First they swept the AAA in their first year back up. Then, in a dramatic 6-3 nail-biter, they swiped the championship trophy from their cross-division rivals. Now, the Herts Falcons dream season has soared to greater heights still.
Official word came down from the British Baseball Federation this week that the Herts Falcons have a place in the 2009 National Baseball League, the top level of play in the United Kingdom. Ending weeks of rumours and speculation, the Herts Executive Board has voted unanimously to accept the invitation and will begin an intense winter-season training scheme and recruitment drive in preparation for the competitive play to come.
The BBF's top division is by invite only, and the Falcons are the only squad moving up this year. They will be one of just five squads in the 2009 Southern National League and will meet their London, Richmond, Bracknell and Croydon rivals at home and away, with all games officiated by the top UK umpires from the ABUA-GB.
Once unimaginable, accepting a bid to the NBL crystallises the Falcons as a top-tier squad… no small achievement for a team that’s had a roller-coaster ride through the lower BBF divisions since its inception in 1996, and suffered relegation to the AA as recently as 2006. Without a doubt, the promotion catapults the Herts Baseball Club to national prominence. Together with their ambitious Field Development Project and burgeoning Little League, the success of the Falcons the past two years – AA league leaders in 2007, and AAA champions in 2008 – has given Herts members a first team they can be proud of.
MOVE TO FOUR TEAMS, FOUR LEAGUES
As the Falcons promote to the NBL, a gap is left in their franchise at the AAA level. A new, fourth team has been created to compete at that level. The Herts Eagles will face the same on-field threats as last season’s Falcons, such as the talented London Metros, crafty Essex Arrows, and the fierce AAA runners-up, the Oxford Kings. The Herts Hawks (AA) and Raptors (A) will remain in their respective leagues.
Herts Baseball Club now sports four teams in four levels of adult play in the UK and, with its Little League programme in the mix, makes the most complete baseball franchise nationwide. A player can join Tee Ball at age 5, and progress all the way through the Herts ranks to the National Baseball League.
NEWLY TAPPED CLUB COACHES PREPARE TO TRAIN
Competing in the NBL is no small feat, and the club managers have outlined an aggressive training programme for the 2009 season. Known in-house as simply “The Programme,” the revamped strategy emphasises roster flexibility and individual player development. “Our big objective is player improvement,” says Falcons Manager Jason Greenberg. “As individuals learn more about the game and focus their on-field skills, they’ll advance through our system from one squad to the next. That process will start during spring training, but will continue all season long. We really want to encourage our guys to better themselves as competitors and athletes.”
Greenberg and fellow-manager Andrew Slater have named three coaches to manage the club’s on-field development. Conditioning Coach Dan Kerry, Hitting Coach Andy Cornish, and Pitching Coach Darrin Ward are already knee-deep in a detailed training scheme, which utilises drills and repetition of fundamentals to boost each and every Herts player’s stamina, agility and accuracy. Together with newly appointed club statistician, Greg Bochan, the coaches will chart individual progress throughout the spring and into the season, helping the managers to make informed roster decisions and regular promotions.
The off-season regimen begins this month, as the club will make use of indoor facilities to condition, work on hitting and pitching mechanics and just play some five-on-five basketball. After a short break for the holidays, they regroup for an intense conditioning, hitting and pitching programme that leads straight into on-field spring training at Grovehill and the exciting all-club trials. “Last year’s spring training was really the most exciting part of the year. We had nearly the entire club out at the field every week running, throwing, hitting… pushing themselves and their teammates to keep up… and just working hard to prove themselves on the diamond. This year – with four teams and the lingering National League debut to contend with – well, it’s going to kick butt. I can’t wait.”
VIGOROUS RECRUITMENT DRIVE
It is hoped that the move to the NBL will bring an instant boost to the club’s membership. With only five organisations competing at the top level, talented players in Hertfordshire and across the southeast UK will be hunting for a spot on the roster, and Herts plans to roll out the welcome mat.
“We are a family more than a club,” says President Aspi Dimitrov. “With the expansion to four teams, we have opened up a whole new roster and additional playing time for everyone! The hope is to attract new players of all abilities: the season veterans who like the atmosphere and professionalism at Herts… the recreational types who just enjoy being with the boys on Sunday… and, most importantly, gents (and ladies!) who are completely new to the game and just want to give it a go. We have room for everybody… and hope everybody brings along a friend or two when they come on out to the ballpark.”
With the help of Sponsorship Director Nic Goetz, Herts will stage a massive recruitment drive in the winter and spring months. They are hoping to sign around 20 to 25 new members in the coming weeks and no stone will be left unturned. Keep an eye out for Herts Baseball coasters in the local pubs, banners in the Hemel Hempstead town centre, and a nationwide media blitz.
FALCONS FLYING TOO HIGH?
The National League invitation may not have taken Herts by complete surprise (speculation after the Final 4 brought rumours and debate), but the decision still warranted careful deliberation by the club’s Executive Committee. “There was a lot of concern throughout our club,” confessed Greenberg. “Some guys were all for the move… but others were worried we wouldn’t be able to compete at that level. Nobody wants to be next year’s whipping posts on a national stage. But, the more we considered the idea, the more we weighed the pros and cons, the more of a no-brainer it turned out to be. After all, how often do you get invited to compete at the top level – the national level – in anything, let alone the sport that you live and breathe all summer long?! This is a dream come true.”
There is no relegation from the National League, so even should the Falcons finish the 2009 season with a losing record they will retain their spot, regroup, and work to improve for 2010. “Baseball is a cyclical sport – sometimes you’re winning, sometimes you’re rebuilding. That’s just part of the game.” Next year may prove a rebuilding year for Herts, as they retool and come to grips with a higher state of play and an expanded club roster. But, then again, 2008 was supposed to be a rebuilding year, and the Falcons swept through to their first-ever championship trophy.
One thing is for sure: the Herts Baseball Club is riding high with this latest achievement and not even the fear of top-tier adversity is enough to dampen their pride or their spirits. Whether they win or lose in this first year up, they plan to bring a dogged determination to the diamond every Sunday morning… and go home each night with their heads held high. It’s the closest thing Britain has to professional baseball, and the Falcons have certainly earned their wings.
Welcome to the big leagues, boys.