How Harry Ford became the future of British baseball
'The new standard is Harry Ford'
He bashed three home runs and drove in eight runs at the Regensburg World Baseball Classic Qualifiers. He terrified pitchers every time he stepped to the plate, and he almost singlehandedly delivered Team Great Britain to its first World Baseball Classic tournament.
And yet, Mariners top prospect Harry Ford may never have suited up for Great Britain if not for his coach wearing the right shirt at just the right time. Yes, it was thanks to Brad Marcelino -- Ford's hitting coach with the Modesto Nuts and a longtime player and coach for the British national team -- and his Team GB sweatshirt that set the wheels in motion for the future of baseball in the U.K.
"There's no better ambassador for our brand than Marcelino," Team Great Britain manager Drew Spencer told MLB.com. "He is a member of the British Baseball Hall of Fame. He played for the senior National Team himself back in the mid-2000s. And, yeah, he's always always representing Great Britain."
It was that link that got the two talking when Ford revealed the information that could very well change the future of the program:
"My mom and dad are from the U.K.," Ford -- who grew up in Atlanta -- told his coach.
“It was pretty serendipitous,” Marcelino told The Athletic. “I was just getting to know him. He was asking me about my background, and I told him I was born in Great Britain. From there, we continued to have a conversation. He was pumped up about the opportunity.”
The moment when Spencer learned that Ford could join the team stands out in his memory. This wasn't just a new player to add to the roster, this had the potential to help remap the entire lineup.
"I still remember getting the text," Spencer said. "Marcelino's texting me going, 'Hey guess what I just found out? Our [Mariners] first-round pick and our top prospect has Great Britain eligibility. Not only that, but he's got a British passport.'"
Ford's an alumnus of MLB's Dream Series, which provides a high-development experience for a diverse group of predominantly Black amateur ballplayers. A natural athlete, the Mariners were so swayed by both his bat and his potential to play anywhere on the field that they selected the high school catcher 12th overall out of North Cobb High School in Kennesaw, Ga. It was the first time in Jerry Dipoto's tenure as Mariners GM that he used the team's first-round Draft pick on a high school athlete.
"Harry is a unique five-tool player since he is a catcher,” Mariners director of amateur scouting Scott Hunter said after the pick was made in 2021. “A tremendous athlete that will thrive in all areas of the game. Even though he could play center field or even second base, we see Harry as a catcher that has a chance to impact the game with not only his bat and defense but also with his legs, as he is a plus runner.”
Last year at Single-A in Modesto, where he came across Marcelino and that fateful sweatshirt, Ford showed off all those abilities. The 19-year-old posted a .274/.425/.438 batting line along with 11 home runs -- all before his star turn for Team GB.
"My dad is the big one. My mom's British, too. But my dad is like really, really British," Ford told MLB.com in Spring Training before joining Great Britain. "He still has his accent and everything. For him, [playing for Team GB] was one of the best things ever. Just because he's always been at every single one of my baseball games since I started, and being able to just to represent his country and play and be the first Great Britain team to make it this far, too, has really meant the world to him. He's probably the most excited out of all of us.”
Ford's meteoric rise could soon be mirrored by his national team. The team had never previously qualified for the World Baseball Classic, falling one game short after losing to Israel in the 2017 Qualifiers, now has a young and talented pool of ballplayers to pull from. Matt Koperniak, who was born in London, reached Triple-A for the Cardinals last year. Jazz Chisholm Jr., the neon exclamation mark on the Marlins and the face of MLB The Show 23 video game, publicly expressed his interest in playing before his focus shifted to learning center field in Marlins camp. Fortunately, Dodgers outfielder Trayce Thompson, who posted a .948 OPS with 11 home runs in the second half last season, was ready and interested in playing.
"I think it says really good things about the work and the effort that has gone into getting Great Britain to this stage," Spencer said. "It's not just about the outcome of games, but it's also the way that story spreads among coaches, and among players, about how we go about our business. What we're like to be around and how we operate as a program, that [entices] guys like Trayce and Harry to come play for us."
That's a very real part of the recruiting and development plan put in place by Spencer and head of performance coach Gary Anderson since taking over the national team in 2020. Not historically a baseball trainer, Anderson's work has been to develop Great Britain's programs into dominating powerhouses, no matter the sport. He's worked on multiple Olympic sports, perhaps most notably helping guide the British bobsled team to a bronze medal at the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
Anderson thought he was done with all this, though -- at least, until baseball came calling.
"I'd retired," Anderson said. "I felt that I was going to be fishing, taking my dog for a walk every day. And then the National Olympic Committee and UK Sport mentioned to me that this job was up. It didn't take me long on many interviews to decide that yeah, up until 2028 [when the next Summer Olympics will be held], this is where I want to be."
Anderson and Spencer's goal was to take the steps the team had taken since its first WBC Qualifier in 2012 and supercharge it. They began looking for top-tier talent with a connection to the U.K. all around the globe, including players like Ford.
"It's really important in any sport that you scout correctly and you get the right players in the roster at the right time," Anderson said. "We're going to leave no stone unturned. Whatever way that we can get the very, very best players to put on that GB jersey, that's what we'll do."
"The whole goal of this is is to raise the expectations of what British baseball is capable of," Spencer said. "To raise the standard, so that we inspire more players to play and that we create more funding, so we could build the infrastructure necessary to be the kind of nation that can produce a team of homegrown players like the Czech Republic."
They see this World Baseball Classic not as the end point of everything they've worked on, but rather it's just the start.
"That's why I'm really thankful to just be in this position, where I get to see the guys every day, be around them and just see what it looks like," Ford said about getting the chance to experience the Classic at the tender age of 20. "For me being this young, my mind still developing. This is only my second full year in pro ball and already learning what's the right thing versus trying to figure everything out on my own? I think it's a big game-changer.”
What makes Ford so special for the nation isn't just his talent behind the dish, though. It's how he approaches the game and thinks about his role on the national team.
“He's very inquisitive," Mariners manager Scott Servais said. "He'll ask a million questions. Sometimes when players are asking me questions like, 'OK this is just [BS]. You're being a brown-noser.' But he's thinking through it. He'll always have a followup question."
He's provided a road map to follow for young players in the U.K., a role model that the future of the team can get behind. At a recent Under-18 practice, Team GB associate hitting coach Jon Cramman told the room of eager ballplayers that, "The new standard is Harry Ford."
"Previously, there were other names that we would have given as the template," Spencer said. "And then we looked at Harry and we said, 'This is a kid who's got the work ethic, he's coachable. He's got a set of raw talent, but it's about the work that he puts in, his approach and his attitude. He doesn't take days off, he doesn't take minutes off.'"
He wants to have a hand in that, too. Ford usually visits his grandmother about once a year in the U.K. and he wants to host instructional camps whenever he's in town, so that the next generation of British baseball is even better than this one.
"He'll work with the little catchers and pitchers and aspiring hitters in Great Britain," Spencer said. "That brings them into the game, that solidifies their love of the game, that belief that they can get there. From a small field in Newcastle or Manchester or Brighton, there's a realistic path for them and that they should take some pride in the country that they play for."
It might not be long before those developing players in Britain are looking up to Ford the way he looked up to one of his opponents in Pool C in Phoenix.
"For me, the craziest thing is knowing that Freddie Freeman is going to be there, because I'm a big Braves fan," Ford said. "I was always a big Braves fan and I've watched him since I was a kid. The first time I went to Spring Training, I was like 8 years old and he was a rookie. He signed my ball and everything. It is crazy because I'm like, '[Dang], I'm literally almost the same age and same spot as him now. [I'm] going to be playing against him in the World Baseball Classic.' It really is just mind-blowing.”