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Play Ball! (in London)
Jay B Webster previews this weekend’s inaugural MLB bout in London between two of baseball’s greatest rivals, the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox
History will be made at London Stadium on June 29 and 30 when the defending champion Boston Red Sox battle the vaunted New York Yankees in the first regular season Major League Baseball games ever played on European soil.
A little back story: Way back in 1918 the Red Sox won their record (at the time) 5th World Series title. Then in 1919, Red Sox owner Harry Frazee sold a young player named Babe Ruth to the Yankees. It would be 86 years before the Red Sox would win another World Series title, giving birth to the legend of the Curse of the Bambino.
Meanwhile, the Babe led the Yankees to seven World Series appearances and four titles on his way to baseball immortality. Over the next 80-plus years, the Yankees would win 26 World Series championships and 39 American League pennants.
The Red Sox would win the pennant just four times in that stretch, losing each time in the World Series. And it would take until 2004 before the Curse was finally broken and the Red Sox would win another title. However, it’s the Red Sox who – as the defending World Series champions – hold the last laugh.
Since 1901, the Yankees and Red Sox have faced off 2,199 times, with the Yankees winning 1,193 times to Boston’s 992, with 14 ties. Over the generations, familiarity has bred contempt, and the rivalry between the two franchises has grown to epic proportions.
So what better way to introduce European fans to America’s Pastime than to export the game’s biggest rivalry? That’s where London Stadium comes in. The former Olympic Stadium - built for the 2012 Summer Games, and now home to the West Ham United soccer team - will host the two-game series, with the Red Sox giving up two games at Fenway Park for the honor of being the home team in London.
It turns out that converting a soccer stadium to baseball is no walk in the park, though. The first decision was whether or not to play the games on natural grass. In all of the 2,000-plus previous meetings between the two teams, none had ever taken place on artificial turf.
However, with just 21 days to convert the pitch to a baseball field and only five to clear it out afterwards, the decision was made to go artificial. A layer of gravel will be placed over a protective covering on West Ham’s grass pitch, and 141,913 square feet of FieldTurf Vertex - transported by truck from the company’s plant in Auchel, France - will be laid over that. The surface is similar to the fields at the Yanks’ and Sox’ AL East rivals Toronto and Tampa Bay, so both teams should be familiar with it.
“We’re going with a synthetic system and it helps us a couple ways,” says Murray Cook, the sport’s field consultant. “It’s a little more sustainable, because we’re going back next year [Major League Baseball announced that the Cubs and Cardinals will meet at the same venue on June 13 and 14, 2020]. If we went with a natural grass system, we’d have to bulldoze it all up, throw it away and then buy it again, build it all up, throw it away again.”
In addition, 345 tons of dirt has been shipped from the US, along with the likes of backstops, fencing, foul poles, outfield padding, mound tamps, infield drags, etc., etc. Temporary clubhouses are being built on the warm up track under the stands, as the soccer locker rooms are too small for baseball teams.
The distance from home plate to the fences will be 330 feet down each foul line, but just 385 feet to center with a 16-foot wall – dimensions that seem eminently reachable by a team known as the Bronx Bombers.
The stadium will hold 60,000 fans, and tickets for the two games were snapped up in half an hour. Roughly 10,000 tickets were sold in America, mostly to Red Sox and Yankee season ticket holders, but the majority of spectators will be British, according to MLB.
On the field over in America, the Yankees have been devastated by injuries so far this season, but have managed to stay at or near the top of the AL East standings. There is hope that slugging outfielder and 2017 Rookie of the Year Aaron Judge, on the disabled list since April 20 with an oblique strain, will be ready to take the field in London.
The Red Sox started the season slowly, perhaps with a bit of a hangover after the thrill of 2018’s World Series title run, and found themselves a full seven games behind the Yankees in the standings in mid-June. However, last year’s squad, spearheaded by defending American League MVP outfielder Mookie Betts, remains largely intact and the BoSox will be looking to pick up steam as the season wears on.
So get ready London. The field is built, the stadium sold out and the fans fired up for the latest rekindling of MLB’s biggest rivalry. All that remains is to get the English weather to cooperate when the Boys of Summer hit town. Rain dates are not an option, so say a little prayer to the weather gods and hope that ‘Play ball’ will ring out loud and clear for the first pitch on June 29.