A tale of three cities…
Surely, it could never catch on… could it?
The date: 29 & 30th June 2019
The place: Olympic Stadium, Stratford, London, UK
What: Major League Baseball
Who: The New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox (with Boston playing as the home team).
It is a curious concept. Baseball at a professional level, in games that count in the regular Major League season, between two of the greatest rivals in the league. Boston who were the pre-season favourites to take the American League East and current World Series champions. New York Yankees who came second in the American League East in 2018 and thus earned a wild card entry into the post-season and who are the surprise leaders of this year’s Eastern division, despite an enormous number of long-term injuries, leaving Boston lagging behind in third place.
A lot of Americans have flown in for the event. A lot of ex-pat Americans were making the best of the occasion and of having baseball on their new doorstep. A lot of UK-born baseball fans (mostly Boston fans) are here. And a number of curious first-timers but perhaps not as many as the sport’s governing body might have been hoping for. The footage in the U.S.A. said that there wasn’t a ticket available anywhere in town. That’s a long way from the truth. Ask StubHub…
So, what worked out well? What was not so good? And where did communication between Major League Baseball and their English partners fumble the ball?
Well, let me first indicate that I am well qualified to comment on these matters. I’m English-born but have been making the journey to the East coast of America for 25 years. I have made pilgrimage to the Baseball Hall of Fame. I have attended many, many major and minor league baseball games. I am fascinated by the game, a huge New York Yankees fan, and leave all my friends perplexed by my obsession. And just to cap it all I write two columns a month about the New York Yankees which are steeped in statistical analysis. I know of that which I speak.
So here goes:
The ugly (things which were attempted but did not work out so well) :
- Merchandising. I have never had to queue at a merchandise stand or stall in the U.S.A.. Here, standing in a line was mandatory and some of the lines, particularly the ones that resembled things that are more often seen at rock concerts, seldom moved. Then when you got to the front of the queue, you usually found out that the item you wanted was sold out, not in your size etc. etc.
- Food. So, you stand in line for hot dogs for 20 minutes and when you get there, guess what, no hot dogs. “We’ll have some more later”. Thankfully, the situation had improved by the second day. I only wish i could say the same about the quality, range and price of the food.
- Location of merchandising and food. So, we’re in a stadium which is not designed for this (more of that in a moment) and so all of the food concessions are located on the ground floor (maybe there were exceptions but I missed them) and other than a solitary beer guy wandering the seats there was precious little “bring it to you” about it all. Not good.
- The very strange way that the “black” was erected in centrefield to help the teams to see the white ball. This is customary in most stadiums but here a very pronounced vertical board in front of the already blacked-out seats meant that most people in leftfield couldn’t see what was happening in deep rightfield and those in rightfield couldn’t see what was happening in deep leftfield. Was it a home run? Was it caught at the wall? Better wait for it to be replayed on the screen because the efforts of the good folks of East London to assist the players mean that the fans don’t have a prayer of seeing it happen in the flesh. Madness, they call it madness.
- Ticket sales. The way that that the ticket sales was handled meant that for several days before the game it was cheaper to buy tickets on StubHub than it was on Ticketmaster. If you don’t follow my logic, I saying that you could buy a cheaper ticket from someone who had bought a ticket when it first went on sale and then found out he couldn’t sell it on at a profit, than you could buy a fresh, new, not previously owned ticket. MLB, in their eagerness to show that they were going to get a return and make a “success” of the event, flooded the market and left keen British followers of the game without tickets whilst those who knew mothing about the sport bought fistfuls and got stung in their own over-eagerness. “Everybody’s buying, I must be onto a good thing”. Those who were smart showed patience and held on until those last few days and picked up bargains.
The indifferent (those things which could have been thought out better):
- The foul-lines. The area between seating areas and the foul-lines was much too wide. This left some fans feeling more removed from the game than they needed to be but more crucially restricted the area of play in a very artificial way. And , of course, outfielders chasing balls in way over-sized foul areas.
- The events between innings. Way too many. It really felt like I was at a single-A Minor league game where you need to present things to keep children entertained – except here children don’t know the sport and so there were surprisingly few in attendance. Mascot races, T-shirt give aways, a fan racing the Freeze, a short Craig David set and all kinds of other things – way too many. It felt like someone, somewhere, was desperate to prove that baseball is fun. Trust the merits of the sport, please.
3. Asinine quizzes. Several times each day. Let’s ask a British person a question about baseball that only a moron could get wrong. Unsurprisingly, nobody did. Patronising, to the extreme.
The Really Good (more of this please)
- The pre-game ceremonies. Now let’s forget here about Craig David and the other guy (who I think was Tom Walker) both of whom would have been more appropriately used performing outside the stadium. No, I’m talking about the way that all caps were removed, and everyone who knew the words sang along with both anthems. Now I’m no huge Royalist (although I wouldn’t change the existence of that institution) and I don’t necessarily think the current American President is the sharpest and usually doesn’t help himself, but it seems to me that there has been a lot of unnecessary ugliness between our two countries and also a lack of civility about the way that citizens and politicians in both countries deal with each other. The word “fascist” and the word “Nazi” are tossed around like they are going out of fashion and towards people who are hardly Mussolini or Hitler. I thought the way that England dealt with the American President’s visit was inappropriate – we protest a lot less about leaders who are not democratically elected by their people – (England has to respect the country, whatever an individual thinks of the leader) – and, on a much more minor level, I was kind of offended by the goal celebration in the Women’s World Cup the other day and the way that then became something that was used in an organised fashion by some Minor League clubs. I found it distasteful. I love the USA and its people and spend a lot of time there. People respect me and I respect them. Sports events shouldn’t become an occasion to insult your opponents. One of the things I like in going to a baseball game, as opposed to football in the UK, is that I can sit next to a fan of the opposing team and we may joke with each other a little but mostly we can have an intelligent conversation about the game and watch it in harmony. At the first game, I sat next to a lovely couple from Taiwan who were Boston fans. I enjoyed their company. I will probably never see them again but if I do, I know we are friends.
2. The teams. Now, this is the big point. Okay, the pitching on the whole was pretty lousy. Honourable exceptions: Eduardo Rodriguez and Aroldis Chapman. And perhaps MLB needs to think of the impact of jetlag and long-haul flights on players in these roles… But really this is the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees in London. One of the great rivalries in baseball – if not the greatest. And it’s right here on my doorstep. This is the big deal. Yes, all of the above means that I would rather be watching this in Yankee Stadium, but this way it means that I’m the one avoiding the 8-hour flight. Watching D.J. LeMahieu in what I’m hoping will be his MVP season. Seeing Didi back to fitness and cheered by his Dutch fans. Aaron Judge makes the entrance fee (okay, I didn’t have to pay for my ticket- but if I did) worth it in its own right. Luke Voit (before he got injured). Hey, I even got to scrutinise Stephen Tarpley.
Next year? Well, no Boston, no New York. No sense of first-time experiment. Some things (well, quite a few) to improve on.
But, hey, what can I say? Take me out to the ball game…