By Gabriel Fidler
LONDON—Major League Baseball is making moves toward games in Europe.
MLB hosted its first-ever Home Run Derby on British soil on July 4, pitting teams dubbed Boston and Los Angeles against each other for 'MLB Battlegrounds.' The demonstration was well-received, but more importantly, it marked a first step in MLB's commitment to host games in London in 2019.
This process has had stops and starts over the past few years, with discussions in 2015 of hosting an MLB exhibition in London in 2017, but with Great Britain's surprising performance in the World Baseball Classic Qualifier in September, momentum has been building. Having made similar comments over the previous year, commissioner Rob Manfred told reporters in May: "We do think it's time, whether it's 2019 or shortly thereafter that we play in Europe."
Charlie Hill, head of MLB's London office, sees MLB Battlegrounds as part of this vision.
"I think fundamentally what we've got to be doing as an organization is to ask ourselves some quite challenging questions about how do we put together experiences that are rooted in baseball as we know and love it, but start to make a connection to audiences that are not accustomed to the sport," Hill said. "We understand that the community want(s) games, and we're working on that, but we gotta do things in between to help build towards that, so that's what this is all about."
More than 20,000 fans attended MLB Battlegrounds, part of this year's British Summer Time Festival. The event was designed as a clash of the East and West Coasts, with vendors selling everything from hot dogs to tacos. The grounds featured batting cages with volunteers from local clubs, an MLB shop, and a virtual reality batting experience.
The fun started earlier in the day, as ex-MLB standouts Carlos Peña and Cliff Floyd teamed up for a morning clinic with members of Great Britain Baseball's 15U and 18U squads.
“The biggest thing we want to tell you guys is you have to take the responsibility and accountability of coming out to the park and taking every opportunity to get better every time you step on the field," Floyd said. "This is not a playground."
Red Sox, Yankees, Dodgers, and Blue Jays jerseys were spotted in the crowd. Yet the event had a distinctly British twist, from players and coaches with Great Britain across their chests and numerous BaseballSoftballUK volunteers, to jerseys from a variety of local English teams, like the Norwich Iceni and 2016 British University champions, Durham University.
"An event like MLB Battlegrounds is key," GB Baseball youth coach Will Lintern said. "It’s (distinctly) British: 'I'm going to have a couple beers, I'm going to come to a festival-type environment.' (That) is exactly the right stage for British fans."
Pena, Floyd, and Shawn Green participated in the home run derby, but it was 22-year-old Italian Federico Celli, a former Dodgers prospect, who took the slugfest's crown.
Other contestants included British cricketers Alex Hales and Jos Buttler, softball standouts Karla Claudio and Taylor Hoagland, and former Phillies minor leaguer Julsan Kamara, who hails from Germany.
"I think MLB knocked it out of the park with how they went about making (MLB Battlegrounds) such a production and such a big event," said Floyd, who joined Peña in referencing the World Baseball Classic as the starting point in MLB's growing globalization. "You start somewhere, and you want to be at the point that when you start it, you finish something that's really great and unique."
The event's reception paved the way for MLB to host its first games in London in 2019. Hill noted that time for reflection would occur before planning the next MLB Battlegrounds, but UK-based baseball fans will certainly hope the festivities were only the beginning.
— Gabriel Fidler writes for Extra Innings: Baseball Around the World