As you may know, Getting Blanked’s inforgraphic specialist Craig Robinson is rare breed indeed: a baseball-loving Brit currently living in Mexico City. Craig returned to his homeland recently and happened upon another rare sight: live baseball in London. Enjoy Craig’s report on British baseball!
Finsbury Park is in the north London borough of Haringey. At ten o’clock on a Sunday morning, people are doing what most people in parks around the world are probably doing at that time of the day on a Sunday: jogging, walking the dog, cycling. In the northeast corner of the park, though, there’s a cricket pitch. A cricket pitch with that is no longer used for cricket. A cricket pitch has been converted into that least British of things: a baseball field.
I was there because there was a National Baseball League doubleheader taking place. Essex Arrows (7-9) vs. London Mets (11-3). The National Baseball League is, as the name kind of suggests, the top level of British baseball. It’s a nine-team league at the top of a four-tier system with a total of 58 senior teams. (Favourite team name: the Bolton Robots of Doom.)
And this park shows right away what level of baseball we’re dealing with. The outfield fence is thigh-high blue plastic netting held up with evenly spaced white poles. The sandy patches around the bases aren’t neatly edged, the dirt in the middle of the diamond does its best to be a mound, and the circle of dirt around home plate is as flat as a handmade tostada.
Nobody is paid to play baseball here. It’s a bunch of dudes. The visiting Arrows wearing white pants and white jerseys and with an A’s-ish A on the chest. The home team Mets wearing white pants and dark blue jerseys with London on the front.
Batters’ teammates shout encouragement from the sides where a few wives and girlfriends are also sat on blankets and collapsible garden chairs. Less experienced batters seem to, with rare exception, take encouragement as orders. Shouts of “this is your pitch!” provoke swings, and “wait for your pitch!” sees batters not moving the bat from their shoulders.
Players talk about dee-fense with the North American pronunciation, but still say the score is “four-nil” as we Brits would say about a soccer game. Southeastern English accents are everywhere, aside from a German and a couple of Venezuelans talking amongst themselves in Spanish.
Apart from the friends and family of players, there are only a few people watching. An elderly couple walk their dogs around the edge of the park, throw sticks, picking up faeces in little bags, standing around for a bit. A mum and child sit under a tree in right field and watch for a while. A hipster, dressed like he’s ready for a day’s yachting in the 1940s, reads a book in dead center field, where the batter’s eye isn’t.
Luke Foley is the Arrows’ short stop. 21 years old, he’s recently been selected to play for Team GB. The British national team are in the second tier of European baseball, and this summer there will be a tournament between teams at that level to gain promotion to the top tier. He’s one of only a handful of actual British players in the squad; most of the British team are North Americans who have British passports. Luke, having played cricket at school and soccer for his county, began playing baseball at fifteen when he saw a flyer in the window of his local newsagents. And he is clearly the best player on the Arrows. Hustling all the time, he Pete Roses his way to first after a base on balls, he sprints off the field at the end of their defensive half inning, and goes out of his way to pick up a fouled-off ball from the backstop to help out the ump. Early in the first game he doubled a ball to center. The runner already on first was slower, and looked to be running with a limp. By the time Luke was coming into second base, the other guy was not even halfway to third, and as the ball was thrown back in, he decided to turn back to second. Where Luke was already stood. Luke got into a rundown while Arrows players on the sideline were yelling at the other guy to run to third. This is National League baseball in the UK.
But it’s the type of baseball that David Shaer loves. David is the Arrows general manager, a title which doesn’t really seem generous enough. He’s the GM, youth scout, adult scout, coach, promotions department, cheerleader, and, for the second half of the first game, right fielder of the Essex Arrows. David has been with the Arrows since 1985, and several of the players on the field have been playing with the Arrows youth teams since their early teens. He secured funding over the years from the local council in Waltham Abbey (the Arrows’ home town, a town of only 20,000 people on the northern edge of London) to have a fully-fenced dirt infield, brick dugouts, and bleachers. And his ambitions for the Arrows and British baseball don’t stop there. He talked enthusiastically about his plans to have an outfield fence, changing rooms, and an electronic scoreboard in the future, as well as getting more and more of Waltham Abbey’s youngsters involved in the game.
The Mets had a 4-1 lead in the sixth (of the seven-inning game) then put up a further six in the bottom of that inning. Shaer struck out in the top of the seventh to end the game. Players and umps trudged off to the former cricket pavilion to use the bathroom. They sat around chatting amongst themselves and with their friends, while one of the Mets raked the dirt around home plate and reapplied the chalk lines.
The Arrows got off to a better start in the second game. By the third inning, they had a 4-0 lead. In the fourth, the Mets’ pitcher threw one that flew into the backstop a good fifteen feet wide of the plate. He took a few steps off the mound. His arm limp. Players from both teams ran over. He lay down in front of the mound. Common consensus was that he’d dislocated his shoulder. A Mets player called for an ambulance which, half an hour later, pulled up between home plate and the mound. In total the game was delayed for an hour and a quarter.
When the game restarted, the area behind the backstop had been claimed by a bunch of blokes in mis-matched t-shirts and Arsenal, Barcelona and the Algerian national team shirts, playing five-a-side soccer with traffic cones for goals. A ball was fouled off by a Mets batter over the backstop, and as the baseball players all yelled “watch out!” the ball flew a few feet in front an oblivious soccer player’s face. As the soccer action went to the other end of their makeshift field, the guy motioned to his teammate as if the ball had been just inches from his nose, and scowled as a Mets player went to fetch the ball.
Early afternoon and the park is getting busier: more joggers, more dogs, more children. There’s a smell of barbecues and my sunblock-less skin is starting to look a bit red. The injury delay affected the visitors more than the home time. The Arrows’ only available pitcher for the second game had a lot of trouble throwing strikes when it restarted. Close calls seemed to be going the Mets’ way, which didn’t seem to help. The Arrows pitcher was visibly getting more and more frustrated. Entering the bottom of the fifth with a 7-1 lead, it slowly frittered away. David shouted encouragement from the side: “we’ve still got a four run lead!” became “we’ve got a three run lead!” and “we’ve got a two-run lead!” before becoming “we’ve still got the lead” and eventually “come on, we’re still in this.”
They were, but then they weren’t. The Mets scored twice in the bottom of the sixth and won 9-7. This is the National Baseball League, but aside from the presence of umpires and the matching uniforms, to anyone passing by this game was on the same level as the dudes playing soccer between traffic cones. But thankfully, British baseball has people like David giving up their free time to try and change that.