Looking forward to spring….

18
Mar

Bob Fromer

February has now turned to March.  Over in the United States, baseball spring training and the first college softball tournaments are well under way in the Florida and Arizona and California sunshine. 

Here in the UK, spring training for baseball and softball clubs and teams has also begun, in somewhat less salubrious weather, and it won’t be long until the Herts Spring League and those first early slowpitch tournaments will be banking on global warming to let them happen.

After all, if daffodils and bluebells can turn up in February in this country, then surely we can play baseball and softball in March!

There’s a particular thrill, as a player or a spectator, in seeing something meaningful take place on a proper baseball or softball diamond after the gloom of winter – a thrill unlike any other sport.  A football field, a rugby pitch, a cricket field – all those are just grass -- rectangles or circles of grass with lines marked on them.  Grass is everywhere. 

But a baseball or softball field, like the ones at Farnham Park – like everything from Yankee Stadium  to the softball diamond at some Division 3 college in Podunk, South Dakota or in the middle of the Czech Republic -- has that instantly recognisable shape and those dirt cutouts or dirt infield that means they can’t be mistaken for anything else.

Fly across America, and you can see baseball and softball fields scattered across the landscape when the plane is taking off or coming in to land; it’s what I look for every time I travel to the States.

Enter a Major League or Minor League baseball park, go through the turnstile, wander the concourse, check out the food stalls and souvenir shops – and then, like a pleasure postponed, find your seating section, come up the steps and out into the sunlight, and see that distinctive field spread out in front of you, waiting for magic to happen.

Old-time Hall of Famer Rogers Hornsby said, “People ask me what I do in winter when there's no baseball.  I'll tell you what I do.  I stare out the window and wait for spring.”

I know what he means….


The rise of the clubs

Baseball in Britain is made up to a large extent of clubs.  Sure, there are some single adult teams in the BBF leagues, and some single youth teams, but even they might call themselves a club, just like those with multiple teams, youth sections and a home ground.

British softball has always been different, since historically it has consisted mainly of individual co-ed slowpitch teams without any more structure than a team captain or manager and a bunch of players who turn up at appointed times and places to play league games or tournaments.  Those few slowpitch clubs that have formed around multiple teams – Meteors and Raiders in London, Thunder and Outlaws in Manchester, Chalfont Phoenix in Windsor – have always been the exception rather than the rule.

Even rarer has been the kind of club that has become ubiquitous on the European continent and is one reason why the sports thrive in countries like Holland, Italy, Germany and the Czech Republic – the baseball and softball club, offering both sports at adult and junior levels to draw in the whole family and creating a real presence in the local community.

Happily, there are signs that the baseball and softball club is starting to take root in the UK, cautiously poking some shoots out of the ground, as befits the start of spring. 

The London Mets and Meteors has long been a baseball and softball club, sharing the ground at Finsbury Park, but now the Mets are adding a junior fastpitch softball section to the club and planning a junior fastpitch league in conjunction with the LondonSports organisation.

Over at Farnham Park, the resident club, formerly the Chalfont Phoenix Slowpitch Softball Club, has ambitious plans in hand to develop baseball and fastpitch sections this year, with support from BSUK.  And the club has just made an important vertical growth move by taking in one of the oldest A-grade slowpitch tournament teams, the Slammers, who will give them a pinnacle of slowpitch quality to aim at.

Up in the East Midlands, the Leicester Blue Sox have started adult and junior fastpitch sections and are now looking at starting a co-ed slowpitch league.  The increasingly successful baseball club in Hull would also like to expand to cover all ages and formats.

And there are other baseball clubs, such as Essex and Herts, where this kind of development is probably just a matter of time.

I’m hoping that what we have here is the beginning of a trend.  The benefits are just so obvious, and you see them all over the Continent.  What you get there are large family clubs with lots of members and lots of income able to develop lots of facilities, usually with the blessing of the local Council, and becoming a community focal point for sport and more.  Even granted that local Councils in the UK are less disposed than many in Europe to promote and develop minority sports, numbers do talk and Councils do eventually listen.

The Baseball and Softball Club is the future; the only question is how long it takes for a critical mass of them to arise in the UK.


A big year

This is going to be an important year for baseball and softball national teams.

Regardless of how we fare on the field, everyone will be waiting for the IOC Session scheduled at the beginning of August when the final list of sports for the 2020 Olympics in Tokyo will be announced.  Everyone expects baseball and softball to be included in Tokyo – but only in August will it become official, and only then can attention turn to what this will mean.

One thing it will mean is that our sports can talk to UK Sport, the government agency responsible for funding Olympic sports and elite athletes, about the possibility of baseball and softball receiving money to help us try to qualify for Tokyo.  This won’t be straightforward, as UK Sport tends to only fund sports they think can win Olympic medals, but we’re hoping that as sports returning to the Olympics, we can be seen as a special case.

To support these discussions, though, it will be helpful if our national teams can do well this year.  So the GB Women’s Fastpitch Team will be looking for a big improvement on a last-place finish in 2014 when they play in Women’s World Championships this summer in Vancouver.  The GB Under-19 Women’s Team – with players who could feature for the Senior Team at an Olympic Qualifier in 2019 – will be looking for a medal at European Championships in Spain, having secured a best-ever fourth place finish two years ago.

Similarly, the GB Baseball Team, in their first outing under Head Coach Liam Carroll and the GB Way philosophy, will be looking for a solid placing at European Championships in Holland in September.  But then the team has an ever bigger prize in front of it – the chance to qualify for the 2017 World Baseball Classic, which would put GB firmly on the world baseball map.  GB will play against Pakistan, Israel and Brazil in a World Baseball Classic Qualifying Tournament in Brooklyn, New York at the end of September, and if GB can win it – and there has to be a chance – then dreams will start coming true.


New staff member

BSUK’s newest staff member, Johanna Malisani, will start work sometime in March as our Fastpitch Development Officer. 

This is an entirely new position, and reflects the fact, as revealed in our latest survey of the numbers of people playing our sports, that fastpitch represents just over 2% of the playing community.  Given that fastpitch is the main international competition format for softball, and women’s fastpitch is the Olympic format, there is a need to build up the number of people playing the game in this country so it has a viable future here and so that our softball programmes are better balanced.

Getting more people playing fastpitch, especially young people, will be the key aspect of Johanna’s job, though she will also be involved with the Academy and High Performance Academy and will deliver coach education and provide support for national team coaches.

Johanna comes from Ontario, Canada – though her maternal grandparents were Scottish.  Since her playing career ended, she has been involved in a wide range of coaching and administrative programmes for softball, while also working as a senior developer for flight simulation programmes.

Now she will be working full-time on developing fastpitch softball in the UK, and we are looking forward to welcoming Johanna to our community.

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About Bob Fromer

Bob Fromer

Bob was the founding CEO of BSUK and now works for the agency as a Communications Consultant. In a volunteer capacity, he was General Manager of the GB Fastpitch National Teams programme for many years, a former Team Manager for the GB Women and GB Under-19 Women and still serves on the GB Softball Management Committee. Bob has been involved with slowpitch and fastpitch softball in Britain since the sport’s earliest days, and travels abroad with many GB Softball Teams to report on their achievements for the BSF website.

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