Here’s what awaits the Red Sox and their fans when they play ball in London
LONDON — Let’s face facts: Baseball isn’t the No. 1 sport in Britain. The British don’t know much about baseball. They know all about Brexit, but little about Betts, Bradley, and Benintendi. They have their own Royals, not the kind from Kansas City.
But the collective baseball IQ in the United Kingdom is about to zoom skyward. The Yankees and Red Sox will play a two-game series in London June 29-30, the first major league baseball games played in Europe.
The games count, and MLB is pulling out all the stops. Despite being years behind the NFL, NBA, and NHL in establishing a foothold in Europe, MLB hopes to hit a grand slam of goodwill.
“Expect something different and unique,” said Charlie Hill, who heads MLB’s London office, which oversees Europe, the Middle East, and Africa.
The games will be played at London Stadium, the former Olympic Stadium built for the 2012 Summer Games and now home field of the West Ham United soccer team. The Red Sox are giving up two dates at Fenway Park to be the home team in London and bat last. But both teams will wear their home uniforms. The Yankees will don their iconic pinstripes. The Red Sox will wear their dress whites for the first game and their reds for the second.
Tickets for the two games were snapped up in a half-hour. More than 10,000 were sold in the United States, mostly to Yankee or Red Sox season ticket-holders.
There is a large expat community in London, but the majority of the 60,000 fans in attendance will be British, according to MLB.
Before the games, there will be dual national anthems: “The Star-Spangled Banner” and “God Save the Queen.” Fans will hear “Take Me Out to the Ballgame” during the seventh-inning stretch. Red Sox Nation will get to sing “Sweet Caroline,” although some UK boxing fans also have adopted the Neil Diamond anthem. There will be no “God Bless America,” but expect to hear “Dirty Water” if the Red Sox win or Sinatra’s “New York, New York” if the Yankees triumph.
Hill predicts that sports-mad British fans will respond enthusiastically.
“You don’t have to be dressed in a Panama hat, quietly flapping and eating cucumber sandwiches,” said Hill, noting that the Cricket World Cup will be ongoing and Wimbledon will start the following Monday. “Let loose, shout, have some fun.”
The London Series also will feature a “Great British Mascot Race,” modeled after the Presidents Race stunt held by the Washington Nationals. Fans voted to have Winston Churchill, Freddie Mercury, Henry VIII, and the Loch Ness Monster race around the warning track.
The games will be televised on BBC3. There will be a free Fan Fest in Central London at a local brewery featuring big-screen viewings, games, and New York and Boston cuisine and music. Outside London Stadium, there will be a “Play Ball Park” with free pitching tunnels, batting cages, and baseball virtual reality portals. The concourse around the stadium will be set up like Jersey Street outside Fenway Park.
Inside London Stadium, several strict rules will be broken. During soccer games here, drinking alcohol is banned within view of the field, and vendors are not allowed to patrol the stands. But for the London Series, fans will be served beer and hot dogs in their seats. UK fans also will be shocked at the roughly 100 baseballs used during an average game, because in cricket, the same ball is used over and over.
“There’s a lot of things you guys take for granted,” said Hill, who was an exchange student at Rhode Island School of Design when the Sox ended their long World Series drought in 2004.
During the games, there will be explanatory pieces on the Yankee-Red Sox rivalry, the history of the Fenway Frank, and even the origin of the famous interlocking NY logo, which originally was designed by Tiffany’s as part of a Medal of Valor for a New York police officer shot in the line of duty in 1877.
Americans worried about drinking lukewarm English beer will have a choice.
“There will be some heavy, juicy UK ale and also some cold pils on tap,” said Hill.
There will be old-fashioned meat pies and sausage rolls, and Scotch eggs (boiled egg wrapped in sausage meat, dipped in bread crumbs and deep fried.)
Converting the stadium from soccer to baseball will not be easy. Planning has gone on for years, and the logistics are staggering.
The work begins Thursday and will take 21 days.
Workers will add 345 tons of dirt imported from the US, and artificial turf, imported from France, will be used for the first time in Yankees-Red Sox history.
Natural grass had been grown in the north of England, but organizers decided that making the playing field reusable for the scheduled Cubs-Cardinals games in 2020 and weather concerns made artificial turf a better option.
When officials realized that the iconic triangular floodlights of London Stadium were within easy reach of Yankee and Red Sox sluggers, they didn’t panic. They lowered one of the floodlights, and a pitching machine fired fastballs at a variety of different protective covers.
“It turned out that old-fashioned chicken wire worked the best,” said Kelhem Salter, MLB’s director of growth and strategy.
It won’t be cozy like Fenway — foul territory is more like Oakland Coliseum — but the sightlines are good and the seats are comfortable. The dimensions are 385 feet to center with a 16-foot wall, and 330 feet down the lines.
Under the stands, new, larger clubhouses of equal size will be constructed for the teams on the indoor running tracks.
Carlos Pena, the former Red Sox first baseman and occasional NESN analyst, loves the idea of a fresh fan base with no preconceived ideas.
“In the United States, we have had 125 years of major league baseball and there’s been a way of how the game is going to be played — OK, you don’t flip bats, you run with your head down,” said Pena, who is a baseball ambassador for the series.
“We’re trying to change that. We’re trying to let the emotions come out. So imagine them just reacting to the way the game is played today. Imagine London with baseball. It’s going to be crazy.”
In December, Red Sox center fielder Jackie Bradley Jr. met with Red Sox fans in London and toured the Lord’s Cricket Ground.
When a cricket player swings and misses, the British call it “fresh air.” There was plenty of that as the country’s best batsmen tried their hand at hitting a baseball.
Bradley said the British are psyched to see baseball.
“I felt a lot of love in general,” Bradley said.
“It’s a great place, everybody’s pretty social, and it seems like everybody’s excited about what’s going to happen. It was cool.”
MLB is taking as many precautions as it can about the notorious London weather, including a tarp system and possible game-time changes. But there is absolutely no room for rain dates. So what happens if it pours for a week straight?
“I guess I’ll just come see you for a hug,” said Hill with a laugh.