When you’re old, and sit down to talk history with your grandchildren, you’ll be able to reminisce that 2019 was the first year that Major League Baseball came to the UK.
As if that wasn’t good enough, lots of Herts baseball members will be able to say they were there, and they were part of it.
One of our youth stars, Riley Manning, was right at the heart of things, acting as an on-field mascot. He has been good enough to put down in words some of the details of his experience, and we can share that with you here, along with some other Herts tales.
A regular season clash in the UK between MLB teams had been in the offing for several years. But many feared it would stay a pipe dream. Too many obstacles, they said — a huge round trip for teams who usually play pretty much every day; no proper baseball stadium for them to use.
But in May 2018 a formal announcement was made that the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees would be bringing their fabled rivalry to London. Tickets were snapped up in a few days of frantic online clicking by British baseball fans – including plenty from Herts.
When the London Series finally came around in the summer of this year, extra events had been added to make it a festival of baseball. Riley got to participate in the most surprising event – a coaching clinic laid on by the Yankees:
“My dad and I got invited down to Finsbury Park to a training session and have a BBQ which was an event run by the New York Yankees. We didn’t know until we turned up that the Yankee legends would be coaching the training session. This was an amazing event and I learnt a lot.
Alex Rodriguez – known to the world as A-Rod – is a true legend of baseball and he hit 696 homeruns and is 4th on the all-time list of homerun hitters in the history of MLB. He taught me to hit the ball as hard as I can every time.”
Leon Gutowski of the Herts Under 13s also joined Riley in getting up close and personal with greats such as Reggie Jackson, Mariano Rivera and Andy Pettitte at this event.
The London Mets had been instrumental in arranging what was an extraordinary experience for kids and parents alike.
In the week before the Red Sox-Yankees games, there was also a Play Ball event at the London Stadium where school kids of all ages were able to come along with their teachers and experience baseball for the first time.
Herts veteran Tim Elkins described how he was “among those lucky enough to be chosen to help out at this event”. Here’s what he had to say:
“Foolishly wearing my CrossFit t-shirt on day one, I was allocated the Agility Station involving ladders on the floor and inventing various exercises for people to run through, across, along, over, under etc the ladders. Much to the delight of kids, teachers and fellow coaches, I had to demo each exercise!!! Six groups, twice a day for 3 days, is a lot of hop scotch!”
The events at the Stadium helped build excitement and expectation of the big clash – while also spreading the word of the game to British school-children. Herts players and their families were fortunate enough to also get inside when the visiting teams had their workout day, and get a close-up glimpse of the stars in action.
When Saturday came, a capacity crowd turned out in baking hot weather (official game time temperature was over 90 degrees) to see history made.
All around the London Stadium you could find enthusiasm, wonder, and a lot of replica shirts. You could find giant hot dogs, and flagons of beer, and the mystical aura of baseball.
In the thick of it all was Riley Manning:
“The Yankees choose me to be a Mascot and I got selected to stand in front of Aaron Judge, who is my favourite player of all time! We had to arrive at the stadium at 9am for rehearsals. We got to go on the field and see ourselves on the big screen inside the stadium. We had to walk under the stadium and I got to see the batting cages the players use for warming up in and I got to sit in the dugouts of the Yankees and Red Sox.”
Riley got a high five from Judge as the players ran on to the field. We are proud to say that he represented the club superbly throughout the weekend.
Close by, you could find Marianna and Carlos Casal, who formed part of the grounds crew for the weekend. Carlos, who has shown off his skills for the Herts Falcons during the year, got a to take a little batting practice in the Stadium earlier as a bonus.
He said everyone had been professional and friendly – and there was some magic in the air:
“I was on the grounds everyday and at the side of the field during the games. The atmosphere was electrifying, and it was amazing to see such a turn out to both games, and such a good crowd. I can’t wait to see how next year’s games go.”
Also in the house was Jake Caress, a former Herts player now serving with the Royal Air Force. On both days, he took part in pre-game ceremonies joining other members of the armed forces to hold Union Jack and Stars and Stripes flags.
The game, as you probably know, was a crazy one. The New York Yankees’ Aaron Hicks hit the first ever MLB home run in Europe, and plenty more followed. The score was tied at 6-6 after the first. Neither starting pitcher made it out of the inning.
New York took a big lead, but as a few fans in the crowd sneaked out to catch their trains, the Red Sox rallied. They left them loaded in the seventh, ending hopes that the drama could turn from ridiculous to absurd.
The Yankees won. And young Riley was happy:
“The game started at 6pm and finished at around 11pm. This was a very long game and was only 3 minutes away from setting a record for the longest game between these 2 teams. Both clubs started in the 1880s and have played against each other thousands of times.
The final score was 17-13 to the Yankees which made me happy but made my dad sad as he is a Red Sox fan. The highlights from the game for me was seeing Aaron Judge hit a home run and Aroldis Chapman throwing a 101MPH!!! fastball. We drove home and got back around 1am. I was very tired but I still couldn’t believe I got to meet Aaron Judge.”
Sunday’s Game 2 kicked off with home run fireworks too, with Boston hitting three to take the lead. The game then actually settled into a more conventional MLB contest and the score was 4-2 after six innings.
Then the Yankees blew it open. They scored 9 in the seventh, sending 14 batters to the plate. It ended 12-8 to New York.
“The energy never let up”, said the Yankees manager Aaron Boone. “It felt like a huge event, these two games.”
Aaron, you don’t know the half of it. For Brits who had never seen an MLB game, it was a milestone in their lives. For British baseball fans who have felt neglected for years, it was a game-changer.
And for Riley Manning, it could have set him on a path to great things:
“When I grow up, I want to play for the Yankees because Yankees is my favourite team and I was inspired to train harder. I’m excited for Chicago Cubs against the St Louis Cardinals in the London games in 2020, as I like the Chicago Cubs. My favourite part of the whole experience was being a mascot for the New York Yankees and meeting Aaron Judge.”
Any doubt that this event would be a hit had been thoroughly dispelled.
The crowd for Saturday was the biggest for an MLB game since 2003, and Sunday was only a handful smaller. The sunshine – which can’t always be relied upon in England — shone brightly and ceaselessly. And fans, both old and new, were won over.
Let’s give a final word to Tim Elkins, for his impressions of the Play Ball sessions:
“The whole event was a huge success, with a number of schools already expressing an interest in next years event, even as as they left. It was great fun all round, the MLB event staff were great, and fellow coaches were great fun – I too am looking to return again as a coach next year!”
2020 should bring a second once-in-a-lifetime experience for British baseball fans. And Herts hopes to be at the heart of it all once again.