Brits and Baseball

Traditionally, Britons haven’t been considered to be much of a baseball-loving bunch. Compared to our own love of the sport, you’d have to agree with that viewpoint. However, like most things American, baseball also seems to eventually be taking off over on the other side of The Pond.

But, before we get started, here are a couple of facts you might not be familiar with: The first recorded game of ‘bass-ball’ was actually played in Surrey, England and featured the Prince of Wales of the time. The Whitehall Evening Post (now defunct) from September 19th 1749 reported that: “On Tuesday last, his Royal Highness the Prince of Wales, and Lord Middlesex, played at Bass-Ball, at Walton in Surrey."

Impressive stuff. And what’s just as incredible is that before the outbreak of World War II, Chelsea soccer club’s Stamford Bridge stadium played host to a match between the US Navy and Army, which featured King George V among the 38,000-strong crowd.

So, why did the sport’s popularity fade in Britain after this time?

Britain has its own national sports, with most of the nation obsessed with soccer, rugby, cricket or tennis, rather than placing a betfair bet on the baseball. The popularity of those particular pastimes would prove tricky for any potential suitor to shift, but new Great Britain coach Liam Carroll has set his eyes on turning the British Isles into one of the best baseball sides in the world. He also plans to do so within just four short years.

With a pedigree in sport stretching back to his academic days, Carroll is certainly a man you would trust when it comes to knowing a thing or two about Britain’s baseball potential.

Carroll earned a degree in physical education, graduating in 2007 from University of Nevada-Las Vegas, before moving to London in order to take up the role of coach-in-residence for London at BaseballSoftballUK and was also juniors head coach for Great Britain Baseball at the same time.
Carroll moved back to Las Vegas two years later to become director of baseball operations at his former educational establishment and was then selected by the GB national team to coach their under-23s.

This was, retrospectively, Carroll’s big break in the coaching field as it led to him being offered the position of Great Britain head coach in January of this year.

At the time of his appointment to the role, the British Baseball Federation National Teams Programme Director Marty Cullen said that Carroll had earned the position thanks to the fantastic job he had done not only with the GB Lions but also within the wider remit of his role. He went on to suggest that Carroll was simply too good a coach to pass on and the country needed to make the most of his talents.

And Carroll himself was mightily eager to get under way and make his own mark on what really is a long history of the sport on British shores. Speaking to the BBF, he was equally as complimentary towards his employers, saying that he just could not turn down the chance to become head coach and help advance the British game on and off the field. Describing his predecessors as giants of the game, Carroll made it clear the pressure of the role was keenly felt but he relished the potential and possibilities that lay ahead nonetheless.

Pedigree? Yes. Backing from his superiors? It would seem so. Confidence and commitment? Undoubtedly. But if the British are going to make the grand strides that Carroll suggests, there will certainly need to be improvements made across the board within the Great Britain set-up.

Why? Well, for a number of reasons, really. First of all, Britain has featured in three appearances in major finals over the course of its history. This might sound like something to shout about – especially seeing as their national soccer outfit has only made it to one – but the reality is less than impressive when you look a little closer at the data on offer.

The 1967 European Baseball Championship Final was competed by the hosts, Belgium, and Britain, with the home side taking the title. Yes, GB made it into the last two here but Italy and the Netherlands, who faced up to each other in all of the previous five finals, did not even compete in the tournament.

It was 40 years that passed by before Britain made it into the final of a European Championship again. This time, GB squared up against Netherlands in Barcelona. The Brits went down to the Dutch, which actually is not that poor of a showing when you consider that Britain’s opponents had, once again, featured in and this time won all five championships prior to this one.

“And what about the other final featuring Britain?” I hear you ask, possibly.

Well, dear reader, team GB were victorious on the international level, way back in 1938 in the inaugural Baseball World Cup. Don’t get too excited, though. The tournament was hosted in the UK, arguably giving Great Britain an edge, and only featured two teams in its entirety (Britain and America).

And what about more recently? How has Britain been doing on the international stage?
Not so well, it has to be said. The country was eliminated from the 2012 World Baseball Classic at the qualification stage following two humiliating defeats to Canada (11-1) and then Germany (16-1) in the final group match.

It should be noted that there was a positive 12-5 victory over the Czech Republic sandwiched in between those defeats but the gap in class with Britain compared to their victors was clear to see and the team did not even feature at the 2013 tournament.

Things have not been much better at the European Championships, either. It is a fact that Britain signed off from the 2012 competition with a win against Russia, but that came after a truly disappointing display in the group that saw the team pick up a solitary win against the Czech Republic in their second match. The Russia game was almost a wooden spoon playoff of an affair, with the two sides playing for 11th and 12th place.

At the following 2014 European Championships, things did not get much better for GB. The opener against Sweden was postponed to begin with. And, although Britain enjoyed a 7-1 victory against their Scandinavian counterparts when the tie was eventually played, this proved to be the team’s only glory of the competition. They lost their other four Pool A games, with Sweden finishing bottom of the table.

Okay, okay. Perhaps I am being a little harsh on the British. As already mentioned, baseball is far from being a sport that has ever enjoyed participation numbers the like seen over here. But, personally, I do not think that should be any sort of excuse for the disappointing displays their national side has shown over the years.

Perhaps it is down to backing? After all, it is the major sports that enjoy much of the financial backing from sports councils in Britain, right? This might be so but that has not led to the Three Lions (England's soccer team) winning – or even getting close to – a World Cup and the same can be said of their national cricket team (most recently limping out of the World Cup in humiliating fashion), whereas sports not widely appreciated by the British public or funded on a national scale, like rowing, cycling and swimming etc. have seen major successes on preeminent platforms such as the Olympics. And although swimming and cycling have a large number of people taking part in them, they tend to only be interested in partaking at a recreational level.

So, neither finances nor participation numbers can be to blame for the lack of achievement. And as for failings within the school system, there is a counter argument that is plain for all to see. Basically, only be a certain number of sports can receive a regular amount of physical education time. There just simply are not enough hours in the school day (or classes available) for every sport to be given priority.

When you throw into the mix that lots of schools across the country do not either have the space nor the funding to adapt their fields for baseball then it can hardly be of surprise to anyone that the sport is not getting the recognition it rightly deserves.

There are afterschool clubs, this is true, but sports such as chess seem to have a greater amount of people getting involved in them than baseball. At least that is true for the time being. Perhaps this year will be the turning point, the year we look back on as the moment baseball began to achieve a touch of traction in Britain.

I say this because, despite all the doom and gloom that I have just presented to you in the previous 900 words of this article, as Will Lantern, national development manager of BaseballSoftballUK, says, the amount of adults taking up baseball has doubled since 2001 and are, in fact, the highest they have been for 21 years.

And that is despite the fact that, as a national team, Britain currently sits behind countries such as Israel, Colombia and the Philippines on the international pecking order – way back in 22nd.
So, that aforementioned challenge Carroll has set himself of turning the country into a top-six side within the space of four years (in time to qualify for the Tokyo 2020 Olympic Games) is brave in anyone’s book.

Speaking of the Olympics, baseball has not featured at the Games since Beijing 2008 and the International Olympic Committee are yet to vote on its reintroduction in Japan, but at least the Brits now have some sort of focus – a platform to aim for. It should also be noted that in Japan there are 20 million regular fans of the sport and the country is top of the world rankings (above the States), which should work in favour for the sport when it comes to gathering positive votes as and when they are needed.

Carroll’s determination to steer Britain into the world’s elite six nations has arguably been fuelled by the disappointment of baseball’s absence from his home 2012 London Games. The news that Britain’s first Olympics of this Millennium would not shine a spotlight on the sport came just three days after it was announced as host.

Carroll described the situation as being a “pity” for thousands of young – potential – baseball fans who were denied the chance of discovering the sport and enjoying it for life by feeding into the ‘legacy’ that London 2012 organisers had promulgated ahead of that summer’s competitions.
It would have been wonderful if baseball had featured in London and we are all hoping that there will be better news for Tokyo, but, with a new national facility set to open in Manchester, in the north west of England, within three years, the long-term future of baseball seems to be looking bright for Britain.

The news of this new northern hub is, in particular, fantastic news as it could well open the door for an expansion of the National Baseball League, too. At the moment there are no participating teams that play further north than Hertfordshire (one of the counties that falls within the catchment of Greater London).

So, things could certainly be on the up for baseball in Britain and I am sure we are all together in wishing Carroll the very best of luck in his (continuing) role within the national set-up. 
However, and apologies for ending on a negative, looking back over the history of British players within Major League Baseball, it must be a little disconcerting for Britons to see that of the 15 to feature, only two have stepped out on the diamond since 1915 – namely Lance Painter (last game in 2003) and Phil Stockman (who last played in 2008) – and not one has come from outside of England.

Could Carroll prove himself to be the man who nurtures a British invasion into MLB, similar to that which we have seen with David Beckham and the renaissance of Major League Soccer? There’s some way to go but one thing is for certain: it all starts with the attempt at Tokyo 2020 qualification for Great Britain’s head coach.

This article was written by Mark Wright.

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