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Jolly Good Show: Yankees and Red Sox bring regular season MLB to London
It was an historic weekend in London on June 29th and 30th when the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox brought regular season Major League Baseball to European shores for the first time ever, and The American's Jay B. Webster was there.
It is HOT. The Boys of Summer have brought the season with them. The thermometer is tickling 90 degrees (F). The artificial FieldTurf – shipped in from France for the occasion alongside 345 tons of Pennsylvania dirt – seems to absorb the sunlight and radiate it back as sauna-like heat.
The crack of the bat fills the air as balls launch into the clear blue sky and land far away in the seats, sending fans scurrying for a souvenir. Players linger around the batting cage. New York Yankee outfielder Aaron Judge – a truly and impressively large man – strolls toward the dugout after launching one titanic blast after another into the stratosphere during his turn in the cage, stopping along the way to sign baseballs for wide eyed kids.
It could be batting practice before any of hundreds of Major League Baseball games a year. But Hall of Famer Reggie Jackson is over there talking to current Red Sox Vice President and former manager Tony La Russa. Red Sox owner John Henry answers questions by the dugout. Joe Torre, the current chief baseball officer hangs around, and the commissioner of baseball Rob Manfred himself strolls by with purpose, followed closely by several assistants.
It's clearly not just 'any' game. It is Major League Baseball in Europe for the first time ever, and I am on the field, soaking it all in, part reporter on the job, part little kid in the candy store.
The National Hockey League opened their regular season in London in September of 2007, with the National Football League playing Wembley Stadium for the first time a month later. The National Basketball Association followed in 2011. So it's about time baseball made it, right?
"Obviously playing in Europe presents some challenges for us that the NFL doesn't have," Manfred had said at a press conference earlier. "It's a lot easier for them to play in a soccer/football stadium, virtually impossible for us."
But someone figured out how to get a baseball diamond into London Stadium. There is admittedly a ton of foul territory along the first and third base lines, and the 16 foot center field fence is a mere 385 feet from home plate, but somehow it just seems to fit. I see comments on Twitter claiming it suits baseball better than soccer (repurposed after hosting the 2012 Olympic track and field venue, the stadium's day job is home of the West Ham Football Club of the English Premier League).
So what took so long? It doesn't seem to be for lack of desire from the teams themselves. "Getting clubs to come here to play in London was probably the easiest international sell that we have had," said Manfred. "If anything, the Yankees and Red Sox might have been a little in front of us, meaning Major League Baseball. Both owners were all in on the idea."
As game time approaches, the fans file in and the stands fill. There is pomp and circumstance and rousing renditions of the US and UK National Anthems, and after months of build up, it's time to "play ball."
The very first batter of the game, DJ LeMahieu, starts things off with a stinging single for the 'visiting' Yankees. The crowd erupts. 59,659 fans are into it. Judge flies out before Luke Voit, Didi Gregorius and Edwin Encarnación line RBI doubles. Aaron Hicks then launches a two-run homer over the wall in right to chase starting pitcher Rick Porcello after giving up six earned runs in one-third of an inning of work. Tough day at the office.
In the bottom of the frame, Mookie Betts leads off with a single. Rafael Devers drives him in with a double. Walk, walk, and a sacrifice fly and then Brock Holt cracks a two-run single, followed by a three-run blast by rookie Michael Chavis and just like that, we're tied.
It is the first time in the history of the long and storied Red Sox – Yankees rivalry over 2,200 games that both teams have scored as many as six runs each in the first inning.
One inning, 58 minutes, 92 pitches, 12 runs. Just wow. The atmosphere is electric. The crowd roars after every hit, equally loudly for both teams. This is fun. I can hardly believe what I'm seeing.
In the fifth inning LeMahieu clears the bases with a 3-run double before Judge aka Very Big Man With Very Big Stick, goes the other way with a liner over the right field wall for a two-run homer, and the Yankees open up a 17-6 lead. Amazingly, after another long, three-run homer by Chavis, the Sox manage to bring the tying run to the plate with the bases loaded and two outs in the eighth inning, but Marco Hernandez grounds out to end the threat.
In the end, the Yankees hold on for a 17-13 win, 4 hours and 42 minutes after the opening pitch. Welcome to baseball, London. It's the third-longest nine-inning game in Major League history.
"I thought the atmosphere was awesome," Yankee manager Aaron Boone said after the game. "I thought it was something memorable. I even found myself a couple of times in the course of the game really taking it all in. It was something that was really cool to be a part of."
Boone also pointed out when asked what British fans' impressions of the game should be, "We should remind them that there's not 30 runs every game."
If Saturday felt like an event, Sunday felt more like a ballgame. It's about 20 degrees cooler for one thing. Xander Bogaerts, JD Martinez and Christian Vázquez all hit first-inning home runs for the Red Sox, but the Yankees plate nine in the seventh inning and go on to a 12-8 win and a London Series sweep.
Major League Baseball seemed to get what they wanted out of the trip, a good display of exciting baseball in front of a stadium full of fans.
The players seemed to be genuinely enjoying the experience. When Yankee shortstop Didi Gregorius was asked what his favorite part of the trip was, he answered simply, "Everything."
The fans got all they could handle. 50 runs (four more than any previous consecutive games between the long time rivals – more history), 65 hits, 10 home runs over 9 hours and 6 minutes of action-packed baseball.
There were two-foot long, £24 "Boomstick" hot dogs, mascot races (Freddy Mercury beat Henry VIII, the Loch Ness Monster and Winston Churchill on Saturday, with Henry VIII edging out Freddy on Sunday, for the record), and The Freeze (a bodysuited track star who races a spectator – usually at Atlanta Braves games – after giving them a sizable head start. He lost once and won once, also for the record). The whole experience was as American as apple pie. The game, and the experience traveled, and translated, well.
The Cubs and Cardinals will make the trip over in 2020, and Manfred stated his desire to have "sustained play" in Europe. "I'm thrilled to be in London, I'm glad we're coming back next year and I'd like to be back after that".
As promising a start as these two games were, it's really too early to tell how sustainable baseball can actually become in Europe. The reality is that baseball probably faces headwinds in Europe other than suitable venues to capture fans’ hearts (and wallets) the way American football and basketball have.
MLB claims that 70% of tickets were sold in the UK, but I would not be entirely convinced that 70% of the fans were non-Americans. And there were certainly whispers that demand for tickets on the secondary market was not as strong as some – including the commissioner – would have us believe.
If baseball is to have a true presence in Europe, similar to what the NFL has accomplished, they won’t do it by filling stadiums every year with a lot of lifelong American baseball fans.
That said, I, for one, am ready to head back to London Stadium again next June to watch the Cubs and Cardinals battle it out at MLB London Pt 2. Hopefully I’m not the only one.