Record-chasing Azcuy to play under the manager who robbed him of a legitimate home run

Ever since the announcement of GB slugger Maikel Azcuy joining the Herts Falcons, the club has been buzzing with anticipation. Can he help the team get back in the title race? Which spot will he take in the batting order? Will the Grovehill Ballpark outfield dimensions suit him? These are just some of the questions ahead of the new season, but there is also a NBL record on the line. Azcuy currently has 33 career NBL home runs and in 2015 he could potentially overtake the all-time record-holder Simon Pole who is on 35.

We all remember the excitement of the home run race between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa as well as Barry Bonds breaking Hank Aaron’s record 733 MLB career home runs. Azcuy versus Pole is unlikely to get the same media coverage, but it will be followed with interest by fans of British baseball.

Little-known incident dating back to 2011 didn’t generate much media coverage at the time, but it has suddenly gained significance now that Maikel Azcuy has joined Herts and is so close to breaking the record. The Falcons were the visitors on a hot day in Croydon as they faced the Pirates in a key NBL doubleheader. Maikel Azcuy was playing third base for the Croydon Pirates. Lee Manning, was the catcher for the Falcons on the day and, as the Herts Falcons manager, Azcuy will be playing under Manning’s management in 2015. We spoke with both of them to help us reconstruct the incident.

What do you remember from that NBL game between the Croydon Pirates and Herts Falcons in 2011?

Lee Manning: I remember it like it was yesterday. Jose (Sosa) was on the mound for Croydon sitting us down in order. It was a tight ball game and Maikel was a hard out, as he always is. I think this play was the only time we got him out the whole day. I was catching and called for a low outside curve. It was a ball low and away. Maikel crushed the ball over the right field wall. The Pirates went crazy as the ball landed in the car park – a massive homer. As he was rounding the bases I nicely asked the umpire to watch him touch the bases and home. When he came home his teammates were jumping all over him and home plate, like he just hit the game-winning dinger in game seven of the World Series. We made the appeal and I think the umpire called him out on a rule about the on-deck batter touching or entering the batter’s box before the hitter crossed the plate. We went on to win the game by one run. I must say that Maikel was class. He sat down and let his manager do the talking. I apologised after. He didn’t seem to mind and we had a laugh about it.

Maikel Azcuy: What I remember most from that game is that I hit a home run and Lee appealed because I didn’t step on the home plate. It was a really good game. The moment I hit that home run it was something special for me because we could have won the game but we lost by one run at the end.

Most players would be angry when a perfectly legitimate home run is taken away from them, but you did not dispute the decision and were the calmest player in the ballpark. How did you manage to keep your composure?

Maikel Azcuy: To be honest, I was really disappointed because I couldn’t believe the umpire called me out and took the home run away from me, especially in a situation where we could have won the game. I remember that after the home run I sat on the bench. I saw Lee and my manager talk to the umpire and then my home run was cancelled. I felt that was a bit silly because I never heard of this happening before. I stayed calm because I knew I could not do anything about it.

Maikel is one of the most liked players in the NBL and he is a rare case where opponents really like him despite the fact that he is a formidable opponent. At the time of the incident did you feel bad having to take away a perfectly legitimate home run from a nice guy like Maikel?

Lee Manning: I was interested in winning the game and I couldn’t see if he touched the plate with 12+ players jumping on top of him. I think it ended the inning and when I sat down I felt awful. I apologised once I got to third base the following inning. I’m still surprised I didn’t get beamed during my next at bat. We laughed about it after the game.

When the 2015 season starts there will be a lot of media attention to see if you will set the new all-time home run record. Is this likely to play on your mind when you step up to bat or do you have a way of separating yourself from this?

Maikel Azcuy: When the 2015 season starts I think I will be fine because I have been playing this game for a long time. Of course I am very happy to be only three home runs away from breaking the NBL home run record. I’m the kind of person who never thinks about hitting a home run when I go up to bat, because hitting a home run is difficult to predict. I’m always trying to get a good pitch and hit the ball very hard, and I’m pretty sure it will be the same next season.

Grovehill Ballpark has some of the shortest home run distances in the NBL. Where do you usually hit your home runs, left field, left-centerfield, centerfield, right-centerfield or down the right field foul line?

Maikel Azcuy: I think most of my home runs at Grovehill Ballpark were to the right-centerfield.

Lee, we know you feel bad about taking away that home run. Is there something that you as Falcons manager can do to help Maikel reach the all-time NBL home run record quicker? Perhaps bringing in the outfield wall in left field?

Lee Manning: In our ballpark I’m sure Maikel can hit double digits. We’re working hard on strengthening the team and have Cris and Jose who could hit fourth in the batting order. We need runners on the bases so the pitcher has to pitch to Maikel.