In a span of 21 days, Major League Baseball will convert a professional soccer pitch in the heart of London into a state-of-the-art baseball stadium worthy of the most storied rivalry in baseball between the Red Sox and Yankees for their upcoming June series.
And frankly, not many will bat an eye that they can.
“We won’t let stadiums be the inhibitor for us to go in and play these games,” said Jim Small, senior vice president for MLB’s international business. “If it’s going to grow the game, and it’s going to grow our business, we’ll find a way to make it happen.”
MLB has spent years proving how readily it can upgrade traditional baseball venues like the Tokyo Dome in Japan and Estadio de Beisbol in Monterrey, Mexico. But with this first foray into Europe at London Stadium, where the Red Sox and Yankees will try to make baseball more than an afterthought, MLB is making the case that given the time, resources and inclination, it can hold a game just about anywhere.
“When we played in Sydney in 2014 on the cricket pitch, and what we’re going to do in London on a soccer field, it is proof that we can do it anywhere,” Small said.
Major League Baseball has been playing regular season games outside of the U.S. and Canada since 1996, when the Mets and Padres met in Monterrey. The March series between the Mariners and Athletics was the fifth time MLB has opened the season at the Tokyo Dome.
But baseball officials upped the ante in 2014 when they converted the Sydney Cricket Ground into a major league-ready stadium for the season opener between the Dodgers and Diamondbacks. That was a facility that had been used for cricket since the mid-1880s.
“What’s amazing about Sydney is Sydney Cricket Ground is Fenway Park, Yankee Stadium or Wrigley Field for cricket in Australia,” Small said. “The fact they would even allow us onto that field to play a baseball game was astounding.”
MLB had a 16-day window to convert the oval shaped SCG to a baseball field. MLB’s field coordinator Murray Cook and his team needed 16 months of planning to do it.
Their greatest challenge came in building eight-foot regulation outfield walls and 45-foot foul poles without digging holes deeper than eight inches, a parameter required by SCG. Engineers came up with a counter balance system using 150 tons of concrete blocks that was strong enough not only to hold the walls in place but to withstand the force of outfielders running at full speed.
Cook, working with teams from the U.S. and locally in Australia, had to level out areas on the playing surface while steering clear of the center pitch, considered hallowed ground for cricket. They were able to find local terracotta to use on the warning track, but struggled to find materials needed for the infield and the pitcher’s mound. So they shipped 200 tons of clay from San Diego to Sydney.
“The hard part is getting it through customs,” Cook said. “When you transport soils from one country to another, it gets a little tricky because people don’t want you bringing over things that have other plant materials that might be not right for their country.”
Cook and his team have spent the past two years planning for the London project, working on everything from scouting out venues and materials to running simulations of the build.
The advantage to using London Stadium was its extra width, given that the stadium was built to house a 400-meter track for the 2012 Olympics. Now the stadium is used primarily for rugby and soccer—it’s home to West Ham United of the Premier League—but it gave Cook the flexibility not only to reorient the field but implement the full design.
“It’s the entire ballpark, not just the playing surface,” Cook said. “It’s everything that goes with it: where the locker rooms are, the backstop, where the batter’s eye is, the foul poles, bullpens, dugouts. Foul territory. All those things.”
The playing surface still presented its challenges too. When West Ham’s season ends in April, the field will be shaved down and covered with an armor decking system to protect it for upcoming concerts. Whatever MLB used for a field would have to be on top of that decking material.
Cook said the initial hope was to use natural grass, but ultimately they settled on a synthetic turf. He said it made more sense given that they have to break it down five days after the series is over and because MLB will host another two-game series there in 2020.
“This is a sustainable world that we live in,” Cook said. “It didn’t sound right (to discard natural grass) when we could buy a synthetic turf field. Then we’ll still have a field we can give to somebody or sell to someone or if MLB wants to have another event on it. It seemed like that was a better thing to do when we looked at the big picture.”
Even with a synthetic turf, Cook’s team will bring in aggregate and gravel to level the surface underneath, put in drainage for watering the mound and home plate areas and install clay they’ll ship from the U.S. Like Sydney, they couldn’t anchor anything to the surface, so they used a similar ballast weighting system to install, poles, and fencing.
With every build comes more experience and, as Cook can attest, confidence in what they’re doing.
“We’ve been able to create this ballpark in a box kind of a concept,” Cook said. “We still have some things to work out here and there, but I think technology and the industries are understanding this is part of being able to grow the game in places where we typically don’t play.”