Red Sox help grow the game, but also their deficit
LONDON — Baseball British style was a jolly good show if you like loads of offense and players going round and round the bases like they’re the London Eye. The opener of the London Series was a smashing success for Major League Baseball, which drew an enthusiastic English crowd of 59,659 to London Stadium. Too bad it came at the Red Sox’ expense.
The ballad of baseball in London was New York, New York, as the Yankees’ bangers mashed their way to a 17-13 victory on Saturday evening. Perhaps the Sox would have suffered the same result at Fenway Park. But it felt like the “homestanding” Sox took one for the good of proselytizing the game in the first MLB contest ever played in Europe.
This spectacle wasn’t really about the result. It was about packaging baseball’s blood rivals and exporting them to London to showcase the product to an untapped audience. It was the sports version of American cultural imperialism. This series is as much a trade mission as a baseball series. The results are secondary.
Baseball clearly wanted to put its best foot forward in Europe by exporting its most recognizable teams and its most storied rivalry. For a sport that likes to call its championship the World Series, Saturday was a momentous occasion and a significant step in expanding baseball’s reach and range to Ozzie Smith levels by playing in the homeland of Ozzy Osbourne.
Some might say baseball jumped on the Crazy Train by bringing the game to the Brits. There’s no doubt that MLB has a little bit of NFL envy; they’ve staged regular-season games in London since 2007.
“I’m glad we’re here. Obviously, playing in Europe presents some challenges for us that the NFL doesn’t have,” said MLB commissioner Rob Manfred. “It’s a lot easier for them to play in a soccer/football stadium. It’s virtually impossible for us. We do have additional challenges, but we’re just excited to be here now.”
The game was well received, but it’s a foreign sport in a foreign land. A souvenir baseball in a case that was handed out at an MLB event held at the Tower of London on Friday night drew quizzical looks from a bar patron. He looked at it like a UFO, even as he held it in his hands.
For this first game on very foreign turf, both clubs donned their familiar home uniforms, putting New York in its signature pinstripes. The ballpark in a box put down at the home of the West Ham United soccer club held up well, even with the heat simmering off the synthetic turf on a 90-degree day. It’s a shame the Sox couldn’t say the same for their pitching, which got blitzed.
Reality intruded on the good tidings of Boston being baseball goodwill ambassadors. The Yankees torched Rick Porcello for six runs in only one-third of an inning. He was chased after Aaron Hicks blasted the first home run in MLB play on the other side of the pond.
The only consolation was that Porcello’s counterpart, Masahiro Tanaka, suffered virtually the same fate, lasting only two-thirds and also allowing six runs on four hits before being lifted. The Sox tied the game against Tanaka when Michael Chavis blasted the first of his two three-run homers, clearing the 16-foot wall in center field, which stands only 385 feet from home plate straight away. Both teams batted around in the first.
Who knew we were in the UK edition of Coors Field?
Pitchers looked like American drivers trying to navigate on the other side of the road, as the teams combined for 30 runs and 37 hits. A procession of Sox pitchers was knocked around for 11 unanswered runs until Jackie Bradley Jr. homered in the sixth, the big blows coming via two-run homers from Brett Gardner (third inning) and Aaron Judge in a six-run fourth.
The Red Sox were playing in front of a crowd partial to the Royals, and not the ones with Whit Merrifield. The Duke and Duchess of Sussex, Prince Harry and American actress Meghan Markle, graced the field for the ceremonial first pitch, although they didn’t throw it.
There were some quirks, playing baseball in a converted soccer stadium. In the first inning, Luke Voit hit a fly ball into the copious foul ground that could qualify as a sovereign territory; Chavis couldn’t corral it. (“You feel like you’re running a half a mile, and you’re still not there,” said Chavis.) The play proved costly when Voit roped a one-out double, scoring DJ LeMahieu and Gary Sanchez as the Yankees opened the floodgates for four straight extra-base hits.
Before the game, the public address announcer informed fans that they were allowed to keep balls that went into the stands — the antithesis of cricket etiquette: “Remember if you catch a foul ball in the stands. It’s yours to keep and take home.” Imagine hearing that at Fenway Park?
One thing you did hear in London was the Red Sox standard “Sweet Caroline,” with the Sox about to bat in the eighth after slicing the Yankees’ lead to 17-13. Asking fans to stick through this London Marathon, which even by Red Sox-Yankees standards was interminable at 4 hours and 42 minutes, was a lot. There was considerable Brexit from the stands by the eighth. But the game was a success.
“I’m not going to lie, a home run is exciting. I’m pretty happy,” said Aurelien Boisson, 30, of London, who was attending his first baseball game. “I’m glad they brought baseball to London because baseball isn’t really big in Europe. But I’m enjoying it. Tactically, it’s very interesting.”
While the novelty factor is high, these games are vital for the Red Sox, who’ve lost five of six to the Pinstripes and dropped to 10 back in the American League East standings.
Sacrificing two home games against their archrival was less than ideal from a competitive standpoint, but Red Sox president and CEO Sam Kennedy said the Sox were happy to do it in the best interests of baseball, and they still own the last at-bat.
“You have to go outside the boundaries of your normal existence and try to elevate the stature of the game, try to show the game to as many eyeballs as you can,” said Kennedy. “It will be a long process. This is a major investment into the future of the game. We’ve seen given our investment in English soccer that soccer in the US is really starting to take off. But it takes a long time. . . . But seeing the game live, in-person is a great way to kick off that effort.
“We’re really excited to be here, and I hope we have a chance to come back and continue to play games internationally on a regular basis. That’s the key.”
Manfred said he would like to have sustained play in Europe, adding other cities. The Cubs and the Cardinals will play in London next year. MLB said 70 percent of the ticket sales for this series were generated overseas. Future games will need the cooperation of the MLB Players Association.
The Red Sox had to endure some pain for MLB’s Great British Rake Off. The Sox need to display a stiff upper lip and bounce back Sunday.
They can’t leave London with just ceremonial success in the advancement of baseball. They need to advance their own cause a bit as well.