MLB Battlegrounds and UK Baseball

17
Jul

Tom Thornhill

I began playing baseball during my second year at university.

Personally, I have never experienced any serious level of baseball, as I was too young to appreciate it when I visited the United States.  Before university, baseball was this distant idea that, on reflection, I probably would never have considered.  None of my friends played it, nor was there an opportunity to play where I lived.

However, the sport system at the University of East Anglia gave me a gateway into a wide variety of seemingly crazy opportunities, including baseball and softball.  It gave me the chance to try a different sport outside the generic trio of football, rugby and cricket that I had grown up playing.  My experience pushed me into club baseball as well: the local Norwich Iceni Baseball club currently playing in the BBF’s Single-A Division was founded from UEA Blue Sox players who wanted to continue playing after university.  Having only experienced the sport through the narrow perspective of UK baseball, I was eager to experience a taste of what MLB could offer.

The recent MLB Battlegrounds event in Hyde Park on the Fourth of July was the first time I had ever seen a baseball hit 350 feet.  The commentators, the fans, the showmanship and the personalities all came together in a fantastic show which really inspired me.  Watching home runs on TV does not compare to the real experience.

Now, I want to be able to crush a ball 400 feet.  Most importantly, I want to get out again and play more baseball.

What I found unique about the event, however, was not necessarily the Home Run Derby, but the people.

Around me I saw a huge gathering of British baseball players and MLB fans in one place.  For the first time, I felt a sense of a wider community.  Across the field I could see a landscape of baseball memorabilia and jerseys of most MLB and BBF teams, and it was great to see the BBF clubs out in force.  I was able to catch up with a number of guys from several BBF clubs that I had played against earlier in the season, and we were able to organise a couple of friendlies too.  I was able to put faces to players, teams and names.

MLB Battlegrounds not only felt like a huge MLB event, but a gathering of an unspoken community that had previously been isolated.  It felt like UK baseball finally had the kind of community atmosphere that we experience in university baseball all the time.

It is hard in the aftermath of the event to comprehend its real significance, and it will take time for any lasting impact to become apparent, but further involvement by MLB in the British game would be hugely beneficial.

Of course, this isn’t the first time MLB has broadened its horizons.  In 2014, the Sydney Cricket Ground in Australia hosted an opening day match-up between the Dodgers and the Diamondbacks in front of 40 000 fans, and Opening Day games have also been hosted at the Tokyo Dome.

This MLB Battlegrounds event felt like a first step into that realm of possibility.  The event placed the fundamentals of the sport of baseball into an easy-to-understand format that highlighted the most exhilarating aspect of the game, hitting prowess.  It was a format designed to test the waters.

The globalisation of technology and information have made Major League Baseball more accessible than ever.  With MLB.tv, internet media and catch-up options on YouTube, it’s unsurprising that the sport has reached millions of fans on a global scale.  The thousands of UK fans that attended the MLB Battlegrounds event on a working night showcased the rising popularity of baseball in the UK.

This provides the perfect counterpunch to last year’s stories of MLB abandoning plans for games in London during the 2017 season.  It is our job to show MLB that baseball does have a presence in the UK, with room to grow.  The Battlegrounds event has started discussion about the future of MLB in the UK and has created progress in the right direction.

As a new baseball fan, I hope we can see further development, investment, and willingness on the part of MLB to pen in rather than pencil in a London series for 2019.  The Battlegrounds event re-opened this possibility and this makes me very excited for the prospect.

MLB as a brand has shown the potential of this sport in the UK market, and proven possible something that used to be considered impossible.

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About Tom Thornhill

Tom Thornhill

Tom Thornhill is a member of the Norwich ICENI Baseball Club and an alumnus of the University of East Anglia Blue Sox. He is also head of communications at British University Baseball (BUB).

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