Boyd, Carlson recount Buckner’s role in first MLB events in London

Wed 19 Jun 2019

In this piece, BaseballSoftballUK CEO John Boyd introduces a piece by Mike Carlson, headquartered in London as the former MLB EMEA Director, and a long-time supporter of baseball in Britain. Carlson's piece on Bill Buckner and the first MLB event in Europe is linked after Boyd's recollections (with Carlson pictured above in centre between then-Blue Jays coach Bob Dider and Buckner). Be sure to follow the link and subscribe to Carlson's site while you are there. You can also follow him on Twitter @Carlsonsports

The last time MLB brought games to London was in 1993. Then, it was the Red Sox' and Mets' Triple-A teams, who played two October friendlies in the Oval Cricket Ground. Run by then-MLB EMEA Vice President-turned-journo Mike Carlson, the games are fondly remembered by many. I have been surprised by the number of times MLB’s 1990s toe-dip into London has come up in conversation recently as both a fond memory and comparison for what’s taking place this month.

There are certainly some similarities. MLB ran a coaching clinic at a college in Bushey, NW London, that year, inviting young up-and-coming coach Joe Maddon. Maddon has gone on to manage the Cubs. Assuming he secures the contract extension most Cubs fans – like me – hope he will get, he’ll return to London next year to face the Cards in the London Stadium.

In 1993, MLB’s youth programmes were up and running, leading many young faces into the game through Pitch, Hit and Run, a programme that would morph into Play Ball!, a youth league set-up programme akin to Little League. It was Play Ball! that first established youth programmes in Finsbury Park, Nottingham, Halton, Tonbridge, my own club in Windsor and across the country.

That tradition has continued this year. MLB supported BaseballSoftballUK’s Coach Summit and has, on our encouragement, also set up a number of clinics alongside the MLB Cup tournament that takes place this weekend. Additionally, BaseballSoftballUK will deliver MLB and USA Baseball’s Fun At Bat programme, designed to teach character lessons through baseball to children in school, this summer.

MLB Commissioner Rob Manfred’s stamp on the game will transcend that of his predecessors, coupling, smartly, in my view, the substantial advancements in modern communication technology with as close to an authentic experience as could be achieved here. As a fan in 1993, my experience of watching baseball games involved sending a cheque to a European company based out of Germany called Pontel. Two weeks later, I would receive a VHS recording of a game that had long passed. Today, I can pull out my phone on the tube and watch games live or from a few hours earlier as I wait on my tube platform. The world is different now and bringing the game to the fans will be one of the marks of Manfred’s legacy.

In 1993, the manager of the Norfolk Tides—the Mets affiliate that came to play the Pawtucket Red Sox in London—was Clint Hurdle. Hurdle returns to Williamsport this year for a second time with the Pirates to play in another of the remarkable MLB jewel events, the Little League Classic, against Maddon and my own Cubs. Hurdle knows Williamsport and Bowman field all too well having coached there. Perhaps he didn’t have a say in coming to London next year, but I’m sure he has fond memories of it, rain aside.

There are further human connections to the Series. Murray Cook, the MLB Consultant tasked with transforming the London Stadium into MLB’s largest baseball stadium this year, cut his teeth on the hallowed grass of South London’s equivalent of Dodger Stadium for cricket (as shown in his picture above). He was on an MLB staff team that included Clive Russell, who would succeed Carlson as MLB’s EMEA MD.

Working in the MLB Office, then on Drury Lane, in the heart of London’s theatre land was a young fellow from the US called Ryan Flynn. Flynn would go on to serve as CEO of Baseball New Zealand, achieving remarkable success in a country where the Black Sox fastpitch programme is a national pride. I met Flynn because Carlson was kind enough to offer me a week of work experience coinciding with the games at the Oval.

It was Clive Russell who recruited GB Baseball star and home-grown talent, James Pearce in the late 1990s. Pearce and Russell were the brains behind the formation of BaseballSoftballUK. Pearce became the tournament director of the World Baseball Classic and was instrumental in previous international games in Australia and Cuba. Pearce also served on the BBF and BaseballSoftballUK boards and was the person who gave me my first shot in the sport, offering me a role with MLB in 1999.  

Below, Mike Carlson recalls his experience of Bill Buckner at the MLB Coaching Clinic. Buckner recently passed away, too soon to be able to enjoy his own connection to the Cubs or Red Sox in London. I too recall Buckner’s coaching clinic and remarking how similar his retired swing looked like it had changed on the first tee of a golf course. Funny what the memory of a fourteen-year-old retains!

Developing sports like ours is a lifelong journey, made up of many connections. For our times in the sports, we are just custodians of the now, laying the ground work for future generations. In doing so, though, we should not forget the immense power of what we are doing to inspire the next generation. I hope this introduction celebrates, to some degree, the connections between some of the people who have made our sports what they are today, and who have laid the groundwork for the biggest baseball and softball party our country has seen.

Find out more on Bill Buckner, the Red Sox and Cubs' connections to the UK, and Carlson's time as director in the UK (and lifelong baseball fan) on his site. An excerpt from the linked article is printed below.

In 1993, I was Vice President for European Operations for Major League Baseball International, and I had Buck in Britain for some coaching clinics and a little baseball publicity. He was an affable guy, there to do a job, and did everything he was asked to do. He turned out to be a natural instructor, which is not always true of very talented athletes, and smooth with the media.

Ironically, I'm writing about that one moment which will always be attached to his name, but I am grateful that I had the chance to put a real person ahead of that moment in my own memory. RIP Buck.

Head to Carlson's site for his full article.

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