Category: Going Through the Change

“Every moment is precious…”

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.

Rob at bat against Tonbridge (pic: Liam McAvoy)

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.

Stunning walkoff

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!

Paul Auchterlounie looking on the bright side of life

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.

Waiting for the dust to settle… (pic: Liam McAvoy)

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.





Catching heat: “who’s the sweaty guy in the mask?”

Playing catcher on a hot day is perhaps the greatest weight loss programme yet to be discovered, writes Rob Jones.

Well, it’s yet to be featured by the Sunday supplements as a craze to go alongside eating pureed kale while sniffing bath salts. It’s yet to be promoted as a miracle by the Daily Mail, then debunked a week later.

Rare archive of Rob Jones catching, in 2014

But of course, everyone in the baseball community knows that the hottest place to be when the sun is glaring down is in the mask and armour of the catcher. Perhaps some of my larger-framed colleagues — as catchers are often on the solid side — opted for the position precisely because of its healthy side-effects.

As for me? Since I am made from a handful of sticks tied together, I don’t really get that benefit. But I found my five innings of work at Guildford Millers on Sunday quite hot enough, thanks. My jersey has the tide marks to prove it.

I perversely like the position, even if my 45 year old legs don’t. It keeps you involved on every single pitch of the game. You can’t get much better than that when you show up for one of the handful of baseball games you get to play each summer.

And as a former cricketer and football goalkeeper, I understand both the need for good blocking, and the technique for it.  After seeing one too many volunteers who liked the macho aspects of catching but then hopped up and blocked everything with their shin pads, I started volunteering.

I’d never been an obvious catcher (see previous comparison involving sticks). And I have never had a cannon for an arm. But to be honest, most lower level catchers don’t either. So I figured my good elements outweighed my bad!

If you want to try out as a catcher, Guildford is a good place. Their temporary backstop is pretty close to the plate, and is springy enough that wild pitches and pass balls bounce back to you. That really helps take off the pressure which you get elsewhere – such as Grovehill — where a runner can score from third quite handily on every errant play as the ball goes to the fence.

Naturally, Paul and I were a pretty flawless combination on Sunday, so that issue never came up! (ahem) One runner did have a go at it when a ball in the dirt caromed away, but I had time to fetch it back and tag him out.

Conner Brown of Herts and GB, an actual expert catcher

Catching is one of the jobs on the diamond which is quite different between Single-A and the top levels, whereas many others are actually quite comparable.

The pitcher for example — if he’s sharp, he’s dominant. Same for MLB and A-league. The shortstop. A close play on a grounder is close at both levels, it’s just that everyone at A-league will have moved a bit slower!

Whereas the Single-A catcher, lacking that cannon arm, can do little to control the running game. That’s a vital job for the Major League guys, but down in our basement level everyone knows that the runner is going to steal and you probably can’t stop him.

Similarly, top guys are calling the pitch sequences artfully. Yes, we do that in Single-A, but unless the pitcher has a full repertoire of reliable pitches that’s far less important. You just want it in the strike zone!

Similarly, the level of scouting reports and expertise on each batter is far less. You can spot well enough who are the really big hitters, but any batter can surprise you at this level.

Honestly, I do think we did a decent job as a battery at Guildford. The Raptors pitchers this year and in recent memory are more accurate than we have sometimes had in the past. So we are able to take our thinking to the next level.

Harvey Blenkarne in action

I should of course add that I caught only five innings, with one of our new recruits Harvey taking over for the final three innings. Younger, stronger, better legs!

It was his first appearance as a catcher, though he has clearly been studying. Harvey did a really solid job, including calling pitches, and has good fundamentals to develop his blocking.

He had to learn the hard way on both conceding an interference call, and on giving up a run with an un unnecessary throw when there were runners on first and third. But the hard way is the best way to learn, and when you’re being told a thousand things, those ones will sink in the quickest.

Physically, I feel that I survived this one fairly well. The legs do ache, but not in the way they sometimes have on a Monday when I can barely move.

On Monday, my left thumb felt bruised. On Tuesday, it is tingly and numb. Although I fared much better than usual by borrowing Paul’s broken-in catching mitt, I still banged my thumb three times when taking a pitch.

Actually, the catching fraternity out there might be able to help me with this.

I have a terrible habit of receiving the ball and banging my thumb in a direction it doesn’t want to go. It really bloody hurts, and takes days to clear.

Are there any great tips on how to avoid this? Tricks? Things to “visualise”? If any of you say, “visualise yourself being a less bad catcher”, I might sulk.

I might not. I might be so overwhelmed with relief that we finally got to play baseball after weeks of interruptions, that I won’t care.

It’s been disappointing to have two games forfeited to us, as wins mean little to us if we don’t get the chance to play to earn them! The game at Guildford was the closest of the three we have managed in 2018. Here’s hoping for another close one next time, with us coming out on top. And my thumb feeling much healthier.

Stop Coming Up Short

I have been playing mostly shortstop for some years now, writes Rob Jones. A little bit of third when we needed it, second base, and even first – as well as a chunk of catching, which I enjoy but my legs don’t so much.

But what you find as a Single-A shortstop is that, although it is generally seen as the central role in the infield, you can go entire games with barely a chance coming your way.

I don’t really know why. Why is it that, at the lower level of the game, the truisms go out of the window?  Shouldn’t it all be the same, but maybe a bit slower, a bit less efficient?  Maybe the combination of amateurishness on the part of the pitcher and the batter — and the fielder — somehow combine to rewrite the rule book.

Herts fielders pay attention to a runner

On Sunday, however, I started at shortstop in our opening league game of the season and had three chances come my way in the top of the first inning.

Sadly for me (and for the pitcher) only one of them led to an out. And I want to look briefly at those plays to think about what happened.

The Raptors as a whole perhaps showed some of the rust which came from 2018’s washout (and occasionally white-out) pre-season. We had played only one game, nearly a month ago. We were not as slick and as confident as we can be.

Lucky old me, I got to exemplify all of this when one of the first London batters hit a towering pop-up.

It should have been all mine, I will make that clear before I start. But instead, the ball ended up on the floor, the runner was safe and I had a bruised wrist and chest to show for it.

They say one of the truisms about how to field a fly ball well (or in this case a pop-up – same difference, shorter distance) is about taking a great route to the ball. In other words, seeing and feeling immediately where it is going, how hard, how fast, and getting to the best spot to catch it.

Well, on this pop-up my brain tried to calculate that great route – and all the gears slipped into neutral. At first I thought it was going deeper than it really was, perhaps fooled by its height.

So I didn’t move as sharply as I should’ve done to get back and beyond the ball. Looking up at it, I also started to lose my bearings a bit. Laser focus was lacking.

James Emblow at bat on Sunday

The slow feet meant that when the ball ultimately came down, around the edge of the dirt and the grass, it was dropping over my shoulder and through my breadbasket. My attempts to make the Willie Mays catch ended in a tumble, and the bruises mentioned earlier. And, metaphorically, egg on my face.

It wasn’t long before another chance came my way. This was an infield dribbler, sneaking past the pitcher. I fielded it on the run, heading towards first base.

But when I threw it a combination of rushing, whilst also easing off the throw as I came close to first, meant that the ball died apologetically at Beppe’s feet. He did his best to scoop it but couldn’t. He should never have needed to.

For regular readers and viewers, I can tell you this was very like the incident at home plate in that one pre-season game. You’re not really supposed to make the same mistake twice, I think that’s accepted as “a bad thing”. But maybe making the same mistake once a month isn’t soooo bad??

The final chance followed swiftly. This was an actual, normal, proper shortstop play. A rarity! A hard-hit ground ball right at me. Got that one, made the toss to second for the force-out and finally ended the inning.

On the plus side, I have to say that I fielded both of the ground balls cleanly. I can’t tell you how, so I am taking that as a good sign that it was simply instinctive.

Maybe those training sessions throwing the ball against the wall in the park were good for something! But what it all showed was that there is no replacement for live, game action. It’s about putting together your brain, your feet, and your hands.

The young people explain “music” to team-mates

For the Raptors, Opening Day was a disappointing and slightly flat experience, as we quickly fell behind and didn’t show enough skills to get back into it.

The first-inning injury to Liam, our centre fielder, obviously took the wind out of everybody’s sails. It’s never good to see people get hurt. Fortunately he seems to be on the mend, and we wish him a speedy and smooth recovery. But his arm injury looked nasty and I don’t underestimate that.

The team did put in a bit of a rally late in the game, stringing together some hits and loading the bases as we tried to stave off a mercy rule defeat. There was some good fielding, too – a great outfield catch by Oliver, a great relay by Jamie for Ken to nail a runner at the plate. So there are positives.

Days after the game, I ache even more than usual. Judging from he exact nature of my bruise, I wonder now if the ball actually hit me as I missed that pop-up. Without video replay, we’l never know. And I feel loath to complain about my pains, given how Liam must be feeling.

But no matter what happened, we are all happy to get back to playing baseball.

For any new readers worried about my apparent tendency towards self-flagellation online, I offer my annual reassurance. These little articles are all about sharing the frustrations of the small-time British ball-player – I’m happy enough to be the one to do it out loud.

And the upside always outweighs the down. It just needs fewer words to express it: “we played baseball.”

Down and dirty: Herts Spring League 2018

My first at-bat of 2018 ended with a flourish, writes Rob Jones. No, not a majestic home run, but an impressive flailing swing at a curve ball which was so far off the plate on the outside it was probably in a different post code.

It was a Herts Spring League game against the London Musketeers, I was batting fifth on a boggy field. We had got a runner on, and I calmly took a few pitches. But after six fastballs or so, the crucial payoff fooled me completely.

A Musketeer bamboozling your correspondent

In my defence, it was probably the first time I had swung at any sort of moving ball since last October, as none of the indoor training sessions I attended included any batting. And the skies were a bit grey. And Jupiter was moving into Orion. Or something.

But the point of this is not to make excuses — it’s to say that it didn’t really matter.

This is a paean to the joys of the Spring League, when the welcome opportunity to play baseball after a winter of hibernation overrides every doubt about how well you actually play it.

The first weekend of the HSL fell victim to unseasonably arctic weather. Only one game survived — and that was really just because the teams had already made the journey to Grovehill and refused to be defeated.  Conditions were entirely unsuitable.

Chilly Hawks after their snow-ball game

The second weekend still had some of the nastiest feel underfoot that I have ever experienced at our Spring League. The dugouts were soggy, the on-deck area slippy. Being a good citizen, and retrieving a pass ball, was quite a challenge.

For the stats geeks among you, I can reassure you that my performance at the plate improved some. I worked a walk the second time up, and what I will score as an infield hit the third time. Some scorers might think it was a throwing error by third base. But what do they know.

It was an adventure in the field, at shortstop, with the famous red cleats clogged with dirt. Fortunately it, too, followed a broad upward trajectory towards acceptability.

Of my first few plays, one was a muffed attempt to get a force at home on a dribbling ground ball. I was too late, and the throw was too low.

I was swiftly reminded that in such situations the throw, when in doubt, should always go to first. My reasoning was that I was rushing towards home plate to go and get the ball, so it seemed more sensible to throw in the direction I was heading. Who knows if I was right, but I certainly wasn’t successful.

The next chance I had was a straightforward infield pop-up, close to the pitchers’ mound. I called it, moved in. But somehow missed it entirely. I’m still not sure how. I only really knew I had dropped it by the aghast look on the face of Paul, the pitcher.

A rare photo of Rob

Fortunately I redeemed myself, taking a later pop-up despite a collision with the second baseman. We had both called for it, simultaneously, and so both ploughed on to try to catch it. Perhaps my earlier faux pas, and my determination to assert my shortstop’s authority, made me ignore a looming impact.

It ended well. I caught it, and nobody was hurt.

Except Paul. He was no longer pitching, Ken was. So Paul wanted to know quite why I couldn’t handle an easy catch for him, but could survive a clattering to help Ken. Oops!

The Raptors lost the game in the end, but there was lots of good pitching and lots of good plays.

We actually pulled off a hidden ball trick to tag a runner on second. I’m always bit conflicted about the hidden ball, to be honest. It feels like a low blow, a bit bush league.

And yet, if we are going to pay any attention at all to base discipline, then the hidden ball is surely just an extension of that. All players learning the game should understand when they are free to roam on the bases, and when they they have to get back. They should be looking out for pickoffs. So they should also look out for someone smuggling the ball in their glove.

Torrential rain put paid to the Raptors game scheduled for the Saturday of the third week. There was still a small boating lake on one diamond on the Sunday. Luckily, and with some solid work by the grounds crew, games did go ahead for lots of teams.

London and Birmingham in the mud

It’s always heartening to see teams coming from far and wide to brave what are often cold conditions to play Spring games at Herts. The weather really outdid itself this year. And so perhaps it is fair to say that all those travelling teams outdid themselves too.

I was obviously disappointed not to get more at-bats, and more ground balls. But the Spring League washes away all disappointments with positivity.

It may have had the muddy conditions of trench warfare sometimes, but the action has begun. We can only go up from here.

Why cleats beat other treats

This blog is rarely preoccupied with shoes, or hats. Normally you would have to look at Vogue if you wanted that. But 2017 was not like other baseball years for your correspondent, writes Rob Jones.

Shoes were central to this year’s experience. Or, more specifically, cleats. Red cleats.

Way back when I started playing baseball, I stumbled across a pair of red Converse cleats going cheap from a guy who ran a baseball shop out of an industrial lot in north London. I bought them because I had credit with him, and just because they were there. But they became an emotional part of my game.

When my young children first came to see me play, they could identify Daddy from all these guys on the field by the fact he had red shoes on. One of our team-mates with a talent for photography immortalised the red cleats one year with a close-up picture.

They became me, and I became them.

In early 2017, they finally gave up the ghost. I don’t actually play that often, and would sometimes use different shoes on hard ground (the pair in question have metal cleats). So they had lasted years. But, in the end, they had too many holes and cracks to make them viable.

And so they were retired. And when I travelled to the United States this Spring, for the first time in about 8 years, my mission was to find new red, metal cleats. That was my request to each of the sports stores we visited.

And shiny Nike “Mike Trout” shoes were the result. I joke to my children that Mike Trout wears “Rob Jones” shoes, but I don’t think they are convinced.

Now, I accept this is all frippery. I mean, really, shoes?? But in the sporting world, good luck and superstitions can come in all shapes and sizes (a size 8, in this case). And a bit of bling never hurts.

The old and new, side by side

Those old cleats had won the famous 2016 playoff game in Tonbridge. They helped me to a couple of batting titles (no, I didn’t hit the ball with my feet, but you know what I mean). I could read into all of this a message about breaking down, and wearing out. But I am choosing to find a message of longevity, and of renewal.

The cleats won their last game, in the Herts Spring League.

And the new guys won theirs too, at home to the Bracknell Inferno.

This was the start of the serious business of baseball. It was a season with lots of promise for the Herts Raptors, after winning their first ever playoff game in 2016. Lots of the guys who contributed that that run were still on board — though we lost some to higher divisions — and fresh new talent arrived, too.

My season started with an early 1.000 batting average. The last time that happened there were comparisons to the great Ty Cobb, and I became Rob Cobb. But fortunately that name didn’t last. The batting was a bit up and down this year, but it evened out just over .500 which was acceptable.

In the Kent Mariners game, I debunked my own theory that my bat gets slower and weaker as the game goes on with my biggest hit in a last-inning attempt at a rally. Not actually a hit, in scoring terms, as it was caught in the outfield. But enough to give me late-game optimism!

A man and his shoes playing Bracknell

The cleats and I played almost all of the season at shortstop, barring a few moments as catcher. Again, it started pretty well, building to the home game against the London Musketeers as the defensive pinnacle of my year. At that point, I thought the magic shoes might finally take me to an infield gold glove.

But as the year wore on, maybe I slowed down a smidgen (see previous batting theories). But I did get to turn a double play at Guildford, and hopefully my work helped to keep the team in games on other occasions.

The Raptors ended with a 7-7 record, an excellent recovery from a hole we got into in the middle of the season. We just missed the playoffs but everyone is keen to come back for more next year and get into post-season action again. The shoes are definitely keen for more.

The other sartorial element of 2017 to be mentioned  is hats. I also acquired a new Herts cap this year, because I had lost mine on a ride at Disney World in Florida. There are worse — or more boring – places to lose a hat. It ruined my plans to represent the club when we went to a Minor League baseball game on the same holiday, but it does mean that somewhere deep in Disney World, a mysterious black cap with a red H is repping Herts for an American audience.

Luckily, my son was able to represent Herts at the ball game with his hat. He had only lost his Red Sox cap!

Even while visiting one of the world’s leading entertainment attractions, I couldn’t help but take note of all the baseball caps I saw. And I ended up, essentially, counting them.

Most common were Cubs and Red Sox. But right up there with them were the Detroit Tigers. Which felt strange, as you don’t see a whole lot of Detroit hats in the UK. I don’t know what that tells us — are the Tigers way bigger in the US? Or do people from Detroit go on vacation in Florida?

San Francisco Giants fans seemed to prefer Animal Kingdom, as I saw more there than anywhere else. I was slightly surprised by the number of Blue Jays hats.

And according to my deeply unscientific poll, the Seattle Mariners are the least popular club in America, as I didn’t see a single one of their hats. Sorry, M’s. Following close behind, with maybe one or two hats spotted during the fortnight, were the Colorado Rockies, the Oakland A’s, the San Diego Padres and the Houston Astros.

Clearly, the fact that lots of these teams are on the west coast might simply mean that their fans go to Disneyland in California, instead of travelling thousands of miles to Florida! And if the Houston Astros win the World Series, they probably won’t care that I have just suggested they’re among the least popular teams in the US. If they do win, they might even celebrate by buying some new shoes….


Watch and Learn, Herts baseball

When my father was a young man, he could sometimes listen to crackly radio commentary of Major League baseball games which would leak from the stations broadcasting on US air bases in Cambridgeshire, writes Rob Jones.

When I was a student, I could watch one televised game each week in the middle of the night on Channel Five.

Now, professional US baseball is far easier to come by. Five’s famous coverage may have gone, but you can find ESPN on your satellite TV easily enough. And I am one of many people who subscribe online to the truly excellent service of MLB.TV.

While it’s not easy to get to watch games in the States, it’s easier and cheaper than it was in my father’s day! Many more Herts players are getting the chance to watch the real deal.

Herts’ Josh Jones at an LA Dodgers game

It’s all massively entertaining. But what can we as lowly British amateurs actually learn from watching these games? Even while sitting in the bleachers or in our armchairs, how can we improve?

The head coach of the GB national baseball team, Liam Carroll, thinks there is a lot that every baseball player can pick up:

“Find as many things you can copy to make you better, your team better!”

And that goes for people filling all sorts of different roles in British baseball: “Look how the dugout is set up at the field; learn how the base coaches position themselves; see what players high five each other for besides wins, home runs and web gems.”

Bruce Bochy photobombs James Dullea

Several Herts players took the chance during the past season to visit professional games and stadiums in the United States, and watch the game played at high levels.

Youth pitcher James Dullea took in not only a Giants-Nationals game — which saw Madison Bumgarner pitch a 2-hit complete game in a 1-0 loss — but also a Charleston Riverdogs Minor League game.

His father Bruce, a former Falcons manager, said it had been a great trip but also educational for young James.

“He noticed that even though some of the minor league guys threw harder than Bumgarner,” said Bruce, “no one could pitch like him.”

Josh Jones of the Under 13s took his Herts cap proudly to an LA Dodgers game; club veteran Paul Auchterlounie and his family took in the Trop in Tampa Bay.

Here’s one of Liam Carroll’s tips to follow when you are at a game:

“Watch the player who plays your position. Follow his every move. Then do the same for the other team’s guy.

What’s the same? What’s different? Who did you prefer to watch? Was there anything you loved? Anything you hated?  What do you need to change to be more like them?”


The Auchterlounies in Florida

And there are extra elements you appreciate when you are there, and things are not hidden from you by commercial breaks: “Watch them play catch at every opportunity – between innings, after outs, before the game – and appreciate how well they take care of the baseball.”

But for those confined to these shores, watching on TV and online works, too.

MLB will give you a highlight reel every day on the website, and they will often be breathtaking. Home runs that seem to fly on forever. Fiery pitching which makes you wince. Outfielders getting airborne to make diving grabs.

But on the Herts Twitter feed during the playoffs, we tried to pick out some different things. Instead of plays that you watch and think “How does he do that??”, we wanted plays that would make you think “Hey, I could do that!!”

For example, there were some smart aggressive base-running plays in Toronto’s two series, against Texas and against Cleveland. Any baseball player can choose to run the base paths intelligently.

We loved the Cubs’ Javier Baez starting a double-play against the Dodgers by letting a catchable ball drop and letting LA run themselves into trouble. “Next level instincts” said the commentator — but it simply proved that the game isn’t just about stronger or faster, but about playing smarter.

One of our favourite of these plays was actually from 2015, so New York Mets fans might want to look away now.  Eric Hosmer tying it up for the Kansas City Royals with that mad dash home.


But was it really so “mad”?

The Royals were behind in the game, but were ahead in the Series. The pressure was all on the Mets to hang on to a one-run lead and get the win.

So while Hosmer might’ve been a goat had he been thrown out, he had everything to gain, and New York had everything to lose. So he had calculated risk and reward.

Kansas knew that David Wright was not gunning throws to first, but was throwing softly, because of his broken down body. That gave Hosmer more time. The fact that Wright had fielded a ball which was headed for Wilmer Flores meant there was nobody there to hold Hosmer on.

All of this stuff, situational stuff, stuff that you acquire by having your head in the game, helped Kansas win a World Series. And it is stuff that you can genuinely emulate on a British baseball field, even if you can’t hit a 95mph heater.

Let’s give a last word to GB Baseball Head Coach Liam Carroll:

“Watch the players’ routines; watch their positioning. Watch the communication, both verbal and non-verbal. Remember things that can make your club better, and British baseball better!”

So now is your chance to get ready for the 2017 season with some serious sitting down and watching! Sign up for MLB.TV, or a satellite deal if you’d prefer. Revisit all the clips on the MLB website if you want to hang on to your cash.

And if you want to splash a little extra cash, book your trip to the States. If you’ve already got that booked, then look to see if you can add a bit of baseball to it.

MLB games are pretty easy to get into — each team plays 162 a year, after all! And don’t forget the Minor Leagues, which offer you another chance to get close to the action.

And then be ready to put it all into action next month, when Herts pre-season training begins.


The best of times, the worst of times

A walk-off victory feels sweet no matter how badly you might have played in the game, writes Rob Jones. A walk-off defeat feels galling, no matter how well you might have played to take the game to the wire. The last moment is the one that affects you the most, and lives with you the longest.

So it’s a curious feeling when your final two actions were poles apart, and yet as close together as the bang-bang of a play on the bases.

Baseball legend Charlie Brown

It was the bottom of the ninth inning against the Old Timers in Enfield on Sunday. The Herts Raptors had misfired a bit to start off, and so were behind all the way. But a late rally had meant we started the ninth just 3 runs behind. Two had already scored, the tying run was at third base.

Two men were out. So it was now or never as I stepped up to bat. After driving in two runs in the first inning I had popped up, lined out, grounded out to the pitcher and — according to my own scoresheet – hit an infield single off the handle of the bat.


This time, I took a strike, I took a ball. And then I hit one sweetly through the infield to tie up the game. Job done. Not quite hero time, maybe, but definitely on the high end of the high scale.

I stole second easily enough after the lefty pitcher tried a couple of throw-overs. And once on second, my thoughts turned immediately to taking third.

Once up on a time, I never stole third. My schooling from watching Major League teams was that you didn’t do it. There is no real need, and it is risky.

But practical experience in British single-A baseball made me much more inclined to do it. A good jump should see you safe, and most pitchers don’t and can’t pick off well to second.

Being on third would have given me the chance to score on a close play at first from the next batter, or would allow me to score on a pass ball.


So I looked, and the pitcher looked at me. Then he settled in to make his next pitch. I was thinking of taking a walking lead and going — rather than setting up as an obvious steal. But as I took that casual extra step the pitcher turned, and immediately I was screwed.

My weight was going the wrong way, but I hadn’t strayed far enough to make it worth dashing for third. I tried to get back, but felt the tag applied. From hero to goat in seconds.

I can’t remember when I was last picked off on second base. To be honest, I’m not sure I have ever been picked off from second base. Yes, picked off at first a couple of times. That’s sort of inevitable if you play the game for long enough. But never at second.

However, having a career not-getting-picked-off-at-second-base average of 0.001 doesn’t make you feel any better about it when it happens. Getting hit by a bus doesn’t hurt any the less because you haven’t been hit by a bus before. As I said at the start, it’s the most recent moment which most colours your opinion.

A rare glimpse of your correspondent in action – usually he takes the pictures too.

Even though July is just a few days old, I am already nearing the tail end of my season. Four games gone, two to go.

We have games against London and Essex looming, then a rematch with the Old Timers which I can’t make, and a game against Haverhill which they have already forfeited. By my own reasoning, I am approaching the defining and lasting moment! The one to remember all winter!

It’s been pretty good fun so far, I have to say. Three wins and one defeat in my games . A refreshing change from so many previous years! The batting average is about .400, the on base percentage a smidgen higher.

Playing one consistent position at shortstop has been a highlight. I’ve had one memorable fielding play in each game, and have felt mostly happy with how I handled the ball. It is recorded elsewhere on this website that I had some frustration at Haverhill, but even that ended with three put-outs.

The other highlight of the year has been the spirit in the team. A winning record certainly helps, but there has been a lot of enthusiasm and a lot of smiles.

If we can keep playing at our best we could head into post-season playoffs. Which would add a whole new opportunity to create a final moment to remember.

NB. we do not own any rights to Charlie Brown. They reside with Charles M. Schulz, and Peanuts Worldwide. We are merely fans. Thank you.

Back in the game

There was frost on the grass when I got up for the Raptors season opener on Sunday. Not usually a good sign, writes Rob Jones. But the sun was shining by the end of the day — in more ways than one.

Scheduling had meant this day was a long time coming. The first of May before we had a league game. I was not at all happy about that when I found out — but since I would sooner eat my own socks than attempt to please all the people by drawing up a schedule, I can’t really complain!

The interminable off-season and the elongated pre-season had seen very little baseball activity for me. Sometimes my work pattern can be kind to me, sometimes not. This year it was not.

I had been to a couple of sessions at Grovehill which amounted to little more than freezing cold pick-up games. Barely even training sessions. I say that not to denigrate the efforts of the organisers, because these were over and above the formal training sessions. It’s just that these were the only ones I made it to.

Overall I had actually been happy with the way I fielded the ball during these sessions. After more than a decade playing baseball, maybe it was finally becoming second nature to pick up the ball cleanly. Now at last I might be on a par with some 10-year old American kids.

Just some of them, mind you. Most will be waaaay better than me.

Anyway, I felt that side of things was going well. Throwing the ball was more of a challenge. Maybe too much over-thinking, too much caution fearing that I hadn’t warmed up thoroughly. I’ve been trying hard to run a couple of times a week and keep fit, but have had very few visits to the park where I throw the ball against a wall.

I had at least been watching some MLB spring training. It’s a wonderful thing in the depth of a British winter to see the lush green ballparks in Florida and Arizona.

And oddly, one of the most satisfying things is watching stars of today and the future boot the ball around like they are amateurs! In the random selection of games I saw I found muffed double plays, misplayed grounders and even dropped fly balls.

It’s not schadenfreude. As such. Not quite. But while we are all nagged by our inadequacies, it is good to see that the world’s top professionals don’t always get it right.

It was clear that there was also some rust in the Herts Raptors as the opening game got underway at Finsbury Park. There were some half-hearted swings, some late decisions with the bat which suggested we had not faced much live pitching.

There were let-downs on the base-paths too. When I blooped a single over first base, the runner on third did not take off as you would expect. And with us then having first and third, I promptly missed the obvious chance to steal and help the inning develop.

I stole on the next pitch, which was fouled back; then the next one, which was popped up and neary turned into a double play. Then I had no more legs for stealing! In a tight game like this one, we could have done with the extra couple of runs that could’ve been gained by ironing out these mistakes.

Our esteemed president, Aspi, had some adventures on the base-paths too, but that was probably my fault. He got on, and looked over for a signal. I gave a series, but had not intended to send him due to his still recuperating knee.

When he then surprisingly set off, he was nearly doubled off because of a pop-up! He scrambled back successfully, and I then changed our signals to the mould-breaking shout of “Don’t steal! No steal!” Not sure if the opposition cracked that code….

As you can find out elsewhere on this website, the game actually ended as a great success. Those were the sunny uplands we Raptors reached by Sunday lunchtime. A tight, MLB-style game ended 7-3 thanks to great pitching from Matt and good defense behind him, especially from Mikey at first base.

I did my little bit from shortsop, getting a runner out on a routine grounder, and driving in two runs with a 2-4 performance at the plate. 

But the rust prompted me to strike out on high pitches, and to misjudge an infield dying quail. So I shall get out my polish, and head on into next week’s game looking to take another step forward.

A last goodbye…

We all love the game of baseball, writes Rob Jones. But like most sports, perhaps its greatest value is to bring us to like-minded individuals who also love the game of baseball. And then, by sharing it with them, our experience is enriched ten-fold.

That is where we come to Kal Dimitrov. However much fun I have had playing baseball over the past 12 years, it was always made better by having Kal there.

Kal in action at the Hunlock Series, 2009

Until the moment when we suddenly lost him on Sunday July 5th, he had been his ebullient self, encouraging, joking, cajoling, and always giving his all for his team-mates. That is how we must remember him, although the shock of his passing will stay with us all for a very long time. For his family, it will never go away.

I joined Herts baseball club in 2003, after following the game for a couple of years and thinking that even a skinny dude like me could give this a go. Kal Dimitrov and his brother Aspi were already there. It seemed to me that they were veterans at the heart of the club, but in fact they had arrived only the year before. Perhaps that shows the impact his presence had.

Kal was welcoming and friendly. It was one of his gifts that he would treat you in exactly the same way if he had just met you, or if you were a life-long friend. There was no reserve; you never felt there was a hierarchy, an inner circle you had to break into.

His openness was a quality of great benefit for the youth players, who immediately took to him. And for new adult recruits. In fact, I can’t think of anyone who didn’t immediately take to Kal.

He encouraged me in my baseball endeavours, as he did so many others. He would always support you on a bad day, and reward you on a good one.

Kal himself tended not to play at the very highest level of the club. And he might give you the impression that, well, he was just a chancer, a journeyman. Yes, maybe he might admit that he had a few baseball chops, but he’d insist that really he was just out there busking it.

In fact, he played one of the toughest positions, as catcher, and did it consistently well. I have tried it myself a bit this season, and he was one of the players I had learned from.

And he could instantly and correctly tell when you were swinging too early, or failing to snap your wrist on the throw, or fielding too shallow to give yourself time. Or that you had overrun a fly ball, a slightly random memory I know I once related in this column.

Even amateur baseball players can be pretty precious about themselves. But when he gave you these tips, you never prickled at criticism. Instead, you knew you were being helped.  The notion of anybody being offended or irritated by Kal’s advice seems absurd to the point of being laughable.

I have played with the Raptors or Eagles at the Single-A level for some time now, happy to take part in the handful of games my life allows, and happy to coach new guys who have just started baseball. For most of those years, we have been trying to get Kal to come and manage the team as we knew he was perfect for the job.
In 2015 he proved that we were right, and I can be forever grateful that I had the chance to work so closely alongside him this year as his co-manager. To be honest, he did all the hard work, because he was the powerhouse and the life-force. I was just his glamorous assistant.

Although I knew almost immediately I would need to write my own tribute to Kal — it is, after all, what I do — I have been putting it off. Partly that is because of the same finality which hurts us when we lose someone too soon.

Until that moment, there is always more you can do for that person and with that person, and more chances to let them know you love them. Similarly, with this, you always hope that a better phrase will come to you, a better memory to encapsulate what someone did for you.

But it is now time to move on, while always treasuring those memories. We must get back to the game of baseball which we love, and which brought us together in the first place.

It is hard to imagine that I will never again get to be at the ballpark with Kal. But I can feel blessed that I ever got the chance at all. Kal Dimitrov was one of the finest people you could ever hope to meet. We will miss him dreadfully.

Broken laces, and a surviving dream

Here’s a moment which sums up how the Brighton game went for me. In the fourth inning, as I jogged in to score easily after a fellow Raptor had smacked an RBI into the outfield, I helpfully scooped up his bat on my way, writes Rob Jones.

In doing so, I performed a quick stutter-step, caught my cleats in my laces, and almost fell on my face. Even scoring a run, I nearly managed to mess it up. And I broke my lace.

It was that sort of day for me, which didn’t really reflect the tremendous performance put in by the team. We narrowly lost 20-18, with the tying and go-ahead runs on base in the ninth inning. There were sterling performances in the field by rookies Paul Barton and Nick Shrimpton, and by newcomer Yue Du on the mound.

But I never quite managed to match their level on this day. There was a lot of “giving with one hand and taking with the other”. A lot of “close but no cigar”. Here’s an example.

Brighton’s number 9 hitter softly put a ground ball my way at second base quite early in the game. I waited on it, played safe and got everything behind it, but promptly managed to boot the ball anyway. I recovered enough to pick it up, but unsurprisingly rushed the throw. It was extremely annoying, particularly as I thought he would have been the last out of the inning, and we could have got out clean.

“You’re just killing yourself”

However — on the very next play the guy tried to take second on a hit and run, and the batter put a ground ball up the middle. I swiped up the ball in my glove and with a tremendously impressive smooth move I reached around and also swiped the passing runner. A moment of satisfaction and relief coursed through me.

But remember how I thought there were two down? I heard some calls to go to 1, but thought “Nah, no need”. And I looked to first where our man was gently wandering off the base as he also thought there were two down. Turns out we were both wrong. There was one down — two now, after my elegant tag — but the inning would continue and I had missed the chance for a highlight reel double play. And that batter would go on to score a run.

Later on, I made some routine plays — a force at second, a pop-up at first, and receiving some throws at first — but I managed to undo my own good work. A sliding grab as I ranged to my right at second base not only didn’t turn into an out at first, but it was worse — as I again rushed the throw it went to the fence and the runner took second. “You’re just killing yourself out there, aren’t you?” noted an observant colleague!

There are some occasions where I honestly can’t remember whether a double play might have been in order. But I don’t believe that this undermines my insistence as a coach that players should  know their play. In fact, I think it highlights the point!

When I say that Raptors should always know what they are going to do with the ball, it’s not because I think that’s easy. It’s because it’s hard, really hard. It takes two things which are difficult to develop.

Staying focused is exhausting

First, it takes an instinctive knowledge of the game which perhaps only years of drills can give you, but which we Brits must try to manufacture over a handful of sessions. (for one of my favourite examples of this, type “pujols heads up play” into YouTube and see Albert make a superb decision and take out the lead runner in the 2011 playoffs.)

Secondly, it takes great stamina and mental toughness. Professional baseball games last a good three hours – ours can last five. And staying focused ALL THE TIME is exhausting. That’s why we have to remind ourselves all the time about “what is our play?”

When I took that pop-up at first I told you about I immediately looked to second as a runner was there. He had strayed a little but nobody was on the bag so there was no play against him. On this occasion — when I had finally remembered my own maxim and thought ahead — a team-mate hadn’t. Getting all 9 amateur ball-players focused all the time is probably unrealistic, and that’s why we strive for it.

Let’s transfer this tale of fielding triumphs over to my batting. I entered the game with a .500 average — from an admittedly small sample. But that average has collapsed like the Labour vote in Scotland. A meek groundout was followed by two strikeouts — one of them on three pitches. Finally I got a walk, but my first bat on ball contact saw me pop out to the second baseman when facing a very hittable relief pitcher.

At least on this occasion, I can boast that it ended well. I got to play my part in the final rally by finally — finally — getting a ball in play.

Helpful team-mates pointed out to me as I stepped to the plate that the man who had returned to the mound was the starter who had struck me out twice earlier. And they seemed unconvinced that my checked defensive swing which knocked the ball foul down the first-base line was in any of the coaching manuals.

But — at last  — with two strikes against me, I was able to fight it off over the head of the infielders and bring in 2 vital runs. At that point I felt as if I was helping to win the World Series, or take Berlin, or scale the Burj Khalifa — definitely something way in excess of what I had actually achieved!

Really, though, that feeling came down to the team. They had battled against a disciplined, solid- fielding, hard-hitting team for nine innings and until then I felt I had done little to lead them as I am supposed to. I am my own worst critic, but your team-mates are your biggest fans, the ones you want to achieve it for.

And for all of those good moments sprinkled above — for all of those glimpses of how it can go right if you keep working at it  — I will be back out again on Sunday.

“Going through the Change” is a series of articles by our former Communications Director, Rob Jones, which began when he “changed” from outfield to infield. It continues as random observations on life as an amateur ball-player.