MLB's London Series Will Strike Out In the End
One of baseball’s most historic rivalries returns this weekend as the New York Yankees look to push themselves even further ahead in the American League East while the defending World Series champion Boston Red Sox look to make up ground in the division and get back to the top of the Wild Card race in what’s expected to be a thrilling two-game weekend series.
Oh, and did we mention it’s going to be London Stadium, home of West Ham United of the English Premier League?
That’s right, folks. Baseball is going to Europe for the first time and we may get to see slugger Aaron Judge hit a home run across the Atlantic (both figuratively and possibly literally). Baseball in England steps up to the plate for its first appearance.
While one of baseball’s most iconic rivalries gets the English spotlight and stage for the first time, the question has to be: why?
Even with the recent discovery that the very first game of baseball, or “bass-ball,” was played in England in 1749, then again later in 1918, nobody native to England really cares about the sport.
It’s a niche sport in England in the same was soccer is, or was, here in America throughout the last few decades. Baseball is played in England, although it’s barely a blip on the radar despite having their own league, the National Baseball League, the top league of the British Baseball Federation.
Overall, Europeans prefer soccer (football) wholeheartedly over any other sport with basketball coming in second, according to a study last year by European Business. Baseball was nowhere to be found on the list.
“It’s a shame really,’’ 54-year-old London attorney Chris Edwards said to USA Today. “It should be great for London, but baseball is just not well-known here. People don’t understand it. Traditionally, the perception is that baseball is a slow game.
“But ironically, so is cricket, and you see how popular it is here.’’
Baseball is a slow game and its growth in England, or lack thereof, in England has felt similar.
Its slow crawl is also felt with its national team program, one whose interest and financial support have continued to fall. That is unsurprising considering the Great Britain national baseball team, comprised of both England and Northern Ireland, has failed to make the last two World Baseball Classics. In 2013, they were blown out easily by both Germany and Canada in the qualifiers, and in 2017, they lost 9-1 to Israel in the qualifying finals.
Strike one to baseball in England.
Cricket is the preferred bat-and-ball choice of England and much elsewhere in the world. One of the biggest reasons is that fans can connect with the players, who are English.
The U.S. Men’s National Team’s 2014 FIFA World Cup run inspired the possibilities of soccer with the American public, with American players – with guys who’ve been around like Clint Dempsey and Tim Howard. It made a connection with the American people that said, in a way “hey, we can do this too.”
Along with the rise of interest in Major League Soccer into mainstream American sports, American players have proven that “we can do this too” mentality and some are playing in Europe’s top leagues. There’s an American connection that fans here can relate with when it comes to soccer, that also inspires the next generation.
The same cannot be said with the London Series. There are no British-born players on either of the Yankees or Red Sox 25-man rosters, so there isn’t even at least one player on either team that the native English can root for and connect with.
The only European-tied players on either roster are Yankees’ shortstop Didi Gregorius and Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts who both represented the Netherlands in the 2017 World Baseball Classic. Bogaerts is from Aruba and Gregorius is from Amsterdam.
Strike two to baseball in England, now down 0-2 in the count.
Major League Baseball’s foray into international regular season games isn’t new.
MLB globe-trotted to Mexico for their first road trip outside of the continental United States in 1996 when the San Diego Padres took on the New York Mets.
Since then, MLB has played regular season games in Japan, Puerto Rico, and, most recently, Australia in 2014. The Oakland Athletics opened their 2019 season in the Japan Series in late-March against the Seattle Mariners, while the rest of the league was finishing up spring training.
However, the seven-hour flight from the East Coast opens new opportunities for MLB. There’s no question that thousands of expats and those who either work or study abroad will go to the games at London Stadium this weekend for some good ol’ American culture, but where MLB really needs to hit is with the natives, which hasn’t gone all that well so far.
Baseball’s goal is to have baseball hit England as hard as soccer hit the United States the past five years. They want the London Series to be that spark.
MLB has tried to grow baseball in England in the past. There are events, people do play the sport there, but it’ll never take off.
There are European leagues in Italy (Serie A1), Germany (Baseball-Bundesliga) and the Netherlands (Honkbal Hoofdklasse) that are well-established compared to England. MLB would’ve succeeded in their first Eurotrip if they went to either of those countries rather than England.
In the end, baseball is sending two of its prestigious, most historic franchises across the pond to save baseball in England. It’s a mission that will look great on television and social media and in ticket sales but won’t really make a dent in a country that’s content and happy with their culture and their sports.
Swing and a miss. Baseball in England strikes out in its first try at the plate.