Classic, London Series growing game in UK

London Series brought regular-season Major League Baseball to Europe for the first time.

March 5th, 2020

Last year’s MLB London Series brought regular-season Major League Baseball to Europe for the first time. The event was a brilliant success, with the Red Sox and Yankees playing before sold-out crowds at London Stadium and PLAY BALL PARK brimming with youth activities nearby.

The Cubs and Cardinals are set to play MLB’s London encore in June. Commissioner Rob Manfred said last year that he hopes the league returns with future series in additional European cities.

In the meantime, you may wonder, how much baseball are they playing in Great Britain?

Probably more than you think.

Let’s start here: The British national team is set to play in the 2021 World Baseball Classic Qualifier beginning March 21 at the Kino Sports Complex in Tucson, Ariz.

The competition in Pool 2 also includes the Czech Republic, New Zealand, Panama, the Philippines and Spain. If Great Britain finishes among the top two in that group, they will reach the Classic for the first time.

“You can imagine the sequence of events, if we’re able to earn qualification to the World Baseball Classic,” Liam Carroll, the London-born British national team manager, told this week. “With this tournament happening in between the two London Series, it would be an epic one-year stretch in the history of British baseball.

“Reaching the Classic isn’t just about increasing the exposure of the game across the country now, but it’s a way for kids to create the aspiration of playing baseball for their country. The earlier that kids are exposed to the game, the better the quality of play we’re going to have in the future.

“The other reality is, if we qualify for the Classic, [our federation] will have more funding to spend on developing baseball in Britain. That’s something that could really shift a lot about baseball in the country. I wrote down five years ago that our goal was to qualify for the World Baseball Classic, and now that opportunity is here.”

Carroll attended both games in the London Series last summer and still describes the experience as “surreal.” One of the greatest highlights, he said, was seeing the way British national team players were integrated into MLB events, including batting practice and marketing outreaches.

Carroll, who also managed the British team during its qualifying bid before the 2017 Classic, brings experience with American baseball to his current job: Carroll played junior college baseball in California and served on the coaching staff at UNLV after growing up in London, Somerset and Bristol.

Baseball’s history in Great Britain dates back centuries. In fact, baseball historian and author David Block has presented convincing evidence that baseball was born in England during the mid-18th century -- before the United States came into existence. Thus, last year’s games were a “homecoming,” and Carroll sees their legacies every day.

Participation in baseball has increased in multiple age groups since this time last year, Carroll said. (The country’s most competitive level -- the British Baseball Federation National League -- is amateur.) Carroll said the youth pipeline has grown stronger through the MLB-sponsored Fun At Bat program in British schools.

MLB also opened Home Run House -- nearby London Stadium, in Europe’s busiest shopping mall -- as the go-to hangout for British baseball fans, an interactive experience featuring batting cages and virtual reality setups.

Jim Small, MLB’s senior vice president of international operations, views the recent growth in Great Britain as one result of the league’s involvement in the country since opening its London office in the early 1990s.

“We have worked with the baseball community there to grow both engagement and elite development,” Small said. “We have augmented those efforts since 2017. Because of initiatives like the Home Run Derby in Hyde Park in 2017; more engaging content distributed through our TV partners or social media channels; and most notably the London Series last year and this year, we are seeing a big uptick in the popularity of the game and our brand in Great Britain.

“We have more places and ways for people to engage with baseball in Britain. That could be the school programs we are running, like Fun At Bat, or our Home Run House.”

One sign of a healthy baseball country is international competitiveness at multiple age levels. To that end, it’s noteworthy that Great Britain was active last year at the U-12, U-15, U-18, U-23 and senior levels -- a first for the program through an expansion under British national teams director and federation board member Jason Pearce. The U-23 team placed fifth at last year’s European Championship, its best finish in that age group, including the country’s first win over the Netherlands at any level.

At this month’s Qualifiers, Team Great Britain will showcase baseball’s growth in another area of the globe: Multiple players from the Bahamas -- which hosted a Play Ball event in January -- are able to play for the British national team under World Baseball Classic nationality rules.

“National team competition drives engagement,” Small said, “so having a team from Great Britain playing in the world championship of our sport matters.”