LONDON — On a misty Friday night, the nervous newbies gather in Finsbury Park to attend the weekly “Baseball for Beginners” class. The baseballs are all beat up, and the rookies don’t want to end up the same way.
Head coach Ryan Turtill immediately calms their fears.
“No one is going to get hit in the head today,” he says. “No one is going to die.”
The class is run by the London Mets, an amateur sports club in the British Baseball Federation that has teams ranging from 10-year-olds to adults. Everyone here is eager to learn the fundamentals.
“Make eye contact before throwing the ball,” says Turtill, a softball and baseball veteran who works for the British government. “Look around before swinging the bat.”
Then comes the most important part.
“Have fun,” he says. “If you are not having fun, come see me.”
Baseball here is a rarity. The Mets are the only club in London with their own diamonds with base cutouts and fixed backstops.
But Finsbury Park is not to be confused with Fenway Park. Amenities are few. There are no dugouts, lights, or stands. The outfield fences are blue plastic chicken wire fastened to wooden stakes. There is an old clubhouse but no showers.
Turtill dreams of changing all that. He formed “Baseball for Beginners” in 2011.
“It started with five guys just throwing the ball around,” he says. “I wanted people to come and play the game because it brought me so much joy.”
Now the enrollment is 25. When they complete the 16-week course, they will qualify for Fall Ball or higher-level teams.
With the upcoming Red Sox-Yankees London Series, British baseball fans haven’t been this excited since the United Kingdom defeated the United States in the inaugural Baseball World Cup in 1938. Since then, there have been few highlights.
But the British are trying to be players on the international baseball stage. In 2017, a Great Britain team fell one win short of making it to the Little League World Series. Great Britain’s national team also fell just short in the qualifying round for the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
Hall of Fame pitcher Trevor Hoffman, whose mother is English and who served as bullpen coach for that WBC team, said baseball in Britain is “in its infancy, to some extent.”
There are nearly 3,000 British baseball players age 12 and older, according to Jason Pearce, national teams official for Great Britain Baseball.
“For Great Britain national tryouts this year, we had a record number of players come out,” he says.
Out on the field, Turtill, who has played and coached since 2005, deals with numerous problems. There’s the cricket player who bounces all of his throws and the second baseman who takes his position literally.
“Don’t stand directly on top of second base, because that’s stupid,” Turtill says with a laugh.
Some of the players like baseball for the social aspects.
“London can be quite a lonely place, and this is a great way to come together and meet people,” says Liv Shaw, 25, a former professional wrestler.
As darkness descends on London, Coach Turtill calls the faithful together in a circle.
“Did anyone die?” he says. “No, objective No. 1 complete.
“Did everyone have some fun? Sweet.”
Turtill urges them to return on Sunday to see the London Mets, the defending National Baseball League champions, face the London Capitals in an Underground Series doubleheader.
For London baseball fans, this rivalry is the equivalent of Manchester United vs. Manchester City. The Mets are an international melting pot team made up of British, American, Japanese, Italian, Australian, Irish, and Chinese ballplayers. They just represented the UK in the Confederation of European Baseball tournament in Moscow.
But don’t expect Yankees-Red Sox quality.
“The caliber of play, I think, is a solid Division 3 college level,” says Liam Carroll, head coach of Great Britain Baseball. But sometimes, he admits, depending on the pitching, it drops to high school level.
Mark Flaherty, an ex-pat from Windham, N.H., says baseball still has a long way to go in Britain.
“You will see people out walking on a Sunday afternoon, just walking across the field in the middle of a game, not knowing a game is going on,” he says. “They’ll just wander across the diamond.”
His son, Michael Flaherty, 17, has attended baseball showcases in the States. He now is the Mets’ right fielder. He says it’s more fun playing here than in the States.
“Here, there’s not really a lot of pressure if you fail,” says Michael Flaherty, “whereas in America, everyone is much more tense.”
Turtill, a Yankees fan, can’t wait for the Red Sox-Yankees series at London Stadium. And not just for the baseball.
“Humphrey Bogart says that a hot dog at the ballpark is better than steak at the Ritz,” he says.