This Oriole is absolutely beloved in the UK

March 24th, 2021

Who is the biggest baseball star in Britain? Survey the country’s growing fanbase and you’ll hear the usual names, superstars like Mike Trout and Aaron Judge who maintain their American popularity across the pond. But you’ll also hear another name you might not expect, and pretty often: .

Almost two years ago, the Orioles’ switch-hitting outfielder became an overnight sensation in the United Kingdom. It’s true.

“He’s become a bit of an adopted Brit, in a really strange way,” said Matt Casbolt, who runs the British Baltimore Orioles Fans (@BritishOrioles) Twitter account from Sheffield, England. “It’s just odd. It’s one of those things that came from nowhere, but he’s become synonymous now with the British fan base.”

Huh? How? Despite emerging as a legitimate run producer for the rebuilding Orioles over the past two seasons -- since 2019, Santander has hit .261 with 31 home runs, 91 RBIs and an .807 OPS in 130 games -- Santander maintains a relatively low profile stateside. But he’s become a cult hero of sorts in the U.K., thanks to a random confluence of circumstances he never saw coming.

The day was Aug. 4, 2019. The Orioles were entering the dog days of a difficult 108-loss campaign, still in the early stages of their much-publicized rebuild. Santander started in left field for what was an eventual 6-5 win over the Blue Jays and … didn’t do much out of the ordinary. He had three at-bats and singled. He walked. He scored a run. In the outfield, he made a routine play on Brandon Drury’s fourth-inning fly ball -- and received a partial standing ovation.

The next batter, Danny Jansen, flew out to Santander as well. Santander made the play to thunderous applause.

“That’s when I started hearing the roar of the fans,” Santander said, through team translator Ramón Alarcón. “I have no idea why. It just happened.”

The source? More than 4,000 U.K. Scouts clustered in the left-field stands, many of whom were attending their first baseball game. Sporting red, white and blue scarves, the scouts were in Baltimore after attending the 24th World Scout Jamboree in West Virginia the week before. The group, a mixture of youth Scouts and adult volunteers, were a vocal minority, comprising nearly one-quarter of the 18,837 announced crowd that afternoon at Oriole Park at Camden Yards. (The U.K. Scout Association is a gender-inclusive youth organization similar to the Boy Scouts of America).

Under the sun at Oriole Park, they fixated on Santander, growing more and more enamored with him as the afternoon went on. They cheered wildly when Santander did just about anything at all, and at one point booed Blue Jays outfielder Teoscar Hernández for catching a routine fly ball off Santander’s bat. When Santander tossed a baseball their way as a souvenir after making an easy catch to end the fifth inning, the section erupted.

“He’s their favorite player,” Orioles radio broadcaster Jim Hunter exclaimed on the airwaves. “And they just met him!”

Later in the game, Orioles public address announcer Ryan Wagner introduced the Scouts on the Oriole Park scoreboard as the “Official Anthony Santander International Fan Club.” That’s exactly what they’ve become.

“I remember that day as if it was yesterday, it was such a great day,” Santander said. “They were responding to me with so much energy and I was trying to respond to them. It was such a great experience, something that happened all of a sudden, unexpectedly. It's something I always will remember.”

Santander is happy to oblige his new fans, both on the field and off. After the game, he credited the scouts for the O’s victory, saying “we won because of their cheers.” He’s interacted with them regularly on social media since, hosting Instagram Q&As and often replying with the British flag emoji when anyone from England mentions him on Twitter. Santander said he’d jump at the chance to play in London with an eye toward growing the game internationally.

“I really would like to see them again,” he said. “I don’t know if they can come back, or maybe I can go over there.”

Maybe one day he can. MLB debuted its London Series in 2019, which brought the Yankees and Red Sox to the U.K. capital for the first MLB games ever played on European soil (a second series between the Cardinals and Cubs was scheduled for June 2020, but cancelled due to the coronavirus pandemic). The goal? To attract new fans like Casbolt, who never considered paying much attention to baseball before stumbling into a Triple-A game in Nashville while on holiday several summers ago.

“We just bought tickets, not knowing what to expect, just to try it out really, go for some hot dogs and some beer. That was the main thing,” Casbolt said. “When I was there, I sat next to this old man. He asked about my accent and what I was doing there. He talked me through the game and explained how things work, answering a million questions I had.”

Casbolt became infatuated with the sport, dazzled by its rich history and the way it mirrors American culture at large. Upon returning home, he began tuning into baseball games when he could on ESPN and MLB.TV (Sunday afternoon games are usually the easiest to watch, given the time difference: five hours between London and the East Coast, eight to the West Coast) and scouring the internet for people who shared his newfound interest.

When it became time to pick a team to root for, Casbolt literally put all 30 team names into a hat, shook, and selected. He chose the Orioles. He created the British Baltimore Orioles Fans account in April 2019, shortly before the Santander Game. It currently has 1,366 followers.

“It’s a really nice online community that are involved with that, and it’s just kind of grown and grown,” Casbolt said. “There is a lot going on in the U.K. in terms of growing the game, which is really cool.”

That community’s most prominent face is Joey “Baseball Brit” Mellows, a British expat living in Korea who quit his job to embark on a six-month road trip across America in 2019 with the intention of attending 162 MLB games. Mellows’ mission was outreach. A few years earlier, he began collating U.K. fan Twitter accounts for all 30 MLB clubs; as of last September, those accounts had more than 47,000 combined followers.

“When we go to work, we don’t have anyone we can talk to about baseball. I’m the only person in my entire hometown city who likes baseball, so the online community is very helpful with engaging with like-minded fans,” Mellows said. “The community is not as big as it seems online and it's quite fragmented, but people are pulling in the right direction and we’re hoping it grows in the future. What happened with the scouts and Santander helped garner attention.”

Mellows said there would be more fans in the U.K. if they had access to baseball more regularly. Two reasons they don’t: most games are played in the middle of the night local time and can only be watched on subscription channels. He said he understood the scouts’ wonder at Santander’s play, even if it appeared routine to more seasoned observers. He also called Oriole Park at Camden Yards one of the top three ballparks in the league, with some of the best food on the big league circuit.

“We don’t see baseball a lot, but when we do, there is this childlike naivety,” Mellows said. “We grow up playing cricket. I find it really impressive [baseball players] are able to catch the damn thing. It’s up in the sun. It’s super-hot. They’re wearing all those clothes. And they can still catch the ball! People are impressed by it. I still am!”