The end of the British baseball season is always a melancholy moment, writes Rob Jones.
I wouldn’t say that it is “sad”, as such. You shouldn’t be sad when something finite ends — that is what gives it its quality. I’m not sad when Christmas ends — if it went on and on, it would not be special.
So I am not sad when the baseball year ends. But it is a melancholy moment. A pensive moment, a time for reflection.
On a positive note I should start by saying that my team, the Herts Raptors, achieved a .500 record in the Single-A league this year, which is the baseball baseline for “doing OK”. So we can tick that box.
We had a great bunch of guys, and I always enjoyed getting together to play. The 2018 manager, Matt Jackson, led us all with dedication and the right attitude.
Overall, the club had some real high points in the year. The Herts Falcons reached the NBL final for the first time in six years with some superb playoff wins.
The Under-11s reached the final of their age group at the Youth National Baseball Championships, the first Herts youth side to reach a final since 2013. And they did it with a stunning walkoff victory, which was an added bonus for the kids.
But for me, as for many people involved in British baseball in 2018, it was an odd season. Frustrating. Disappointing. Deflating.
First of all, I have to link all of this into my old man shtick – my body feels each season more keenly, and you always think to yourself “how many more years can I keep doing this?”
I grant you that I am probably being melodramatic. 46 is twice the age of some of our players, but I’m hardly ready for my slippers in the retirement home yet. We had guys come on board late in the season who are, in fact, older than I am.
However, I try to play as many games as I can each year, and at what point does that end? At what point do you become just a substitute, or occasional participant?
One of my fellow travellers in the Old Guys brigade, Paul Auchterlounie, hung up his playing gear at the end of 2018 to concentrate on umpiring. I wish him all the best – and he’ll be excellent – but that is kind of melancholy, too.
Paul was with the club before I arrived, and has always played with absolute passion to do his best. At times, in those early years, he could become extremely frustrated by his own flaws – and I fully understood that!
But he also approached baseball as a sport, something which should be fun. What’s more, I’ve seen him make some amazing plays in the outfield. He reached the AA playoffs as a Hawks catcher.
And when he joined the Raptors in recent years to act as a mentoring catcher to young pitchers, he in fact ended up as one of our most reliable and effective starters on the mound!
The club will miss him on the field but will, I’m sure, see him often in his new role.
The loss of a veteran makes it feel more real that, at some point, you have to move on. That nagging concern was exacerbated this year by the confusion surrounding the organisation of the game nationally.
If every moment on the diamond is increasingly precious, you don’t want to lose opportunities because of forfeits, or scheduling mistakes.
The set-up of the leagues in 2018 meant chances of post-season play for the Raptors were exceptionally slim. And during most of the summer, teams had little idea of what the results or standings were. The “race for the post-season” was a blindfolded race.
It is perhaps a fitting metaphor that attempts to stage the Single-A final have so far failed, and the teams which made it through the confusion have not had the chance to play. It’s nobody’s fault, as such, since the weather has intervened repeatedly. But I can’t help but think that a damp squib season has had an appropriate conclusion with a washout.
British baseball has a tremendous opportunity in 2019 to spread the word about the game and attract more players, particularly young players. MLB has finally followed American football’s NFL, and basketball’s NBA, in playing regular season games in London. The choice of the Red Sox and Yankees shows that this is a serious attempt to break the market.
We need to capitalise on this moment. To do that, we will all need to do better.
One incident from 2018 hopefully ties together my old man melancholy with a more positive note.
On the opening day of the season, one of our new winter recruits Liam Roberts – a promising speedster with a love of baseball, and lots to contribute to the club – played his first league game.
He led off with a walk. Then went to steal second base.
But a freak accident on the slide left him with a broken arm. He had surgery in the course of the year, and is thankfully recovering, but was advised not to try baseball again.
It brings home how lucky I have been to get to play this game for so many years. Every moment is an upside.
I’m here fretting to you all about how much longer I can steal bases, and make dazzling plays at shortstop, when I should perhaps be focussing only on those high points I have already experienced.
The off-season will give me a chance to mull all that over. Whilst oiling the glove, cleaning the cleats, and buying my London Series tickets.
And dreaming of great things. Because no matter what the body can or can’t do, it doesn’t stop me dreaming.
POSTSCRIPT: It is only fair to add that the delayed Single-A final has now taken place. It was hosted at a sun-drenched Grovehill Ballpark, and the Long Eaton Storm and the London Musketeers played out a tremendous game.
Storm won 16-14, but I am going to take a positive message from it for all clubs.
Let’s see this as a parting of those clouds which I complained about above. Let’s see this sunshine as a good omen of what’s to come in 2019.
I have written elsewhere on these pages about how the last act of the drama is the one which leaves the most powerful imprint. And this was definitely a good final act. Forward together.