London calling for devout MLB fans and lovable losers | MLB

One novel import to the playing fields of England has suffered an intellectual setback this week: the concept of Test cricket as an exercise in fun, joy and innovation. Now here comes another alien.

This weekend America’s national pastime stages a brief incursion onto these shores to see if it might be fertile ground for expansion. Forget Bazball for a moment, here comes baseball.

This constitutes the second exploratory visit, four years after the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox played a couple of games at the Olympic Stadium in London. The games were freaky and in some ways unsatisfactory – but they each attracted almost 60,000 people, the biggest crowds Major League Baseball had seen in 16 years, mainly because it no longer has a regular stadium that big.

Two midwestern teams, the Chicago Cubs and St Louis Cardinals, were due to come for a follow-up in 2020 but stuff happened. Now they really are here, playing on Saturday night and Sunday evening (visible to some on BT Sport). And more incursions are planned: in London again in 2024 –the New York Mets v Philadelphia – and a probable trip to Paris in 2025. General de Gaulle would not have been pleased.

These contests are not exhibitions: they are part of the exhausting Major League schedule in which teams play 162 fixtures, an average of six a week, for six months. And if they reach the 10‑team playoffs they face a potential 20 more.

Pay and conditions are damn good but there is a suspicion that, behind the obligatory smiles and bonhomie, this is a long weekend some players could have done without. Oli Marmol, the St Louis manager, insisted his players had explored a bit “but some more than others”. The chances of a British Major League team remain zero until floo powder comes on the market.

But every self-respecting sports body with global pretensions now feels the need to seed the world with their game, even if, as happens in many far-flung cricketing outposts, the average team comprises nine south Asian migrants, an eccentric wandering Brit and one much-prized token local. And cricket is a much more global game than baseball, which has put down few strong roots outside the Caribbean and Central America plus Japan and Korea.

There is certainly an audience here for a one-off series. It is a coalition of midwestern tourists, who definitely will make time for the sights, London’s large population of expat Americans, a few curiosity seekers, and what you might call Freddie Laker’s children and grandchildren, those of us who took advantage of cheap flights to the US and found themselves falling in love with this brilliant, balletic and intricate souped-up version of rounders.

60,000 baseball fans will make a lot of noise. But it is still only 0.001% of the UK population. And most of the other 99.999% won’t have a clue it’s happening.

Chicago Cubs relief pitcher Michael Fulmer pitches
Chicago Cubs are the lovable losers and have a fierce rivalry with their opponents St Louis Cardinals. Photograph: Charles LeClaire/USA Today Sports

The national bafflement may be increased slightly because the Cardinals do not have the international resonance of the Yankees or Sox, partly because St Louis is low down the tourist wish list. But its team are second to only the Yankees in World Series wins and second to no one in the breadth and intensity of their support. “Cardinal Nation” stretches across vast expanses of prairie; aspirant players are inducted into the “Cardinal Way” which emphasises athleticism and the finer points.

Their fans crowd into Busch Stadium like Yorkshire cricket‑watchers of the 1930s, utterly focused, many keeping their own scorebooks. Their rivalry with the Cubs, according to Derrick Goold, the St Louis Post-Dispatch chief baseball writer, is the oldest inter-city rivalry in the game, dating back to Victorian times when the two cities were vying to be the nation’s No 2 city, a contest Chicago won hands down.

But normally St Louis wins at baseball. And there is a massive cultural difference. The Cubs are the lovable losers and the crowds pour into Wrigley Stadium because it’s party time: it’s an event to bring your girlfriend or your mates; more like the Hollies Stand late on Saturday at an Edgbaston Test. But both Cubs and Cards hate each other the same, in the genial jokey way that characterises baseball fandom.

This year the teams’ subdivision, the National League Central, has been turned upside down. In early April the Cards were odds-on favourite to win the weakish five-team section yet again to ensure a route to the playoffs, or at worst have their 16th successive season with more wins than defeats.

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Nearing the halfway mark, they are now bottom of the five, with one of the worst records in the Major League, and Cardinal Nation is rancid. The club failed to strengthen the pitching, which was a bleeding obvious need. And management appeared to have got complacent, underestimating how their rivals have been quietly rebuilding. The long-moribund Cincinnati Reds now top the division and have just won 11 successive games.

The Cubs, who broke their infamous 108-year run without a World Series in 2016 and promptly went back to sleep again, have quietly improved. So for Cardinal Nation this weekend better be the start of something big. Baseball does not have relegation but it definitely does have firings.

London’s two 2019 games were definitely among the weirdest ever played. The opening game was 6-6 after the first inning, which is like being 6-6 after a few minutes of a football match.

If the 2019 experience is anything to go by it will be big in other ways too. The games finished 17-13 and 12-8. On the plus side, that’s entertaining for an audience less attuned to the finer points. The minus was that it was so hard to get batters out that both games lasted well over four hours.

The stadium has been further modified for baseball this year: the artificial turf is less springy; the foul territory has been narrowed and the “warning track”, which gives outfielders their bearings, improved. And the play itself has been shortened.

This year baseball has introduced a pitch clock with in-game penalties for tardiness. Along with a few other tweaks, that has shaved about 25 minutes from the average length of games, down to just over two and a half hours. Same length as cricket’s Hundred; much classier.