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London's Home Run Derby: Could It Be the Beginning of Baseball in Britain?

12 Jul, 2017

By: Michael Popke

The Fourth of July may be just another day in London, but this year, baseball came to Britain on America’s Independence Day.

As a preview of what could be the future of the sport, Hyde Park welcomed several thousand fans to something called “MLB Battlegrounds” featuring England cricketers Jos Buttler and Alex Hales, plus retired Major Leaguers Carlos Pena, Shawn Green and Cliff Floyd, participating in a home run derby-style competition.

To give you an idea of how new that concept is in England, The Guardian — one of Britain’s most respected newspapers — felt compelled to explain how the derby works: “For the uninitiated, this means they will try to hit the ball as far as possible, as often as possible, against the clock.”

According to an Associated Press report, Charlie Hill, managing director of Major League Baseball for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, says some regular-season MLB games could be played in London as soon as the 2019 season. It’s a move already made by the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, which have long histories of playing regular-season games overseas.  

What took baseball so long?

“The biggest problem, in many respects, is that we’re a sport with 150 years of tradition that has a really deep-rooted place in American culture,” Hill said. “It has a place and is understood and has all these rules and ways it behaves. The biggest challenge is making sure you don’t assume you can take it as is, to assume it will be exactly the same as in America.”

In other words, how do you make British fans understand a quintessentially American sport — with its “labyrinthine complexities, arcane conventions and unwritten rules”?

The Guardian’s Nick Miller has the answer:

The short answer to the question of how to explain all of this is: don’t. Or at least not straightaway. “When you sit someone down and try to educate people, it’s a very hard thing to do,” says Hill. “You learn a lot by just watching. We don’t have to provide a rulebook for everybody. I think what’s true to most sports, particularly baseball, is that they can be enjoyed in layers. Baseball probably has more layers than most and they can be idiosyncratic and wonderful. Initially we’ll have an open mind about what layers are ‘hooks’ and get people interested.”

Marketing is another issue. A problem that baseball in America suffers from is a lack of cultural crossover stars — basically players everyone has heard of whether they are interested in sport or not. Most people know who Cristiano Ronaldo or LeBron James is but baseball’s best players — Mike Trout, Kris Bryant, Bryce Harper, Mookie Betts — are relatively anonymous in the wider public consciousness.

…Again, the quick answer to that problem is to ignore the lack of outstanding individual personalities and concentrate on what baseball does have. “I think the stars of our sport are actually the teams,” says Hill. “I don’t mean the squad of players but, if you take something like the New York Yankees logo, that transcends sport. It’s iconic of not only baseball but the city of New York. You ask most people in any country who aren’t aware of baseball at all, they’ll tell you, ‘That’s New York.’”

... The logistical problems of actually playing games thousands of miles away are worth considering, too. MLB teams play a minimum of 162 games a season and thus their schedules are packed. Days off are rare and so teams will be unable to follow the NFL route of spending a week in London, mugging for the TV cameras and getting acclimatized. Finding time in the calendar for a couple of transatlantic flights is tricky but not impossible. “We don’t see a problem with the travel,” says Chris Park, of MLB in the US. “We have already played games in Japan and Australia and the excitement of playing baseball in another part of the world is something most players look forward to.”

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