Fastballs, hot dogs and underpants: Herts in Croydon 2013

One of the most famous sayings in sports goes something like this: Winning isn’t everything. It’s the only thing.

But there are times when it isn’t true — and the annual London Tournament is one of them. For me anyway. Perhaps not everyone comes with the same attitude. But I see this weekend as a chance to relax on a baseball diamond while still playing a competitive game. If I have to choose a pithy quote, I’d prefer Grantland Rice’s “it’s not that you won or lost, but how you played the game”.

For anyone who hasn’t been, the London Tournament in Croydon is a weekend bunfight of baseball, with teams competing from around England but also from further afield. Clubs have come over from Ireland, France, and the Netherlands.

Herts players
Cris Hiche (R) gives his first team talk of the weekend

Some are complete teams. Others are made up from random bits of clubs and from collections of players who make shifting rosters. The Herts offering this year was one team, made up of the very best from the NBL Falcons, down to the Sunday hackers like me from Single-A.

That is a great opportunity to play against and alongside some classy players. Xavi Gonzalez has been causing a stir in British baseball this year, so to see him up close is fun. Chilean international Cris Hiche was managing the squad, so it was good to watch him handle some of the rising young stars he has helped to develop at Grovehill.

I took first base for our first game of the day, against the MK Bucks. I really enjoy playing first, as you can be in on virtually every play. You coach players to always want the ball, and to always expect the ball — at first base, there is never any question about that. I’d gladly do it more often, though manages would probably want me to grow five inches.

It can be a little daunting to be taking the throws from cannon arms like Liam Green and Carlos Velazco-Caruz, but at least you know that the ball is definitely going to reach you! It’s not like Single-A here (I would still quite like it if Liam took something off his throws though!)

I safely caught a couple of routine ground-outs which the infield had snared. There was another which I caught, but then lost as I pulled my hand out from the runner’s path, before gathering it again. MK argued their guy was safe, the umpire gave him out. I honestly don’t know, but I did think that I had got him before the ball came out the glove.

Lee Manning
Falcons manager Lee Manning suits up. Form an orderly queue, ladies.

Hitting was a challenge against a strong pitcher. The downside of getting to play with great players is that you have to face some, too! My scoresheet shows that the Bucks starter struck out 8 in his four innings of work, so I should feel no shame in being one of them!

At least the second time up I managed to get a bat on it. I figured it was best to go the other way to help me deal with the high speed fastballs, but I lined out to second base. If I’d come up a third time, I’d have got him! Definitely.

The second game went slightly less well for me, though much the same for the team (a defeat this time by the Midland All Stars, one of those pick-up squads which seemed to have players from the Latin Boys, the Nottingham Rebels, and the Essex Redbacks). I never got to hit, and in the field was a party to three balls which were just too far out of reach. The one play I could have made — receiving a force-out at second — Lee threw instead to first and muffed it. But I won’t hold it against him…

Of course, as the first words of this article suggested, the London Tournament experience is not just about playing competitive baseball. It is about beer and hot dogs in the baking sun. About reading the Daily Telegraph sports section while relaxing on the bench.

It’s about endlessly ribbing Lee Manning, and fighting off unpleasant visions of him in his underpants. It’s about empathising with catcher Dave Westfallen as he took a foul ball directly to the crown jewels. When I say empathising, obviously I mean that we laughed cruelly, but we always had a good heart behind it.

It’s about catching up with former team-mates and old faces. Ex-Falcon Marty Cullen was helping run the show for the GB team, so he was busy lugging beer, hawking merchandise and shooting the breeze. Simon Langton, now with Hull, again lent Herts his soft hands and strong arm for the weekend.

I should also make honourable mention of my Herts Eagles team-mates, who did us proud with their performances on Saturday. Duncan Hoyle and Tom Kosak scored our first runs in both Saturday games, and hit well against higher league pitchers. Hopefully that will boost their confidence for the stretch run in Single-A.

Attention at the club now returns to the serious business of qualifying for playoffs, and hopefully securing a national title. This sun-soaked experience in south London — this small-time equivalent of the All Star break — could be the springboard for even better things.