociologists love to wax on about what’s uniquely American about baseball: the tobacco-chewing indolence and sudden bursts of speed and agility; the possibility of comebacks until the very end; the odd and uncommon fact that the defence controls the ball; the ability to play decently even when one has an “American” body shape; the audacious insularity of a sport with a “World Series” only two countries have ever won. (Yes, Canada in ’92 and ’93.)

The Yankees’ pinstripes carry the odour of monarchism, of regressive nostalgia

Platitudes on the connection between the land and its game are easy to find. Jake Simpson of the Atlantic once wrote that there’s something endemically American, for instance, about not having a clock: “Working until the job is done, no matter how long it takes.”

But of course, baseball is played elsewhere, often with enthusiasm and success. In Japan it is by some measures the most popular sport. Many Central Americans and Caribbean people live for it: Cuba and the Dominican Republic dominate international competitions, their teams packed with major leaguers—it’s just like watching England lose the World Cup to a team of guys from the Premier League.

Players from Yokohama Minami warm up. Baseball is Japan’s most popular sport

Baseball exists, moreover, in Europe. The Finns play a variant called Pesäpallo. According to a now-famous TASS report, Russians bought half a million baseball bats in 2014. (But only one ball –Russians are allegedly swinging at fellow motorists and not curveballs.) The dominant teams in the European competitions are Germany, Italy and the Netherlands. They share strong youth leagues that have recently produced a crop of European major leaguers, like Max Kepler, the Minnesota Twins’ Berlin-born outfielder, and Yankees phenom Didi Gregorius of Amsterdam, who’s been injured reserve but will be back in time for the London series. Great Britain is in the top pool of the European Championship, but has only sporadically been in the top four of its biannual-ish cup. Italy and the Netherlands rule the roost –one of them has won all but two finals since 1954, almost always beating the other (although Great Britain did win the first ever iteration of what later became the Baseball World Cup in 1938, beating the US 4-1).

Didi Gregorius of the New York Yankees originates from Holland

In Germany and Italy the game has an obvious source, the same one as Japan. Holland is more of a mystery. Some credit defiance of the Nazis and then the Marshall Plan, others a charismatic progenitor called JCG Grasé, a teacher who brought the sport to Dutch schools after a holiday in America in 1911. Dutch possessions in the West Indies, particularly Curaçao, are said to contribute (Gregorius has Curaçaoan roots), though one could ask why the British Virgin Islands don’t do the same for the UK. A topographic explanation is even offered: all that nice flat land, perfect for an outfield.

Whatever its origin, honkbal is genuinely popular as a club sport; an estimate in 2008 had 30,000 adults playing at one level or another, ten times as many as in the UK, a country four times as big. Former MLB players have come over to coach Dutch teams, and NBL players tell me enviously that professional paid ringers from the US are common in Holland. Five years ago, a Dutch town (Hoofddorp) even built a regulation stadium with 15,000 seats and pitcher’s mound clay imported from Virginia, at a total cost of over €12 million, hoping in vain to lure MLB to play its first exhibition game there.

London Stadium, of course, is the bigger play for the pros. Unlike the NFL, which seems to send its worst teams to Wembley, MLB is bringing out their big guns: their two top brands and their best story. The ancient rivalry between the two east coast teams is renowned and accessible. The Yankees and their fans are loud and teeming, unnuanced and impenitent. Their pinstripes carry the odour of monarchism, of regressive nostalgia. Their fans are more likely than their across-the-river Mets to support Donald Trump. The Sox are professorial, with inflections of grit and hard luck – at least until recently. Even if the games are hopelessly confusing and tedious, the narrative is compelling; the Cards and the Cubs also have a fascinating Midwestern one for fans to dive into in 2020. “We have to lead with our best players and start telling stories,” says A-Rod.

Brock Holt of the Boston Red Sox is doused with Gatorade after starring against the New York Yankees

Those same scrappy, reigning World Champion Red Sox are giving up two home games for this embassy, to some of their fans’ consternation – there are grouses online that the Sox’ owners, Fenway Sports Group, owners of Liverpool FC too, have been over-enthusiastic in organising the game. But the entire operation is a big one: the teams and MLB are pouring in serious money. West Ham’s home ground will be transformed at enormous cost and effort to try to replicate the flavours of the ballpark. (The stadium won’t confirm whether beer – a vital component of that experience – will be allowed in the stands).

But that empty field in Hoofddorp hints that what MLB is really looking to export is not baseball, but the experience on display at Citi Field: the big business of baseball, its various synergies. A-Rod also says, in telling corporate jargon, that the “optics will be amazing”. There will be the easily imagined three-day festival in Stratford, where potential baseball fans will be able to play VR games, drink craft beers, “listen to music inspired by Boston and New York”, and of course buy merch.

MLB doesn’t release numbers on merchandise sales, except to say recently that they’re at record numbers. Overseas, of course, an American baseball logo is a powerful symbol: a shibboleth among expats, a humblebrag about summers on Martha’s Vineyard, or just an aspirational talisman. They seem already, anecdotally, popular here: in a week of paying attention I tallied three people in West and Central London wearing Red Sox “B”s, one lonely Padres fan, and a staggering 23 Yankees logos, one of which shared a hat with two gold Guccis.

Hanley Ramirez of the Boston Red Sox gives a cap with the famous ‘B’ to a young fan

MLB has also reached out to British Baseball, according to John Ferlazzo, chairman of the NBL champion London Mets; the Yankees will be running a clinic for players, and supporting the league with equipment, in order, Ferlazzo says, to “leave us a legacy”. But if they’re serious about bringing baseball into British households, they’ll need to involve kids, to build a serious culture with British-born youth. That will be particularly effortful. The London Mets have tried to engage schools, particularly in the boroughs around Finsbury Park, setting up round robins and hoping that if you build it they will come. Ferlazzo says there has been interest, but that most of the youth teams remain 90 per cent expat—Americans and Japanese whose parents work in London, or in the oil business in Sussex.

Chadwick says other colonising sports are discovering that an intermittent presence of a sport in a population doesn’t work. Baseball, he says, will have to focus on “establishing a permanent presence in the UK and Europe to ensure that people are exposed to the sport on a regular basis. Otherwise, it will merely serve as an annual novelty.”

“Keep hitting… and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.”

The essayist Roger Angell, perhaps baseball’s best ambassador ever, famously wrote: “Since baseball time is measured only in outs, all you have to do is succeed utterly; keep hitting, keep the rally alive, and you have defeated time. You remain forever young.” Baseball is not a game that evolves well. Changes to the sport and the way it’s played have almost always shocked the system and proven scandalous. That might be the closest thing to a way it’s uniquely American. It’s also a beautiful game capable of engaging fans anywhere they can be bothered to sit down and watch. But it’s hard to imagine MLB not taking the path of least resistance here: grabbing a few bucks from streaming and trendy hats, selling America instead of America’s pastime.

 

Photographs by Getty Images

Further reading

Baseball Novels