Herts Baseball correspondent, Rob Jones, looks back at last weekend’s celebration of British baseball

It was yet another piece of history for Herts baseball — the first ever National Baseball Championships to be held at Grovehill ballpark in Hemel Hempstead. Has any  sort of national championships ever been held in Hemel? I honestly don’t know, but I have to confess to a frisson of excitement as I first pulled up at the venue on Saturday to see crowds, tents and people stretching across the playing fields. This was baseball coming to our home. And here are some of the sights, sounds and smells …

First of all — there was great baseball. There were home runs a-plenty. Most of the action I saw was on the Grove, our oldest field, and balls kept plopping over the fence from the new diamond with regularity. The purist might not love it, but the long ball has helped give the game its vigour in the past decade, and it’s fun to see at the British amateur level. There were games which lived up to the occasion. The clash between Bracknell and London for a place in the NBL final was truly epic, going ten innings before the then-defending champions were able to inch ahead and claim a place in the final. The MK Bucks and Guildford Mavericks were locked at 3-3 going into the final inning of the single-A final, before the Bucks pulled clear. There was great pitching — for example, from Richmond’s Cody Cain, who claimed MVP honours with 12 strikeouts in the NBL final — and great fielding, including a sliding catch I saw Herts’ own Mahendra Prasad make in the shallow outfield.

Richmond Knights’ John Irving looking for his helmet after what could have been an embarassing blooper

Of course, things do not always go smoothly for even the best baseball players. A Richmond Knights base-runner nearly suffered an embarrassing moment as his side took on Leicester for the AA title. He was poised on second base when a team-mate struck out. Everyone thought it was the final out of the inning and started for the dugouts — including the runner, who was almost at third base when the catcher suddenly realised in fact there were only two outs. He seized on the ball, and the runner swivelled, losing his helmet in the process and frantically diving back to second. Fortunately for him the second baseman had also thought the inning was over, so he was not there to claim the strangest put-out of his career!


MK Bucks ace pitcher Tom Lloyd retrieving his cap

All these games had proper umpires, but it did not seem to prevent arguments about calls, or about the rules. The balk, for example, is a strange thing. Sometimes it can be really obvious. But once you get beyond those few cases, it seems remarkably subjective. The Eagles’ Louis Hare — who pitched tremendously in two games — was called for a balk in the decisive match-up against the Oxford Kings. It sparked much heated debate. The umpire explained to me that he had not stepped clearly enough towards first base, and was therefore deceiving the runner. But players insisted it was a move Hare had used all season with no problems, and being called for it meant Oxford were able to steal freely. During his game, the MK Bucks pitcher Tommy Lloyd knocked his own cap off during his motion. This, too, sparked a debate — mostly good natured — about whether that should be called a balk. What could be more distracting to the batter than a flying object right in his line of sight? But can a pitcher really deliberately knock off his own hat, and still deliver a pitch? It was a trademark “trick” of the once-notorious Yankees pitcher and diarist, Jim Bouton. Lloyd got the benefit of the doubt. And retrieved his hat.

Herts Eagles Manager, Lee Manning, in discussion with umpires

There was passion on display, and the questionable calls led to the most vivid displays of it — ejections. Bracknell’s manager Rob Rance was ejected from a game for arguing calls with the home plate umpire. He said that the incident had perhaps put “fire in the belly” of his team. But when the Herts Eagles manager, Lee Manning, was ejected in their semi-final against Oxford Kings, it had the opposite effect. In discussions about a controversial interference call, Manning was tossed for apparently asking one too many questions, even though the often combative manager had seemed calm and reasonable. Both teams left the field while the discussions continued and the Eagles rhythm was clearly disrupted. They scored no more runs, gave up several, and made mistakes on the bases. I have great respect for what umpires and refs try to do, but there’s no denying that controversial calls can turn a game.

The Herts fans on the egde of their seats during the AAA League semi-final clash versus Oxford

The big stars of the weekend were the fans and families who turned out to add a buzz to the event. People had come along with tents, garden chairs, and video cameras. There were grandparents, little leaguers, toddlers and babes in arms. My own two boys, who have always shown scant interest in baseball, enjoyed their time at the NBC. After some prompting they shouted “Come on Jon”, and “Go Eagles”, and waved our home-made sponge finger. And when they had finished that, they ran around chasing footballs and baseballs and toy Transfomers, and having a fine time.

Enjoying the hot dogs at Grovehill Ballpark

If I am talking about the overall atmosphere, I have to address the crowning glory of the weekend — the food! The ubiquitous hot dogs were enormous, tasty, sensibly priced and happily devoured by my own two kids. And they were supplemented by a more exotic sandwich — pulled pork. When I first saw this on the adverts for the event I wondered what on earth it was all about and had to Google the answer. When I finally got to eat one for my Sunday lunch it all made sense! A masterpiece of rich meat and tangy sauce which made my weekend experience even better. Compliments to the chefs.

Baseball, like so much that is good in life, is about more than just the result. It is about the endeavour, the humour, the colours and sounds, and the drama. There was plenty of that this weekend. While the club was certainly disappointed not to end up with a team claiming a title, it should be proud of the way it hosted a national event. It was so good I would be happy to come back next year … but there had better be pulled pork!

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