History was about to be made, and everyone in London, it seemed, was excited about it.
Fans had arrived from all over the globe, and on the main thoroughfare that connects London’s Heathrow Airport to the city’s financial district, there were several large signs promoting the first regular-season Major League Baseball games that would ever be played on European soil.
On the eve of the first London Series game between the Yankees and their longtime archrivals, the Boston Red Sox, a young boy from New York coincidentally crossed paths with WWE wrestling star and actor John Cena in Millie’s Lounge at The Ned hotel. Ecstatic to meet the American celebrity who was in Great Britain for work, the boy asked Cena if he would pose for a photo.
The wrestler graciously agreed to do so, but not before asking the 11-year-old a question.
“Why are you in London?” Cena asked.
When the boy told him that he had flown across the pond for the London Series, Cena’s eyes lit up.
“Well, what you are going to experience is very special,” he said. “Whenever you’re watching the first of anything, it’s history. You’re going to witness baseball history.”
The next day at London Stadium -- built within the confines of Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park for the 2012 Summer Olympics and transformed into a baseball venue for the history-making, two-game series --- the capacity crowd had the same idea.
From the time the gates opened through the first pitch on June 29, 59,659 fans filled the stadium. The line to get into a souvenir tent outside one of the gates stretched a few hundred yards, and by the time the crowd made its way into the seats, all of the commemorative hats, bats and baseballs had been sold. Other than a handful of XXL-sized shirts still hanging at game time, the clothes racks were all but empty.
In the final hour before big league baseball would be played in London for the first time, every seat was filled. Whether they were from Great Britain, the United States or any other countries, these fans were not about to miss anything, some not even willing to wait in line for the selection of American and British beer, or the traditional hot dog and popcorn from concourse stands.
“Getting to see baseball at this level in London is a dream come true,” a 40-year-old from Ireland sitting in the upper deck said. “We want to experience every single thing there is to see at this stadium today.”
A few rows away, a woman from Pennsylvania spoke about the excitement that she and her young family felt.
“This is our summer vacation,” she said. “This is what we wanted to do this year, and as Yankees fans and people who love baseball, I really can’t imagine a better thing to do for a family trip.”
As game time approached, both teams opened their clubhouses to two Royal visitors, Prince Harry and Meghan Markle. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex first visited the Red Sox and were given a Red Sox onesie and a small red bat for their infant son, Archie. From there, the couple was escorted to the Yankees clubhouse, where they were greeted by Aaron Boone. The manager presented them with a baby-sized
No. 19 jersey with “Archie” embroidered across the back.
In this chapter of the longstanding rivalry between the two teams, the Yankees scored a symbolic victory.
“You guys have beaten next door’s present, by the way,” Prince Harry told the Yankees before he posed for a photo with the team.
The action in the clubhouse was followed by as much pomp and circumstance as any postseason baseball game played in the United States. Within minutes of the players and coaches arriving in their dugouts, the starting lineups for both clubs were announced, beginning with the visiting New York Yankees. With both teams donning their home uniforms, each player ran out of his respective dugout. Flames were shot out of machines into the unseasonably hot 92-degree air during the introductions, and the crowd roared as each player trotted out to the field.
With both teams standing on the baselines, a giant American flag and an equally large United Kingdom flag were unfurled over the artificial turf of the outfield, and the national anthems of both nations were performed by London’s The Kingdom Choir. Then, in an unforgettable moment, the Duke and Duchess accompanied a group of participants from the Invictus Games -- the multisport event created by Prince Harry in which wounded, injured or sick armed services personnel take part in sports -- to the mound.
LeMahieu led off the game with a single, and in doing so, he collected the first hit in a Major League game played in Europe. Then, with one out, Porcello walked Gary Sánchez, bringing clean-up hitter Luke Voit to the plate. The first baseman lined a double to left field, driving in the first run on London soil. Didi Gregorius and Edwin Encarnacion followed with doubles of their own, and with just one out, the Yankees had a 4-0 lead.
Not to be outdone, Aaron Hicks etched his name into the record books with a two-run homer over the right-field fence, bringing Encarnación home, sending Porcello to the showers and giving the Yankees a 6-0 lead. As the center fielder rounded the bases, a display on the open-air stadium’s two scoreboards showed a graphic that read, “First Home Run in London.”
“I got a great pitch to hit, and I was able to put it out of the ballpark,” Hicks said after the game. “To be able to have the first home run here, that’s something that people can never take from you.”
Improbably, All-Star right-hander Masahiro Tanaka gave it all back in the bottom of the frame. After allowing a single to Boston right fielder Mookie Betts, New York’s starting pitcher was tagged for a double by third baseman Rafael Devers. Tanaka then issued two walks and recorded two outs, but he couldn’t get out of the inning. Boston second baseman Brock Holt collected an RBI single, and first baseman Michael Chavis took Tanaka deep. The home run tied the game and ended Tanaka’s night.
The offensive onslaught in the first inning was historical on its own, having nothing to do with where the game was played. It was the first time since 1989 -- or about 75,000 games ago -- that both teams scored six or more runs in the first inning of a Major League contest.
Two innings later, the Yankees struck again. With Gleyber Torres on first base, veteran outfielder Brett Gardner homered to right field, giving the Yankees an 8-6 advantage. New York expanded its lead to 14-6 in a fourth inning that was highlighted by LeMahieu’s three-run double and Aaron Judge’s two-run line-drive blast that landed in the right-field seats. Another rally in the fifth yielded three more runs for the Yankees and seemed to put the game on ice at 17-6.
But in the spirit of the rivalry, the Red Sox didn’t go away quietly. Instead, they put together a rally of their own in the seventh, cutting New York’s lead to just four runs.
In the end, the Yankees proved to have the best bullpen on either side of the pond this season. Zack Britton came in with one out and with two Red Sox runners on the basepaths in the eighth and held Boston scoreless.
Ultimately, the 17-13 slugfest -- which was the third-longest nine-inning game in Major League history, behind two Yankees–Red Sox battles at Fenway Park -- ended after 4 hours and 42 minutes with a defensive masterpiece. With one out and a runner on first base, Red Sox left fielder Sam Travis sliced a hard ground ball to the left side of second base. Gregorius dove for the ball, secured it and made a backhanded flip to Torres at second, who turned the game-ending double play for closer Aroldis Chapman.
In keeping with the traditions from the team’s respective home venues, Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” serenaded the crowd a few innings after “Sweet Caroline,” a Fenway Park staple, entertained the fans. The postgame celebration also included a fireworks display.
“Coming out here and playing in front of these fans, with the energy that they brought, was a once-in-a-lifetime experience,” Judge said after the game. “From the anthem and our introductions with the flames coming out to the very end with the fireworks, I had the chills.”
“It’s been an amazing experience,” added LeMahieu, who went 4-for-6 with a career-high five RBI. “The game was wild, so I won’t forget that. Looking up at all of the people in seats behind the outfield was pretty special. It was a special game to play in.”
While the competition at London Stadium was certainly the main event during the four-day trip, it was far from the only work the Yankees put in to growing the game of baseball in an area of the world where the sport doesn’t have a strong footprint and where other sports are heavily rooted.
With the help of the Manchester City Football Club -- with whom the Yankees partnered in establishing the New York City Football Club of Major League Soccer -- the organization found the perfect way to make an even bigger impact. It brought its greatest assets to one of the most established youth baseball programs in London.
“We wanted to do something out in the community over here, and we wanted to do something involving baseball,” Yankees managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner said from Finsbury Park on the outskirts of north London. “That’s not the easiest thing to find in many countries, but our friends from Manchester City knew about the London Meteorites, and from the minute they told us about them, it was a no-brainer. The Meteorites are doing everything we’re here to do for the week. They play baseball. They get kids to love baseball, and they’re out in the community promoting baseball, trying to get more kids to play. They do that year-round, and they are a phenomenal organization.”
A day before the Yankees’ team plane touched down, Yankee Stadium head groundskeeper Dan Cunningham and other club officials began an expansive community relations endeavor with the Meteorites, London’s biggest youth baseball and softball organization, which also has eight adult teams.
Under the direction of Yankees senior vice president of corporate and community relations Brian Smith, who had scouted the scope and operation of the Meteorites during a mid-May trip, the team first held a field management tutorial at Finsbury Park, in which Cunningham shared the knowledge he has gained in taking care of the Yankees’ home turf for more than 30 years.
Then, a day later, on June 27, a much larger contingent of Yankees royalty returned to the only two permanent baseball fields in London -- located next to each other in Finsbury Park -- for a star-studded three-hour clinic.
On a picture-perfect afternoon, the team’s current manager, along with an overwhelming collection of former players, worked with about 100 youngsters on all aspects of the game. The festivities kicked off when general manager Brian Cashman introduced the Yankees greats to the group of players.
“We are excited to be here on your home turf,” Cashman began. “We flew all night to get here after our victory. We’re here to put on a great clinic for you, and what makes a great clinic is the talent.”
Before Cashman handed the microphone to Major League Baseball Commissioner Rob Manfred, he touched on the globalization of the game.
“The landscape of baseball spans the entire globe,” Cashman said. “On this field today, we’ve got Carlos Beltrán from Puerto Rico, Alex Rodriguez from Miami, Hideki Matsui from Japan, Andy Pettitte from Texas, Mariano Rivera from Panama, Aaron Boone from California, Reggie Jackson from Pennsylvania and Nick Swisher from Ohio. Baseball is a world-renowned sport, and as you can see, our players come from all over.”
Following a few more speeches, the wide-eyed kids dispersed to different stations, each manned by Hall of Famers, All-Stars and World Series MVPs. In a batting cage located behind one of the diamonds, A-Rod, Jackson and Beltrán each addressed their first group of baseball students before offering tips to them as they hit off of batting tees.
“You may say that you have a disadvantage because you’re not from the United States or Puerto Rico or the Dominican Republic where baseball is the sport,” Rodriguez began. “But let me tell you why you’re wrong. There are so many players who I met in the Majors that started playing baseball for the first time when they were 14 or 15 years old. None of you are 14 yet, so you are ahead of the schedule.
“And the game can be played by everyone. It doesn’t matter if you’re short or tall or where you’re from. We’ve got two guys on our team in Aaron Judge and Giancarlo Stanton who are both over 6 feet, 6 inches. Then you have a little guy, José Altuve, who won a championship with the Houston Astros. He’s 5 feet, 6 inches -- some of you might be taller than him -- and he’s making millions of dollars playing baseball because he has the heart of a lion. The most important thing you can have in baseball is a great attitude. Your attitude determines altitude.”
As the youngsters began to swing the bats, the Commissioner peered through the net of the cage and smiled.
“The games give you the buzz and catch everyone’s interest, but what really matters is the legacy you leave behind,” Manfred said. “Events like this are the core of that legacy. These events allow our players to encourage kids, they give kids the opportunities to meet some great Major League players and encourage adults to run programs that provide playing opportunities day in and day out. What the Yankees are doing out here is absolutely wonderful.”
Every 20 minutes, the kids switched stations, and when they got to the diamond next to the cages, Boone showed them how to run the bases.
“It’s awesome to be here,” the manager said. “To be able to spread the word of our game in a place where baseball might be growing but is not a widespread sport is important. To see people who are passionate about our sport, and to be able to hopefully help grow and foster that, is pretty cool.”
On a wide expanse between the two baseball fields, two of the game’s greatest pitchers -- including the sport’s only player to be elected into the Hall of Fame unanimously -- started each group off by having them partner up and play catch. From there, Rivera and Pettitte took almost every kid aside, helping them refine their throwing motions, and in some cases, showing them how to catch the baseball safely.
On the other baseball field, Swisher enthusiastically taught kids how to field ground balls and make the throw to first base, while Matsui guided the young students of the game in catching fly balls.
“To be able to literally bring our game to their front doorstep and watch it in person is awesome,” Swisher said. “I’m sure there are a lot of kids here today who have never seen a baseball game in person. I think what Major League Baseball, the Commissioner and the Yankees and Red Sox are doing is really an amazing feat. To be able to expand and globalize our game -- a game that is already known and played in so many countries around the world -- that’s exactly what we are trying to do here today.”
Following the actual clinic, the entire group of Yankees -- which also included general partner and vice chairperson Jennifer Steinbrenner Swindal, general partner and vice chairperson Jessica Steinbrenner, president Randy Levine, chief operating officer Lonn Trost and assistant general manager Jean Afterman -- lined up in front of a large truck partially covered in a tarp to hide its contents.
“You are the ones who are going continue to spread our great game,” Boone told the young players. “You are the ones who are going to play baseball and share it with your friends and families. And with that, we are proud to present you with this legacy gift of some really great equipment. Hopefully you will put this stuff to great use and make baseball a big sport here in England.”
The significance of the donation of $30,000 in baseball equipment, along with all that went on at Finsbury Park that afternoon was not lost on London Meteorites chairman John Ferlazzo, a native New Yorker who moved to London five years ago.
“This day was fantastic,” he said. “Just when I thought the Yankees and the Steinbrenner family couldn’t possibly do more, they made this donation. It’s difficult -- or impossible at times -- to find any baseball equipment in the UK, so this will set us up for a while.”
With the aroma of grilled hamburgers and hot dogs in the air, the former Major League players and the young athletes together took part in another American tradition -- a barbecue. And, whether they were standing on one of the fields with a plate in hand or sitting at a picnic table in the shade, the Yankees legends graciously posed for photos, signed autographs and continued to share their love for the game.
Boone’s whirlwind trip didn’t slow down on June 28, the day before the first game of the London Series. The manager, whose 11th-inning home run in Game 7 of the 2003 American League Championship Series defeated the Red Sox and sent the Yankees to the World Series, was now about to author a somehow-even-more unique chapter in the rivalry’s lore.
That morning, with his family in tow, Boone met up with Boston manager Alex Cora about a half mile from Buckingham Palace, the official London residence of Britain’s sovereigns since 1837 and the administrative headquarters of the monarch. The two managers walked together down the tree-lined street to an area in front of the 775-room building and watched the changing of the guard ceremony. The daily ritual, in which the Queen’s guard hands over responsibility for protecting Buckingham Palace to a new guard, was accompanied by musical support and lasted about 45 minutes.
“This is the first time my family and I have been here,” Boone said. “It’s history, and I was in awe of it. When you think about how old this building is and all of the monuments around it, it’s pretty cool. Alex and I go back a long time, and I have a lot of respect for him. It was fun to experience this with him.”
Following a mid-afternoon workout that had a postseason feel to it, the managers -- along with their players -- ended their day in a building steeped in even more history than the one they visited that morning.
In a surreal scene, players from both teams were at the Tower of London, on the banks of the River Thames, for a private Major League Baseball gala. As the sun went down, the party began in the nearly 1,000-year-old fortress’s courtyard, not far from the exact place where Anne Boleyn -- the second wife of King Henry VIII who served as Queen of England from 1533 to 1536 -- and many others were beheaded. On this night, hundreds of years after the World Heritage Site was used as a royal palace and also by kings and queens to imprison their rivals and enemies within its walls, America’s two most famous baseball teams got an up-close look at history.
“It’s fitting that we are the first two teams playing in Europe and experiencing all of this at the same time,” Boone said during the party. “Not only historically, but currently, these are the two most relevant teams. It feels right that we are the two teams doing this.”
The crown jewels, regarded as the most powerful symbols of the British Monarchy and which also hold deep religious and cultural significance, are also housed in the stone tower that was built by King William I in the 1070s.
“Just knowing that they are in a room a few feet away from where we were standing is truly unbelievable,” Swisher said as the party wound down on a large field that was previously a moat surrounding the stone fortress. “But I’m just happy that none of the ghosts -- you know, from all of the people who died here -- ever came out while we were here.”
The second game of the series took place on the final day of June, and although it didn’t match the offensive output of the first battle, it was far from a low-scoring affair. The temperature was significantly cooler at the start of this late afternoon game, but the crowd was as enthusiastic as it had been the night before.
The Yankees got two runs back in the second, and then went to work against Boston’s bullpen in the seventh. LeMahieu led off the frame with a double, and Judge followed with a walk. With two men on base, Hicks connected on a double that plated one run. One batter later, Sánchez singled two more runners home, giving the Yankees a one-run lead.
The hits didn’t stop there. When the lineup turned over, LeMahieu smacked his second double of the inning, bringing two more Yankees home. A sacrifice fly and an error rounded out the nine-run inning for the Yankees, and the visiting team tacked on one more run in the eighth on a Gregorius longball.
As the case has been so many times in baseball’s greatest rivalry, this lead wasn’t completely safe. The Yankees’ eight-run advantage would be tested. Relief pitcher Chance Adams struggled in the eighth, giving up five hits and four earned runs. But just like the previous night, Britton and Chapman came to the rescue, securing a 12-8 win and two-game sweep of Boston.
When the games were done and the postgame streamers were sent into the air, the teams had combined for 50 runs and 65 hits in two marathon games, each played in front of more than 59,000 fans. London got the best the sport had to offer, and the seed that the baseball community hoped would be planted seemed to be flourishing before the teams even returned home.
Based on the reaction of the exhausted but exuberant Yankees following the second game, the London Series proved to be well worth crossing the pond for.
“This was a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity,” Gardner said. “This is a long way from my hometown in South Carolina. It’s a beautiful city, and it was an honor to play here. We responded well, came out and battled these guys for two days. It feels great to have won both games.”