AP Sports

Britain eyes boost for baseball with return of MLB, new youth programs

LONDON (AP) — In a country full of soccer, rugby and cricket stars, young Alex Lintern went in a different direction on dress-up day at school.

“I was two people: a baseball player and Spider-Man,” the 6-year-old Londoner said.

That was shortly after the World Baseball Classic, where Britain’s first-ever win at the tournament sparked some interest back home. Harry Ford, the 20-year-old American catcher with British parents, became a mini-celebrity.

Baseball enthusiasts in the U.K. — there’s more than you’d think, they say — hope to build on that momentum with the return of Major League Baseball to London this weekend when the St. Louis Cardinals face the Chicago Cubs at London Stadium.

“America’s pastime” likely won’t be challenging anytime soon as a first-choice sport in Britain, but baseball officials are optimistic they’re making gains. In a country that has just 60 baseball clubs and a limited Little League system, five new youth programs popped up this spring.

“The WBC had a really galvanizing effect on baseball fans in this country,” British Baseball Federation spokesman Richard Evans said. “The development of youth baseball is key for us.”

Most of the players on the WBC team were American-born, and there’s just one British player among the 90 teenagers competing this week at MLB’s European Elite camp at the national baseball complex outside London.

Ford’s triumphs were tracked by an elementary school north of London. The Seattle Mariners prospect and Atlanta native was “ knighted ” at an assembly after he homered to help Britain beat Colombia 7-5, which earned them automatic qualification to the next WBC. Ford wrote back in a tweet: “You guys are awesome! Glad I could join your class.”

“I definitely think that the exposure that they’re getting from TV and from the events that are now coming to the U.K. really have a bigger impact than we realize,” said Nicole De Caires, whose 6-year-old son Lucca recently started playing. “It’s not in the schools and it’s not commonly advertised for children. The kids have it drummed into them so early on that if you want to be successful in sports in the U.K., it’s football.”

MLB staged its first regular-season game in Europe four years ago when the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox played in London. The Cardinals-Cubs series had been slated to follow the next year, but the pandemic pushed those plans back.

Still, MLB says the 2019 series was a big success, drawing nearly 119,000 fans to London Stadium and opening the door to a broadcast deal with the BBC. WBC games were available via pay-TV service BT Sport.

“The good news is the interest remains,” said Chris Marinak, MLB’s chief operations and strategy officer. “The engagement is there. The ticket sales are super strong. A lot of the buzz from the market suggests that there’s a really strong interest in baseball in the U.K.”

Audience research company GWI’s data showed that interest in baseball among British sports fans increased from 4% in 2019 to 5.9% last year, the league said.

Even U.K. Prime Minister Rishi Sunak has dipped his toes in the sport, taking in a Washington Nationals game on a recent official visit to the U.S. capital, though the British press carefully noted that Sunak did not throw out the first pitch — a ceremonial toss that even high-profile athletes can get wrong.

“There’s definitely momentum and there’s definitely interest. The challenge will continue to be to raise awareness,” said Will Lintern — father of Alex — who worked with Britain’s team at the WBC as a video coordinator. “At the moment, we’re busy just handing out fliers and going into schools and just letting people know that baseball happens in this country.”

Lintern, who played for the national team and at Menlo College in California, has developed a “T-Rex T-Ball” program for kids ages 4 to 6 that clubs have taken an interest in.

“If we are going to find that first major league player who is born and raised in the U.K., then they’re going to have to start at a younger age,” he said.

A British coach has made the jump already — Liam Carroll was appointed the manager of the Red Sox Single-A affiliate in Salem, Virginia, in January. Carroll was previously head coach of the British national team.

Eduardo De Cairnes, who is helping coach the new youth program at the Croydon Pirates club, said baseball is “quite the chat at the moment” given the WBC and the weekend series — not to mention on the fields in south London.

“It’s been more popular than we expected,” he said. “They’re extending it by a month.”

Later this year, a new facility described as the “first indoor destination for baseball and softball in Europe” is scheduled to open just north of London. It will have batting cages and a training center.

“British baseball has been going for a long time, it’s just been out of the spotlight,” said Chris Knoblock, spokesman for Baseball Softball UK, the national development and performance agency for the two sports. “When we have the special moments where attention is paid to us, that’s where we can really make a quick impact and grow the game quite rapidly.”

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