By George Bond
Last September, Mayor of London Sadiq Khan announced plans to bring Major League Baseball (MLB) to London’s Olympic Stadium in 2018. Following the NFL, the NBA and ice hockey’s NHL, this would be the final sport of the United States’ ‘Big 4’ to come to our shores. But there’s a reason MLB has been the slowest to break British ground.
Of all US sports, baseball has historically been the one that generates the least interest in the UK. Indeed, beyond Babe Ruth, even the most fervent British sports fan would struggle to name too many of the 18,000 players who have graced Major League Baseball since its inception in 1876.
Baseball, born in England as a new form of rounders, was exported to America in the 1700s, becoming its national sport by the mid-nineteenth century. The game will make its return to the Olympics in 2020 in Tokyo, which will draw huge viewing figures not just from the US, but also Canada, Latin America and the Far East, where the game is almost as popular as it is in the States. So, what is it that draws them to a game that has for almost its entire history failed to grab the attention of British fans?
Baseball has been known as ‘America’s pastime’ for over 140 years, and brings with it a unique history and set of traditions. For fans, a day at the ballgame is a family event, with parents encouraged to bring their kids along to watch their heroes play. Bobblehead figures, replica jerseys and caps are regularly given out by clubs to attending fans, allowing them to build sizeable collections of memorabilia. First-time fans will fall in love almost instantly with the game’s unique quirks, irrespective of whether they manage to get their heads around the game’s (at times complicated) rules.
Baseball uniforms remain some of the most iconic in sport, headlined by the classic Yankee pinstripes. MLB has refrained from bringing in sponsorship deals and big brands, sticking instead to pretty much the same formula that teams wore in the game’s earliest years. Baseball prides itself on retro nostalgia, and indeed many franchises use throwback jerseys at various points throughout the year, paying homage to their most successful teams.
Fierce, storied rivalries are another of baseball’s great traditions. The Yankees and Red Sox in the American League East are the best example of this, born from Boston’s decision to trade Babe Ruth to New York in 1919 (the most ill-judged sale in sports history?), although the Dodgers-Giants (National League West) and Cardinals-Cubs (National League Central) matchups are equally intense. Given that teams in the same division play against each other nineteen times across a season, you might assume that these rivalries would become stale, but if anything the repeated confrontation stokes the fire even further.
The American and National Leagues that comprise MLB contest the All-Star game in July of every year. Unlike the NFL’s version, the game takes place in mid-season, when players are still concerned with maintaining form, and the game is also far more hard-fought than the thrills and spills approach taken by participants in the NBA All-Star game. Until 2017, the game also decided which team would get home advantage in the World Series, when the American and National League champions meet to compete for baseball’s biggest prize.
This being America, traditions are often accompanied by an all-out fanfare of noise and colour. Whilst Mexican waves and firework displays are to be expected, fans are constantly involved in the action through a number of means. Whether it’s the constantly active tannoy systems energising the crowd, the customary whole-stadium rendition of ‘Take Me Out to the Ballgame’ in every game’s seventh inning, or the opportunity to take home a souvenir in the form of a foul ball or home run hit into the stands, fans are able to indulge in three hours of non-stop, classically American entertainment.
Off-field antics are matched if not surpassed by the feats of athleticism on the field. There are few greater sights than the effortless power of an Albert Pujols home run, the catch-first-body-second approach to outfield defence of Kevin Kiermaier, or the sheer terror batters experience when facing a 105mph Aroldis Chapman fastball.
When players aren’t focusing their abilities on performing with the bat or ball, they often like to turn on each other. Classing this as part of a spectacle may seem somewhat crude, but rather than being labelled ‘unsavoury’ or ‘scenes that shame the game’ as some BBC commentators might, baseball fights are an art in themselves (the MLB YouTube channel has an entire section dedicated to them if you ever have an afternoon free). Often fuelled by fantastically petty responses to acts such as a batter celebrating a home run too vigorously, or a pitcher accidentally throwing too close to a hitter, fights become mass events, usually clearing both teams’ sizeable dugouts to create thirty-a-side melees. Just try and imagine the animosity this creates between teams who have to play against each other as often as nineteen times a year.
One of MLB’s annual highlights is the Home Run Derby, taking place the day before the All-Star game. Similar to the NBA’s Dunk Contest, this event sees the four best ‘sluggers’ from each league spend an evening crushing baseballs into the far, far distance, to determine the sport’s undisputed ‘King of the Long Ball’.
Baseball stadia are, unlike most other sports, exceptionally diverse. Go to any venue around MLB and you’ll be met by something completely different to any other. Boston’s Fenway Park, home to the ‘Green Monster’, and the ivy-clad Wrigley Field in Chicago are by far the oldest and most iconic MLB stadia, opening in 1912 and 1914 respectively.
Honourable mentions go to the B&O railroad warehouse looming over Camden Yards in downtown Baltimore, AT&T Park on the shores of San Francisco Bay, and Dodger Stadium, in the breathtaking surroundings of Chavez Ravine. These historic arenas remain part of the game’s charm and are as much a part of the fan experience as anything that occurs on the field of play.
Modern stadia play they part too, offering much larger capacities and a number of unique elements for fans. Highlights include swimming pools in the stands in both Arizona and Tampa, Toronto’s state-of-the-art Rogers Centre (complete with a 348-room hotel inside), the new Yankee Stadium in the Bronx that replaced the original venue in 2009, and the Atlanta Braves’ brand-new $672m SunTrust Park, which hosted its first-ever game on Good Friday this year.
With baseball being a summer sport, fans have the opportunity to experience these picturesque venues in all their glory, rather than being enclosed in the jumped-up sports halls of the NBA, or risking their health in below-freezing winter temperatures in the NFL.
A Golden Era
After a troubling start to this century, when the sport was plagued by constant allegations of performance-enhancing drug use by its biggest stars, baseball has reclaimed its innocence with an explosion of young talent, exemplified by the 2016 World Series champion Chicago Cubs. Five of the nine players in their starting line-up for the deciding game seven of that championship were 24 or under.
Every starting position player for the American League and five of the nine for the National League at the 2016 All-Star game were 26 or under, which is highly impressive given that even the most promising baseball prospects usually do not reach the majors before their 22nd birthday.
Leading this crop of talent is the star centre fielder for the Los Angeles Angels, Mike Trout. Trout, 25, has played just five and half seasons in the majors, but already has two most valuable player awards (given to the best player in both the American and National Leagues) under his belt, as well as placing second in the voting in three other years, to go with the rookie of the year award he won in his inaugural 2011 season.
Journalists and commentators across America, dazzled by his talents with both the bat and the glove, are already labelling Trout as potentially the best player ever to have lived. He is unquestionably the LeBron James of the baseball field, the modern-day Babe Ruth, the player every baseball fan grows up wanting to emulate.
Trout is followed by the Cubs’ reigning National League MVP Kris Bryant, the Indians’ infectiously energetic shortstop Francisco Lindor, and Noah Syndergaard of the Mets, whose nickname ‘Thor’ tells you all you need to know about the strength of his pitching arm. Also worth keeping an eye on are the Yankees’ emerging legion of ‘Baby Bombers’, led by catcher Gary Sánchez (who tied an all-time mark last year with 20 home runs in his first 51 big league home games), six-feet-seven outfielder Aaron Judge and first baseman Greg Bird.
The phenomenal rise of players like these make the current era one of all-action youthful exuberance, and now is the perfect time to experience it.
Two key elements of baseball make the fortunes of any given team entirely unpredictable from year to year. The first is the draft system. As with the NFL, the team with the lowest wins at the end of a season receives the first pick in the next year’s draft. What makes a baseball draft unique is its sheer size: the NBA’s lasts two rounds, the NFL and NHL’s seven rounds. The Major League Baseball draft lasts for forty rounds.
Previously, drafts lasted even longer, and not without reason. Only last year catcher Mike Piazza, drafted in the sixty-second round in 1988, was inducted into the Hall of Fame, becoming the lowest ever pick to make the Hall. These enormous intakes of players allow for mass overhauls of clubs’ youth academies, or ‘farm systems’, meaning even the worst teams only struggle for a couple of years at most.
The second element is the way players embrace free agency. If a footballer in the UK were to run down their contract with their club, with the sole purpose of seeing just how much money they could make on the open market, the media would have a field day. In baseball, it’s the accepted norm.
When Mike Trout reaches free agency for the first time after the 2020 season, he is expected to leave the Angels and receive the largest contract in sports history (from his hometown Philadelphia Phillies, if early rumours are to be believed), far surpassing Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325m deal with the Miami Marlins. Whilst some players do sign extensions, or re-sign with their former teams (such as the Mets’ Yoenis Céspedes, who opted out of the last year of his contract with them at the end of 2016 only to sign a 5-year, $110m deal at the club just weeks later), the majority of players take the opportunity to eke out every last dollar from the league. This approach to free agency means that even the best teams cannot retain all their stars for long, as another team will always be willing to pay them more.
The nature of the draft and free agency in baseball means that success is cyclical. The Cubs, champions in 2016 having won 103 regular season games, had finished dead last in their division just two years previously, with 30 fewer wins. The recent fortunes of the Boston Red Sox are even more remarkable. The Sox finished bottom of the American League East three times in four years from 2012-2015, but the one year they didn’t, they won it all, triumphing in the 2013 World Series. To all but fans of Leicester City, similar turnarounds in European sport are extremely rare.
MLB does, however, include certain teams who are able to avoid this cycle of success by outspending the competition. Most prominently, these are the New York Yankees, who have gone an astonishing 24 years without a losing season, and the Los Angeles Dodgers. LA’s Clayton Kershaw, one of the most dominant starting pitchers in history but with a shaky record in the play-offs, will make a single-season record $33 million in 2017. This is equivalent to around £500,000 a week – double the Premier League’s highest salary.
Kershaw’s salary is also $5 million more than that of the entire 2017 opening day roster of the Dodgers’ division rival (and I use that term loosely) San Diego Padres. Whilst this may seem an unfair advantage, salary caps are being introduced, reducing the spending power of cash-rich clubs and increasing competition.
With all these reasons in mind, there is no better time to get into the game and join the many millions around the world who’ll be tuning in when London, for a day at least, becomes the centre of the baseball world next year. In the UK, MLB games are broadcast on BT Sport, which usually shows two or three games a night, and also MLB’s YouTube channel, where viewers outside the US can watch two free-to-air games every day.