Baseball In England: A Primer

Champions

On October 8, 1995, the 16-year-old Jason Greenberg lied to his parents about attending a school fundraiser, got in his beat-up car, and traveled from his home in Yakima, Washington, across the Cascade Mountains to Seattle's Kingdome. He saw The Double hit by Edgar Martinez that drove in Joey Cora and Ken Griffey, Jr., to give the Mariners a 6-5 victory in Game 5 of their American League Division Series. Now Jason lives in London, and is the General Manager and Director of Operations at Great Britain Baseball, the agency that is charged with developing the game in the United Kingdom.

We met at the BaseballSoftballUK office in central London, a space shares with MLB Europe, with walls full of photos of great players and ballparks, framed jerseys, an autographed Hank Aaron bat, and an impressive collection of signed balls. We sat down over a cup of tea, and talked about baseball in the United Kingdom.

Craig Robinson: What's your history with baseball?

Jason Greenberg: Playing into high school and then leaving baseball to pursue other things and realising how much I missed it, particularly as my Mariners were starting to do well and won 116 and all these other fantastic achievements, which I assumed meant that I would soon be seeing a World Series at Safeco Field. I got back into playing baseball for a laugh in San Francisco, in a wood-bat league, and really enjoyed it, but never thought about doing anything beyond being a fan. When I moved out here to the U.K., the first thing I did was to look to see what existed of the game here, and there was quite a long history of playing and organising, and clubs that had come and gone over the years since the War, and it seemed like a fun community to be a part of.

CR: Was it easy to find a team to play with?

JG: Yep. Showed up, went to a practice, they said "Oh, you're American? You're on the team!" And pretty soon, I started managing the team, running the practices, and helping to build up club infrastructure, and trying to expand the facilities out here. That's one of the biggest hurdles for teams here, just having a field that has a backstop.

CR: What is the quality of the fields here?

JG: A standard field is a field. It's a football pitch that is not in use between May and September.

CR: So there's no mound?

JG: Most teams do build a mound. Once you're at the upper adult level, all the fields will have mounds. Most of them will have permanent backstops. They'll have cut-outs for the bases, or in a few cases, fully skinned infields. Local authorities will give baseball teams a corner [in a park]. That's where you can build your cut-outs, build your backstop, build your mound, it can live there forever, and then the outfield spans out into a football field. Which means outfield fences are very few and far between; you see them on air bases, where the the U.S. military has built that up for recreation use by the soldiers, and you see it in about two or three other clubs.

CR: Are the spectators just family and friends?

JG: Yes, that's right...

CR: And curious dog walkers?

JG: Yeah! In fact, those are my favourite moments in British baseball games when you get some bloke walking his dog across the outfield and all the players stop, because they know it's a safety issue, and our insurance policy only covers so much recklessness, and they'll all start yelling at the dog-walker, and the dog-walker starts yelling back. The push right now is to start building facilities that can accommodate spectators, because it doesn't really exist. A couple of teams have built stands - bleachers - but the people who are coming, there might be some passers-by, but it's usually family and friends. We do get spectators for a couple of events: the National Baseball Championships, we get people dropping by, and we promote that more widely.

CR: And where is that?

JG: It used to be in Croydon, in south London. The last couple of years it's been in Hemel Hempstead [in Hertfordshire, on the northwest outskirts of Greater London] at the field of my old club, where we built two fields, both with outfield fences.

CR: What was your old team?

JG: The Herts Falcons. And this last year, with some close friends, we started a new team, the Essex-based Southern Nationals, and won the National Championship in our first year.

CR: Congratulations.

JG: Thanks. It's a good team, but to be honest, that all seems very important, because it's grass roots baseball, but it's so distant now from what has the bulk of my focus which is the Team GB work, and focussing on putting together the national team that can travel abroad and compete. And that's such a different beast. We get players on Team GB who play in the domestic leagues here, and they're good players, real British players through and through. And a lot of our players are British players, obviously, but play in leagues where the level of competition is better. They will get to a certain point in their baseball career here in the U.K., and they'll decide I need to see faster pitching, I need to see better hitters, so they'll go and play in Germany, Czech Republic, Spain or Italy, and they can play at university in the States, play for a club in Canada, try and get into independent ball in America, and that's where they go to an elite level. They won't get that staying in the National Baseball League.

CR: What's the process for helping a child who shows some promise at baseball in the U.K.?

JG: Well, the first thing we would encourage the player to do is to get involved in the academy baseball program here, that meets in the off-season but will help players build their fundamentals, understand the kind of conditioning they need to be doing in order to play baseball which is so different than playing soccer or rugby: short bursts of energy and a focus on strength conditioning. They don't get that playing the popular sports in the U.K. necessarily. Once they're involved in the academy baseball program, they're gonna start playing better. There are enough teams here, they can find something in their region. It's different if you're in Wales and Scotland, but pretty much in southern, Midlands, and northern England, you'll find a club within reasonable driving distance.

CR: How many clubs are there?

JG: There's about 52 adult teams in the country, there are youth teams and youth programs, too. And there are some large youth leagues.

CR: And do the adult teams and youth programs run hand in hand?

JG: At some clubs they do. There are some clubs that are just youth, and are trying to break into the adult level. A lot of teams are just senior teams and haven't built a youth program yet. But the biggest clubs in the country have both. Most of the National Baseball League teams that have a team at the top level have a youth program. And the goal, that no club has reached yet, is to have a team in every one of the adult levels - NBL, Triple-A, Double-A, Single-A - and the youth program. A lot of clubs are very close to that: the club in Hemel Hempstead, the London Mets, Croydon Pirates, the club in Richmond [the Flames]. Those clubs are growing and growing.

CR: At what point does a kid who shows promise have to move on from U.K. baseball to progress? Would the next step be to somewhere like the Netherlands?

JG: I wish. The Netherlands have so many of their own players, I don't think they are actively scouting throughout the rest of Europe in the way that Major League Baseball is starting to scout in Europe. We're fortunate in the U.K., we get to work with MLB through their envoy program, they've sent a coach to us for the last six years, Sam Dempster, who is also the head coach for the Great Britain national team. He's a college coach from Canada and just led his team, the Durham College Lords to a championship in the Canadian Intercollegiate Baseball Association. And Sam's been out here, and basically roams across the country through the summer working with some teams, particularly at the youth level helping them train baseball players better. And he's had a real big impact, and he's also been able to do some scouting, and when he's identified kids that have that kind of potential, he's worked hard to find opportunities elsewhere. Sam's not the only one doing that. I think that's one of the things Team GB needs to do better, so we're trying to launch a scholarship scheme with some large banks that operate out of London that would allow good rates on student loans so a kid could go and play at a Division I or Division II college in the States, and really become part of the university baseball program. We need to make it affordable to be a foreign student going to play ball in America, when they probably won't get a full-ride scholarship.

CR: You share an office with MLB Europe. What's the connection?

JG: They look after marketing and merchandising of MLB in Europe. Television rights, advertising. They run the European academy in Italy. They are totally separate. We just happen to have great office space to share with them.

CR: Do they pay any attention to what you do?

JG: Yeah, I think so. But they are paying attention to what every European federation is doing. They've been integral in getting these European clubs into the World Baseball Classic qualifiers, which now includes Israel, Czech Republic, and Great Britain. It's a big step forward for baseball in those countries, and it's entirely down to MLB.

CR: Is there a kinship or connection with the fellow European federations?

JG: A love-hate thing! We see them at competitions every year, we see them at conferences, the Confederation of European Baseball is the European chapter of the International Baseball Federation. We're all in the same pool in terms of wanting baseball to be more successful, and make it more of a spectator sport in Europe, but we're all rivals.

CR: Team GB is in the qualifying rounds for the 2013 World Baseball Classic, right?

JG: There's twelve new teams that have been invited into the qualifying rounds. Five or six from Europe. And there are teams that were at the bottom of their pools in 2009 who have to re-qualify. [The teams needing to re-qualify: Canada, Chinese Taipei, Panama, and South Africa. The new teams looking to qualify: Brazil, Colombia, Czech Republic, France, Germany, Great Britain, Israel, New Zealand, Nicaragua, Philippines, Spain, and Thailand.]

CR: Do you think Team GB will qualify?

JG: I sure hope so. We're trying to put together the best possible team. We're hosting a tryout at the University of San Diego in January, we're gonna have tryouts either in Toronto and New York or in the Niagara area for both regions, and we'll do a tryout here in London for Europeans, and we're gonna put together the best squad we can. We have to get through some major teams. [Each pool of the qualifying rounds has four teams, and the top team from each pool advances to the World Baseball Classic.] The eligibility rules are different. You need a parent from that country, or you need to be resident in that country. They don't have to be passport holders, hence your Mike Piazzas, although I would imagine he probably has a passport now.

CR: Recently, Prince Fielder, Mike Stanton, Greg Halman and others visited Italy. Does that sort of thing ever happen here?

JG: It has happened in the past. Curtis Granderson has come and spent time out here. Manny Ramirez was here and did some cricket showcasing with the English cricket team, and there have been exhibition games staged here in the past at The Oval [a major cricket ground in London]. We've done some Team GB activity at Lord's Cricket Ground [another major cricket ground in London], so there have been MLB players that have come here and made a splash in the U.K. We got to see Billy Beane a few weeks ago, who was out here for the "Moneyball" premiere in Europe, so that's all good for the sport. To do that on a regular basis would take a lot of focus, and these players aren't as known in the U.K.

CR: I guess the name recognition of Curtis Granderson is-

JG: Minimal.

CR: What you need is Babe Ruth to come out here.

JG: That's right! Barry Bonds might do okay! Alex Rodriguez might do okay if you brought Madonna along with him! Prince Fielder is known in other parts of Europe. Greg Halman is a Dutch icon.

CR: Did his death get into the news in the U.K.?

JG: I can't remember if it was on the BBC Sport homepage that day. When Wilson Ramos was abducted, that made national news here. When it's a human-interest story, they'll break the news. But it would be a one-time headline. Any development in that story is gonna be on ESPN and the Dutch news but here not so much.

CR: How difficult is it to get baseball in the news on the BBC, ITV, or Sky?

JG: It's very difficult. The way it works, according to the BBC, is of the ten top stories; seven of those are going to be devoted to soccer. That being said, regional press does report on baseball. And you can get BBC Three Counties [a radio station covering Bedfordshire, Hertfordshire, and Buckinghamshire], and BBC Berkshire has reported on stuff in the past. As long as we keep sending press releases, they pick it up. It's local interest, so they'll pick up on it. I've done radio interviews about Team GB on BBC Radio London and they are interested in it, but it doesn't make the BBC Web site news, which is driven by clicks. Not advertising, obviously, for the BBC because it's publicly funded, but it's driven by interest. There is actually a baseball page in the Other Sports section. It has a baseball guide, some links to the BaseballSoftballUK and the British Baseball Federation, but it's not news. [Top stories on the BBC Sport baseball page include two features on how British sports can learn from "Moneyball," an article about the rise and fall of Barry Bonds, and Prince Harry throwing out the first pitch at a Mets game at Citi Field in June.] When possible we try and make [our press releases] events based. When it's the national championships we do a bit of advertising about the event, y'know, come on down, spectators are welcome, there's a bouncy castle there, come and find out what baseball is about. It feels like British baseball needs some kind of catalyst to break that cycle. It seems like it's embedded as a minority, quirky sport. It's for people of a particular interest and that is a tough stigma to snap. What we really need is something that has general interest in Britain. I'm hoping that the World Baseball Classic will do that, that kind of large scale competition. Hopefully it is aired on television over here live, so people can see their country playing against, y'know, Canada or Germany. That could have a huge effect here. Short of that, something like the NFL does at Wembley Stadium would be a fantastic thing to do. But it's tough, because when reporters call they ask the same question every time: how much baseball actually is played here? And the conversation shifts quickly to let's talk about steroids, or isn't it just like rounders? It's the same conversation over and over again. I feel like we never get past those introductory questions to really talk about what's happening with the sport.

CR: Did you find that BaseballSoftballUK had an uptick of interest when Channel Five were showing live games on terrestrial TV?

JG: Oh yeah, we used to get phone calls all the time saying I saw it on TV, it seems real cool, I'd love to get involved. We get that from BBC Radio Five Live [a national news and sports station that broadcasts commentary of some live games] to some extent, but they can't see it, they're just listening to it, and if you've never seen baseball it's not an easy task. ESPN America does a good job, but you have to subscribe. Some televised games for Team GB would be a massive step forward. And we can't afford to stream the games live on the Internet. Our hope right now is to cross our fingers and, as the WBC rolls up, to be in discussions with Major League Baseball and encourage them to push ESPN America or EuroSport [a European TV sports network] to air the games. It'd be ideal if ITV or the BBC wanted to do it on terrestrial TV but I don't know if that's likely.

CR: What happens in your office when the World Series is on; do you change your office hours so you can watch the games live in the early hours of the morning?

JG: It depends who's playing!

CR: If the Mariners were playing?

JG: If the Mariners were playing, I would be on leave! I might quit and run naked through the streets if the Mariners made it to the World Series!

CR: I don't think the Metropolitan Police would take that as a valid excuse, really.

JG: Probably not. And if I were carrying a baseball bat it'd make it that much worse. It's funny, well, not funny, tragic really, when the riots were going on here [in the summer of 2011], it's the worst kind of press, and the kind of thing we work hard not to associate the sport with, Amazon had a 6000% up tick in the sale of baseball bats in the U.K. Obviously, that means they sold one in the previous week, and the next week they sold 60, and we got phone calls from the press asking about it, and how do you feel about your sport's equipment being used as a weapon? Not the ideal press! Anyway, we were saying, when the World Series is on here, Jenny Fromer, head of our operations department, watches every post-season game, so she does change her working hours, and makes sure she doesn't miss a single pitch, and looks forward to that as her annual leave. But, y'know, we don't come in and flip on our TV; it's actually a really busy time because that's when the British Baseball Federation and British Baseball Federation are wrapping up their seasons.

CR: When you meet British people, and tell them you work in baseball, how do you reply when they it's boring?

JG: To be honest, I don't often have that conversation. It's not what I often hear. I do hear that when they talking about watching it on TV. I'm not one to really disagree with them, though, because I find it unbearable watching soccer on TV. I can't. I don't see the nuances in the game that they see.

CR: So after six years living in the U.K., you haven't got a team you root for?

JG: I'm kind of embarrassed to admit, I've not actually seen a live soccer game. Nothing against the sport, there's only so much sport you can follow. I'm probably more likely to follow Seattle Sounders than follow a team in Europe. But the conversation I do have with people when they find out I work in baseball, they want to know is how it's different from rounders, which is a sport everybody plays in school, and is labelled as a kids' sport or a girls' sport or a lark in the park.

CR: Do you like cricket?

JG: I do. I really enjoyed watching The Ashes. I liked watching Shane Warne bowl. He reminded me of my favourite pitcher, Jamie Moyer. We had a game a few years back where Team GB [baseball] played Team England [cricket]. I think they played two games. They had a go at each other's sports, and the results were as you'd expect: each team won their own sport handily. Doing that kind of thing is nice, and I think the boundaries between baseball and cricket are pretty imaginary, really, and there was an exhibition recently at the Marylebone Cricket Club at Lord's that looked at the interstices between the two sports put together by an Australian curator, who has lived in both the U.S. and the U.K., that raises some questions about the origins of baseball, and it was really nice for the Brits involved in baseball to have an exhibition of that calibre that made the case that this is a British game. It seems like lots of sports have their origins here: football, rugby, cricket, baseball-

CR: Sumo, as well. That began as two fat blokes fighting in a pub car park.

JG: I'd believe that! That's the aftermath of a darts match! It seems like all these sports start here, and Britain is great at them to begin with, winning the first Baseball World Cup in 1938, and then slowly becoming worse and worse at the sport over time. It's the curse of British sport!

Craig Robinson's the genius behind Flip Flop Fly Ball, both the website and the recently published book.

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