Baseball in London? It’s a Real Thing, Even When the Yankees Aren’t Visiting
LONDON — Jonathon Cramman can’t help himself. He will be sitting in his parents’ apartment above the Oasis pub, gazing across Finsbury Park at the pitcher’s mound he built with his own hands on one of London’s few baseball diamonds, and he’ll spot a dog walker.
He will trudge across the road and into the park to have a polite chat with the offender and ask: Would they ever walk their dog on a cricket ground or a soccer pitch?
“The answer is always no,” Cramman said recently. “So I say, ‘Then why are you walking him on my mound?’”
Trying to get the British public to respect baseball, let alone pay attention to it, has been a lifelong challenge for Cramman and most of his ball-playing colleagues in the United Kingdom, where the game remains a little-regarded niche activity.
But some people in the country clearly do love baseball. The Yankees and the Red Sox will meet twice at London Stadium this weekend in the first Major League Baseball games ever played in Europe. Tickets, about 120,000 total for the two games, sold out in less than an hour.
M.L.B. is following the lead of the N.B.A. and N.F.L., which have both played several games in London in recent years. During owners’ meetings in New York last week, Commissioner Rob Manfred said he hoped the London Series would “give us a toehold into a very important market in Europe.”
While the games are expected to raise interest in the sport in the U.K., baseball is actually played every spring and summer by an impassioned few in isolated pockets all over the country, as it has been for more than 100 years.
Cramman, a mustachioed, tobacco-chewing 28-year-old who evokes a typical baseball player (except for his North London accent), was well positioned to develop into one of Britain’s better homegrown players.
He grew up across the street from the field at Finsbury Park, and as a schoolboy was encouraged to play by a music teacher who coached softball at the park. Cramman fell in love with the game just as any child in Brooklyn, Tokyo or Caracas might, and joined a local club along with his North London neighbor and current teammate, Sam Sproule.
As the boys grew up, so did the club, eventually becoming the London Mets (a name shortened from the youth team moniker, the Meteors, and not a nod to the more famous New York team). The London Mets are the two-time defending champions of the British Baseball Federation’s National League and winners of three of the last four titles.
The National League is made up of four amateur teams, all within a 90-minute drive of one another in Greater London. Over the decades, teams and leagues in Britain have come and gone.
“A couple of years ago I was banging my head against the wall saying, ‘This is the National League, and we have dudes that don’t know the balk rule,’” Cramman said. “So, maybe it’s better that it’s a four-team league.”
Cramman is a bartender, but a good deal of his income comes from teaching top-flight professional cricket players how to properly field balls and make strong, accurate throws (he plays outfield in baseball). That helps cover the league entry fee of 200 pounds, or about $255, that is demanded of each player, except for one foreign recruit per team, who is given a stipend for travel and living expenses. For the Mets, that is Michael Hoyes from La Sierra University, in Southern California, and part of his gig is coaching the club’s minor league and youth teams.
Like many other British baseball teams, the Mets have several American-born members, including a few former college players who have visas to work in London, like the pitcher and first baseman Rich Minford, from North Carolina.
Minford, who works for a technology firm in London, achieved a flash of fame in 2007 after Madison Bumgarner, now the ace of the San Francisco Giants, struck him out in a high school game and video of it was shown nationally to highlight Bumgarner’s prowess. Now, Minford is the Mets’ ace.
Few spectators, if any, attend Mets games, in stark contrast to the voracious appetite for tickets to the Red Sox-Yankees series. M.L.B. could have chosen a European country where baseball has a stronger foothold than it does in Britain — like the Netherlands, Germany or the Czech Republic — but not necessarily one with a deeper history.
British baseball dates to the late 19th century, mostly through American influence, according to Josh Chetwynd, who was born in London but grew up in Los Angeles and played catcher at Northwestern University. He used his British passport to join the national team in the late 1990s, and he played for the London Mets. Chetwynd has written several books on the history of baseball in the country.
In a nation where cricket and rounders, both batted-ball games, are far more popular, baseball has long been seen as a distinctly American activity, though its ancestry can be traced back to an early children’s version in Britain, according to historians.
“There has always been an internal struggle about how much Americans should be allowed to take over the sport here and how much should come from purely British players,” Chetwynd said.
But in the early 20th century, many soccer clubs, like Aston Villa and Tottenham Hotspur, used baseball as a summer activity, and the name of Derby County’s former soccer stadium was Ley’s Baseball Ground (later known simply as The Baseball Ground), reflecting its use for baseball beginning in 1890.
Britain is credited with winning the first international baseball competition, in 1938, by 4 games to 1, over the United States. The national team is ranked 38th in the world, just behind Lithuania, and has never qualified for the World Baseball Classic. It is creeping closer under Manager Liam Carroll, and its fortunes could be bolstered in the near future by the addition of Ollie Thompson, a promising British outfielder playing for New Mexico Junior College.
And last month, the London Archers under-14 team won the European zone championship to become the first British entry in the 68-year history of the Pony World Series, held each summer in Washington, Pa.
Scott Bourgeois, one of the Archers’ coaches, said there were only about 600 registered Little League players — girls and boys, ages 6-18 — in the country, or less than 0.01 percent of British youth. He called the Archers an unusual mix of British, American and Japanese kids, but like so many teams in Britain, they have a hard time finding a steady supply of players.
“We are really hoping the London Series and M.L.B.’s presence will give things a spark,” he wrote in an email.
Cramman, the Mets outfielder, also hopes for a boost from the series, but in a slightly different way. He is one of several local players invited to work on the grounds crew, and he hopes that will provide the opportunity to meet Aaron Boone, the Yankees manager. Cramman said it was his long-held dream to manage the Yankees, too. “I’m not embarrassed to admit that,” he said.
Once the Yankees and Red Sox have played their games and gone, the Mets will again be the top team on British soil, and Cramman will once again be safeguarding his precious mound from intrusions by four-legged creatures and their oblivious owners.
“I’ve got close friends who find out I play baseball, and they are like, ‘Are you American?’” Cramman said. “To this day, my granddad asks me how basketball is going.”
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