This article by Rob Jones was first published on britishbaseball.org
With Croydon baseball club celebrating its thirtieth anniversary, the Croydon Pirates have won the London Tournament, beating the Liverpool Trojans 9-4 at Roundshaw Playing Fields.
Fifteen teams came from around Britain and Europe to spend two days slugging it out, and by 3.15 on Sunday the two who came out on top were Liverpool and Croydon. With the sun breaking through the clouds, they took to the newly-named Dave Ward Field for the final.
The strongest teams, cheek by jowl with some of the strangest. Europeans playing side by side with the British baseball contingent. And controversy nestling up alongside relaxed knockabout. It can only be the London Tournament.
This year’s event marked the thirtieth anniversary of the founding of the Croydon Pirates. At the time, it was an upstart in the borough, but it is now a veteran presence and its summer tournament has been a fixture for fifteen years. Mark Goater has been waiting all of those fifteen years for someone to help him set up the beer tent (they’ve not showed up yet) but he’s still full of enthusiasm. GM Dave Ward has done everything except maybe sell beer, and he has been justly rewarded with his name on Croydon’s main diamond.
The anniversary party was capped off by the Pirates’ victory in Sunday’s final. But for the club, the presence of alumni in that winning team made it all the sweeter. Darrin Ward, of the clan Ward, pitched a key qualifying game against Essex Arrows, as well as closing out the final. Catcher Craig Perry also made a return. And the Pirates II outfit which took part in the weekend was a reunion team of former Croydon players, many of whom had been retired for several years. They were back to recover former glories. One of them, Simon Price, enjoyed his reprise immensely. Taking on the Latin Boys, he hit what might be the longest single in baseball history, clouting an enormous drive into the campsite in left field, but taking it easy on the base paths and stopping at first. Price led a charmed life in that game, reaching base later on two errors – when the second baseman dropped his pop-up, Price audibly sighed that he would have to run for first, but the first baseman then dropped the throw and the un-retired Pirate was safe. Maybe the baseball Gods were smiling on him.
High spirits and family feeling were not confined to the Croydon club. The MK Bucks guiding presence, Ernie Ayala, was overseeing his own son EJ on the base paths against Herts, grooming another star of the future. The Bucks also staged the most dramatic rally of the weekend to beat Pirates II 10-7 and qualify for the main competition on Sunday. They all rolled gleefully on their backs, waggling hands and feet in the air in a celebration which only they can explain.
The Herts team were all smiles after they won their first game on the Sunday, and none of the smiles were bigger than Ken Pike’s. The long-suffering Raptors manager and pitcher, who has not yet recorded a win this season with his band of rookies, was exhilarated by the feeling of victory. “It’s amazing”, he said, “the whole team played out of their skins”. The next day his considered view was this: “My ankles are aching, my muscles are jelly, my shoulder is a dull throb. Add to that mild sunburn and a general lack of sleep. Ironically, though I feel amazing. Great weekend of baseball.”
You can’t please all of the people all of the time, of course. Team France, made up from different clubs in the Paris region, won all four of their games over the weekend but did not make the final. Coach Matthew Jackson was briefly fuming – “In a league with divisions, there will always be a team with a good record missing out. But in a tournament, shouldn’t that final be between the two best records? We won all our games, what more can you do?” In the end there were handshakes all round, and Jackson and his protégés headed for the beer tent. Essex Arrows were also disappointed to miss out despite being undefeated. They were undone by a 5-5 tie against the eventual winners, Pirates I, having looked like the team to beat on the Saturday.
But of course, grumbling is part of baseball and of life. Arrows’ use of players from the Southern Nationals and Mildenhall Bulldogs had attracted raised eyebrows during the weekend, too. But many teams were patched up from different bits of the same club, or members of other clubs. The Humber Pilots’ Simon Langton returned to play for Herts, where his soft hands had been the big stars for the Hawks last year. The Nationals’ Edwin Alcantara played most of the weekend for the Arrows, but also turned out for the Latin Boys when they were short, and came off the bench for the Croydon Pirates in their final triumph. It’s hard to criticise the spirit of guys who just want to play as much baseball as they can. And it’s part of the tournament’s appeal that players are thrown together in often random combinations just for the love of the game.
The Frank Brady Trophy winners, Zuidvogels, receiving their trophy
For the record, we should add that Zuidvogels of the Netherlands won the Frank Brady Trophy, the second-string competition which is played out on the Sunday. They racked up wins of 21-3 and 20-2 so were pretty clear victors. The team is a regular fixture at the London Tournament, and this year was pleased to bring a full complement of their own players instead of having to borrow from the Brits. They camped at the site, dined at the local restaurants (“They were the best ribs I have ever had… (pats belly)… And I’ve had a lot of ribs”) and breakfasted on donuts. They are part of an impressively extensive league set-up in the Netherlands, but still make the trip to Croydon every year just for the fun of it.
All of this is a tribute to what the Pirates do each year, and to what British baseball can muster despite its position as a minority sport. Small children were there supporting their fathers and learning the game; dogged veterans were there with their sandwiches, scoring the games meticulously, and telling fascinating tales of the past. Baseballs were flying in every direction, often from one game into the thick of another. And everyone felt a whole lot better just because they had been there and been a part of it.
Fifteen teams travelled to Croydon for the London Baseball Tournament, 9-10 July 2011
The Pirates had the best of the early exchanges. Despite hitting one batter and walking another, starting pitcher Jose Sosa got out of the first inning without giving up a run. Liverpool’s starter Rob Vondy responded in an efficient manner, getting groundouts from the first two Croydon hitters. But when he walked Darrin Ward, he was punished – the next hitter Maikel Azkuy thumped a home run over the fence in right centre, for a 2-0 lead.
Croydon manufactured another run in the second inning to increase their lead. Shortstop Connor Riffle led off with a single, and moved to second on a wild pitch. He then took third on a groundout, and took the opportunity to slide home while Gary Ward was being tagged out trying to steal second.
Liverpool struck back in the third, capitalising on Sosa’s occasional wildness. Ian Smith got aboard with a walk, and Dave Martin-Baez was hit by a pitch for the second time in the game – they were both driven in by a long double from the catcher, Kevin Butterfield-Ray. He was then driven in by Martin Godsall and the game was tied.
The Pirates edged back ahead immediately, chasing Rob Vondy in the process, but then the fourth inning was scoreless. The game was finely poised, waiting for its decisive moment.
The decisive fifth inning
Croydon’s Connor Riffle hits a clutch 2-RBI single in the fifth inning
It looked as if it might be the strikeout of Azkuy in the fifth inning. There were runners at first and second and one man out when the third baseman fouled of a series of pitches with mighty swings, as he tried to hit another bomb. In the end he was struck out by Godsall, who had come in as relief, and it looked as if Liverpool might have defused the threat. But then Jose Sosa hit a single to load the bases and Riffle stepped up to the plate and, with two outs, smashed the ball through the infield to score two runners.
It was now 6-3 to the Pirates and Liverpool’s offense was being shut down. Darrin Ward replaced Sosa on the mound for the sixth inning, and was never going to be wild or tense. The former Pirate, now pitching with Herts, had returned to support the Ward family on a big weekend, and he retired the side in the sixth.
The Pirates padded their lead with the help of the first Liverpool errors of the game. Edwin Alcantara – a Southern Nationals player who had been suiting up for the Essex Arrows throughout the weekend – was now in the Pirates’ camp and with two outs he managed to get aboard. Missed pickoff throws left him at third, and he was able to score. When Darrin Ward clouted a towering fly ball to left field it looked sure to end the inning, but in a mix-up it fell between two fielders and the damage was done. Trojans were 9-3 down and needing a miracle.
They had a real good try at making one in the top of the seventh. Ian Smith led off with a walk, and stole second. He took third on a groundout, then was brought home by a sacrifice fly from second baseman Paul Smith. But there were now two out. Butterfield-Ray drew a walk, and Rob Vondy got his second hit of the game, and there was just a sniff that it could all go wrong for Croydon. But Godsall’s sharply hit grounder to short was picked up at the second attempt, just in time to get the force at third and end the ballgame.
Honouring Dave Ward
The Pirates took the trophy, dedicating the win to the club’s stalwart Dave Ward. The night before, Ward’s team made a surprise announcement at a special presentation for their skipper, when they name the first diamond at Croydon “Dave Ward Field”.
The weekend had seen many former players return to pull on a Pirates uniform and mark the 30th anniversary, and everyone at the club was delighted by their victory. Although disappointed by defeat, Liverpool Trojans had been one of the most consistent teams of the tournament, and impressed everyone with their play and their attitude. This had been the final which the weekend had deserved, and the winner which fate had decided.
The Croydon Pirates celebrate their thirtieth anniversary victory