Bob Nightengale USA TODAY
Published 2:04 PM EDT Jun 27, 2019
LONDON — You can stroll over to Buckingham Palace, go up the 800-foot Shard or travel around town in the Tube but it’s almost impossible to know Major League Baseball is invading London this weekend.
Dodging cars while realizing pedestrians don’t always have the right-of-way in London this week, loving the fact you can miss a subway train and the next one is just two minutes away, or that the escalators operate at the speed of sound, USA TODAY Sports looked feverishly for signs of any interest in baseball in London.
There was little. A few New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox caps were spotted, and even a Cincinnati Reds T-shirt. But that’s it.
Did anyone get the memo baseball’s fiercest rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox would be played this weekend at London Stadium – the first MLB games played in Europe?
The tabloids were filled with ridicule and sarcasm, ripping England for its 64-run loss to Australia in Cricket, praising England’s women’s soccer team for surviving their World Cup victory over Cameroon, and stories advancing the opening of Wimbledon next week.
But there was no sign at all of MLB games taking place, let alone lamenting the Red Sox’s bullpen woes or Giancarlo Stanton’s latest injury.
“It’s a shame really,’’ says Chris Edwards, 54, a London attorney, wearing a Red Sox cap at the Cricket World Cup match that he bought after visiting Fenway Park for the first time two years ago. “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.’’
While we may complain in the United States about 3 ½-hour baseball games, England’s Cricket World Cup game against Australia on Tuesday started at 10:30 a.m. and lasted until 6 p.m., with fans taking breaks to eat and wash it down with a pint.
This is why MLB, which started dreaming of this venture nearly 25 years ago when they first put an office in London, is smitten with the idea of officially introducing America’s pastime to Europe.
“We’ve been trying to crack this nut for 20 years, and it’s been a tough nut to crack,’’ said Jim Small, MLB senior vice president of international business, during coffee at his London hotel on Wednesday. “Opening Europe to baseball is really important to us. And having Boston and New York here, with their social connections and cultural connections to London, can be a lightning bolt.
“We know there are a lot of people in Europe that will wear Yankee and Red Sox hats, but they don’t have any idea that Aaron Judge or Mookie Betts wear that same hat. This is the opportunity to make the connection that the same hat you’re wearing is the one a bigger-than-life athlete wears going to work every day.’’
It’s not as if these two games – which will be shown locally in the United Kingdom as well as nationally in the United States on Saturday and Sunday – will provoke a flurry of Europeans to call their travel agents looking for discount flights to Yankee Stadium this summer.
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But, hey, you got to start somewhere, right?
“Growing up in the 70’s in Boston,’’ Small said, “if you played soccer, you were either a foreign exchange student or you weren’t good enough to play football, basketball, baseball or hockey. Well, those days are long gone. Look at soccer now.
“We’re trying to make baseball a global sport and to do that, you have to be locally relevant.’’
London Stadium – originally built for the 2012 Olympics and now home to West Ham United of the English Premier League – plays host for the series this weekend.
There are 130,000 people who will attend the two games this weekend, with nearly 400 credentialed reporters, with the games televised in 170 countries. The original allotment sold out within 30 minutes, with 70% of those tickets being sold in the United Kingdom, compared to just 10% in the United States.
It’s hardly as if the tickets were cheap, either. The average ticket price was 250 pounds, which is about $320 in U.S. dollars, with the cheapest going for 30 pounds ($38).
It’s quite possible, Edwards suggests, that many of those tickets sold were simply to Americans who live in Europe. MLB officials don’t know for sure, but are hoping that a large segment of the fanbase are curious sports fans who simply want to see why America makes such a fuss over baseball.
MLB realizes it’s essential to educate the Europeans on the game, with the scoreboard this weekend reading Runs, Hits and Errors instead of R-H-E. There are 700 volunteers with 150 in the stadium that will teach fans how to sing “Take Me Out to The Ballgame.” The public address announcer will help inform the fans what constitutes a hit, an out, a double-play grounder, and why some players will stop at first base instead of second or third or simply rounding the bases.
And, yes, they’ll be reminding fans that they can keep all foul balls..
They will do everything possible to assimilate the atmosphere at games in the United States. They will have vendors in the stands for the first time, selling Sam Adams beer for the Red Sox fans, Brooklyn Lager for the Yankee fans, and London Series Pale Ale for the locals. There’ll be peanuts and cracker jacks and hot dogs sold right alongside fish and chips and meat pies.
There’ll be a mascot race, just as if you’re at Miller Park watching the Sausage Race in Milwaukee or Nationals Park watching the Presidents Race in Washington, with Winston Churchill, Freddie Mercury, Henry VIII and yes, the Loch Ness Monster. They’ll sing “Y-M-C-A’ like they do at Yankee Stadium and “Sweet Caroline” as if they’re at Fenway Park.
Really, unless you happen to be a fly-ball pitcher – with the center field fence just 385 feet away – MLB is doing everything humanely possible to make sure this is an experience these players will forever cherish.
If they step about six feet from the pitcher’s mound, this is the historic spot where Usain Bolt set the Olympic record in 2012 with his 9.63 time in the 100-meter dash. They’ll be reminded that they are going where no MLB player has gone before, not even Babe Ruth, Hank Aaron, Ted Williams, Joe DiMaggio or Stan Musial played in Europe.
The players, who arrived early in the morning Thursday in London, will have two days off before their first game Saturday and two days off after their return Sunday night. They are staying in five-star hotels in a posh section of London, and get a $60,000 stipend apiece for agreeing to play these games outside the United States.
The clubhouses, four times the size of West Ham’s normal locker room, are the traditional size of a home clubhouse, complete with their own video rooms and two batting cages. The clubhouse food (after taste tests during the winter) will be prepared just as if they were at Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park. And, yes, there will be plenty of bubblegum and sunflower seeds.
In a perfect world, the Yankees and Red Sox return home, tell all of their friends how they enjoyed the experience, and London becomes a permanent summer destination. The Chicago Cubs and St. Louis Cardinals have agreed to play in London in 2020, and if the next collective bargaining agreement permits it, there may be expansion to even other European countries.
There are 12 European stations now that televise limited games, but if this is a success, who knows, maybe there’ll be an influx of Europeans playing baseball just like the NBA, with players like Germany’s Max Kepler playing for the Minnesota Twins along with 24 minor-league players from Europe.
“The fact that these guys are the first ones ever to play in Europe for games that counted,’’ Small says, “I think they are going to think this is really cool, creating that emotional connection that hopefully stays with them the rest of their lives.’’
Maybe, the fans attending these games, some seeing baseball for the first time in their lives, will be able to say the same.
Follow Nightengale on Twitter @Bnightengale
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