Even by the standards of the ever-expanding business of professional sports, baseball in London didn’t immediately strike me as a winner.
The National Football League has hosted regular-season games in the British capital since 2007, and the National Basketball Association since 2011, but there’s a large and growing appetite for both sports in the United Kingdom. Baseball, on the other hand, remains far less known on this side of the Atlantic. While enormously popular in the Caribbean and in Japan, it’s never been of much interest to the English—who already have the closely-related game of cricket—or to Continental Europeans, who tend to follow some combination of tennis, cycling, rugby, and soccer during the summer months. Baseball isn’t the most accessible sport, either. Games are long, the rules are complicated, and a lot of time is spent waiting for things to happen. That’s a source of intrigue and beauty for the well-initiated, but it all can seem boring if you have no idea what’s going on.
None of that put a damper on my joy when Major League Baseball (MLB) announced a two-game series between the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees at London’s ex-Olympic Stadium the last weekend in June. I admit that I was delighted just to have games closer to my time zone. Since I moved to Paris three years ago, my Red Sox fandom has suffered from the fact that most games are damn-near impossible to watch. There are the rare Sunday day games, which begin at a very reasonable 7:05 PM Central European Time, and sometimes I can catch late-afternoon weekend games (4:05 PM in New York, 10:05 PM in Paris). But most MLB games are played at night (7:05 PM in New York, 1:05 AM in Paris). I’ve had to drag myself out of bed at three or four in the morning to catch the last few innings of a Red Sox playoff game; when they won the World Series last year, I witnessed the end of the game during an early morning shift at my television-news job.
In other words, being a baseball fan in Europe has been a largely solitary experience, one of those things I’ve learned to keep to myself, like my obsession with country music and Ken Burns documentaries. But as I learned at the London series, there are actually plenty of others like me. Last weekend, 120,000 of them filled the sold-out seats at London Stadium for both games combined. About thirty percent of the tickets were sold in the United States, according to MLB, a figure that also includes season-ticket holders of the Red Sox and Yankees. But the other 70 percent were sold in the United Kingdom, that is, to actual baseball fans in Europe. Many were Americans, but not all of them.
That included people like Pepe Anderson, a 50-year-old from the Dominican Republic who’s lived in London for the last 15 years. “This is history,” he told me with a smile at a bar just outside the stadium on Sunday. He was sporting a Yankees cap and a jersey from the East London Latin Boys, the amateur baseball team, made up of mostly Dominicans, that he manages. Anderson told me he watches about three pre-recorded games a week.
Or Craig Tomkins, a native of the Boston suburb of Newton, Massachusetts in his early 60s, who was enjoying a beer outside a different bar before Sunday’s game. After overhearing that I was a reporter, he seemed to jump right into the role he wanted to play. “Let me tell ya something,” he said, “the Red Soahhhx are Goaahhd’s team. They’re Go-ahhd’s team.”
Then there was Teis Peterson, 33, and his friend Ulrick Pluggte, 34, both of whom flew in from Copenhagen for the weekend to catch the games. They said they started as Patriots fans, before getting into the Celtics and the Bruins—and then, finally, the Red Sox. “If you follow one team from Boston, you start following them all,” Peterson told me.
“Fair enough,” I replied, “but how did you become Boston fans then?”
“Nobody knows,” he said, shrugging his shoulders.
Perhaps my skepticism was overblown. If you build it, they will come, I guess.