“London Cardinal” reached out to us late last year with this fun story idea. He wrote it up, we loved it, and now you get to enjoy it, too.
I quit baseball when I was 16 years old. I just hated it. Well not baseball exactly, I hated playing for a coach who practiced his golf swing with a bat instead of watching us in the cages. I hated that no one cared we won three games out of 30 my junior year. I hated being told that “wanting it more” would solve everything. So I quit for good.
So, some 15 years later, dressed in my London Capitals baseball uni, I watch Mariano Rivera wedge himself forcefully between Carlos Beltran and Reggie Jackson eating barbecue on a bench. Reggie smiles and complains. Beltran doesn’t smile. I want to see this play out, to see if Beltran is actually annoyed, but Nick Swisher walks up to me and yells “Hey coach!” and gives me hug. How the hell did I get here?
I started thinking about this as a story for my beloved VEB when I ended up in a New Era commercial. For some reason, a camera crew on my rec league field in London was the moment my brain decided to realize this whole MLB in London thing was actually a big deal. I conceived of the piece as trying to summarize what impact if any the games here would have, but I don’t know what impact that might be. I do, however, have a good idea of how it impacted my enclave of baseball refugees known as the London Meteorites Baseball and Softball Club.
I would like say there was a buzz, some kind of excitement leading to the Yankees coming to town, but it would be a lie. As a board member of the London Meteorites Baseball and Softball Club, London Mets for short, I knew that our President was in contact with the Yankees. I knew that their head Groundskeeper Dan Cunningham might be coming. I also knew that the Yankees told us any leaks to the press could result in the termination of any future relationship between our clubs. So no one dared talk about it. Not even rumors.
We are a humble club despite being in some big outlets in June. The New York Times, The Boston Herald, ESPN….hell, the Boston Globe had a picture of little ole me playing Center field in one article. Granted, the coverage has been a bit mixed. They highlight the fact that we don’t have permanent fences. That about half the club is just American Expats. They nit-pick at our low level of play. It’s D3 at best. Someone compared us to the Cape Cod league the other day…whatever that means.
A couple months before the London series, a few other players and myself volunteered to help at a youth clinic for our 100 registered kids. The day before the clinic, we finally get confirmation that the Yankees will be there. I am so excited. I am wondering if I am somehow betraying my beloved Cardinals by being so excited. Then I see the list of who is coming and I don’t even care anymore.
I’m the facilities manager so I got to spend a lot of time with Dan Cunningham when he came to our field. He was exactly what you would want and expect… thick accent, friendly, knowledgeable, and relatable. We talked about dirt for almost two hours. Apparently the clay we have been buying for the field was exactly what everyone in the majors uses. (Side note: I am no longer allowed to speak to anyone in the club about it. Any mention of field maintenance makes it automatically my round at the pub.)
I took the day off work to help set everything up. We mowed every blade of grass, picked up every piece of trash, and watered the field in accordance with Dan’s instructions. I am exhausted and I stink. Pavilions are thrown up and caterers are cooking in the middle of this little field in London. It’s already a surreal scene for me. The other coaches and I decide to start warming up when Aaron Boone waltzes through the gate. He is flanked by Hal Steinbrenner and Brian Cashman. Without a word, we all start throwing the ball, casually, as hard as we possibly can. Mostly we are all harboring some delusion that he will be impressed and get us minor league contract, but there is this tiny fear that we will be found out. That they will realize the Emperor has no clothes and they are wasting their time on baseball in the UK.
The guys and I are warm and we just kinda wait around for the rest of the Yankees to arrive. I turn to go to the clubhouse, a glorified Garden shed with running water, only to be blocked by some random guy. He’s too big to be…it’s hard for me to tell with those glasses… and before I can say anything he says “Hi, I’m Andy Pettite.” I respond like the genius I am, “I know” He just kinda shakes his head and walks away. Nailed it.
Suddenly everyone is here. Every single parent, player, and coach has a Yankees hat. Some Yankees corporate guy is asking the guys helping to run the clinic to gather round so we can all get on the same page. He is giving Yankees jerseys to all the legacy players. We are supposed to be all huddled up together but we don’t dare get that close. We stand behind the legends and I can’t see a thing because Carlos Beltran is a lot taller than me. Someone is apologizing to us because it doesn’t look like A-Rod will make it, but they did bring Reggie Jackson as consolation. (Um. Sure. I guess we are okay with that…) And then, A-Rod shows up any way, and it’s time for speeches.
Everyone has a turn, Cashman and Steinbrenner are actually quite charming. I am a lifelong Yankee hater and I am furious that they are totally winning me over. Rob Manfred actually looks a bit shy when it’s his turn. They all talk about growing our great game and how they are proud of us as the flagship club in Britain. I zone out a bit and I am just thinking how cool Mariano Rivera looks in number 42. Boone says something about station captains and I realize I actually have work to do.
I was briefed in about five minutes. “You are the guy running things. Nick and Matsui are with you at your station as infield and outfield coaches respectively. If they want to jump in and give advice, fine, but you are the guy running it. Don’t turn them into babysitters. Oh and don’t speak directly to Matsui, he has a translator. Got it?”
Nick Swisher, Hideki Matsui, and I have about five minutes before the first wave of kids hits us, and I immediately know my briefing was pointless. They do defer to me when it comes to making the introductions to each group of kids, but they are here to work. Matsui doesn’t use the translator. He actually appears a bit nervous, adorably, when he takes half the kids to the outfield and I stay on the infield with Nick. I hit grounders, he coaches.
I have no idea how to summarize the show Swisher put on. I cannot capture the enthusiasm of this guy. He decides to teach the kids how to get their weight behind a throw by asking them to throw from third to first. Some of these kids are SEVEN years old. I thought he was crazy…but it worked. Kids who started out stepping with the wrong foot are now heaving the ball across the diamond. He gives every single kid feedback, a high five, and a lethal dose of positivity.
The cynic in me is waiting for a crack to appear in this guys armor. For him to get bored. For his energy to flag. Between groups he bounds up to me and exclaims “Dude, I am so pumped! These kids are awesome!” He can’t be serious. It should annoy me, but it’s infectious. I go back to hitting grounders to the next group and I can feel the pull, feel the gravity of what’s happening around me and lose focus. I look behind me to the bullpen area and see Rivera and Pettite demonstrating how to keep your chest back longer when pitching. I look over to the outfield and Matsui is the cutoff man for his own drills, running around like a kid. At this point, I am actually feeling a bit emotional.
I focus in again and try not to get distracted by how beautiful all this is. Even the weather is perfect. I already feel like a bit of traitor, enjoying this so much, when I notice a little boy is in anguish because he can’t make the throw. Folks, he is like two feet tall, I shit you not. It’s breaking my heart that he is upset. Nick steps in and is the embodiment of encouragement. With the other kids, their parents, and journalists watching, the kid goes for one last try. He loops the ball all the way to the first baseman and everyone erupts. Something in me gives way and I can’t help but shed a few tears of joy.
Dammit! I love the Yankees. Those absolute bastards!
The rest for me is a blur. After the clinic, all the players stayed behind to eat some food and sign autographs. Nick and I just kinda walk around for a bit, and I was introduced to some of his teammates. I thank Beltran for his time as a Cardinal and turn to say hi to Reggie. The club lawyer, and most articulate person I know, is already there trying to say something to his childhood hero. He freezes for a bit before he finally manages to say “Uh, I watched you play baseball.” Nailed it.
With all these stars around, Manfred is actually struggling to find people to talk to so I shoot the breeze with him for a bit. I briefly consider screaming “You keep the DH out the National League or I will hunt you down!”’ but decide against it. A final speech from Coach Boone and they present an actual truckload of youth gear and then it’s all over. The stars trickle away and as if it were any other day, and we all go to our favorite pub.
Trying to stick to the script, I am now supposed to say what this means for Baseball in London. The answer? No idea. Our youth numbers are up since then, so clearly something worked. Our budget is a little safer thanks to the gear we got, but the most important thing the Yankees reminded us was to just have fun with it. They cared deeply about doing things correctly but also about having a good time. It’s what was missing when I was 16, and it’s what will ultimately draw new fans. As long as MLB remembers this when putting on the games for 2020, baseball should continue to draw new fans from across the pond for years to come.