Wednesday, 19 November 2014

Giancarlo Stanton and the Largest Contract in North American Sports History

Giancarlo: the richest man ever to lace a pair of cleats.

The Miami Marlins, typically considered the most miserly and dysfunctional franchise in North American sports, made history on Wednesday, signing star right fielder Giancarlo Stanton to an unprecedented 13-year, $325 million contract extension which rocked the baseball world.

The deal, back-loaded to help Miami add talent in the short term, includes an opt-out clause following the 2019 season, and will ultimately pay Stanton more money than any athlete in the history of professional US sports before it's expiry in 2027.

“Giancarlo Stanton is a unique player whose natural gifts and talent are unparalleled in this sport,” said Marlins owner Jeffrey Loria. “Over the past five years, he's given so much to the Marlins organisation, the city of Miami, and especially to his adoring fans. He's been committed to our community and we're excited to return the favour.”

A Manhattan art dealer, Loria purchased the Marlins in 2002, and has since presided over a controversial boom-or-bust culture, with the team bouncing between World Championships and prolonged slumps in the National League cellar, by way of spiteful and impromptu fire sales of prominent players.

In 2003, the Marlins emerged victorious from a pulsating World Series with the New York Yankees, only to see young, talented building blocks, namely Josh Beckett, Derrek Lee, Carl Pavano, Ivan Rodriguez, Brad Penny, and Carlos Delgado, traded or dumped in free agency in the ensuing months. Loria thought prohibitive the cost of maintaining these players during prime years, and, instead, effectively built a revolving door at Sun Life Stadium, with the traditional powerhouses of baseball ever keen to pick the finest apples from the Florida tree.

Somewhat painfully, Marlin fans had seen it all before. Just six years earlier, in 1997, the team's fourth year in existence, legendary manager Jim Leyland coaxed a world title from a ragtag bunch of scrappers headlined by Kevin Brown, Edgar Renteria, Moises Alou and Gary Sheffield. So jubilant was then-owner Wayne Huizenga, he decided to celebrate by blowing up the entire team over the next year or so. 

Star closer Robb Nen was shipped to San Francisco; Alou carted to Houston; ace Brown ferried to San Diego. Soon thereafter, Sheffield was traded to the Dodgers for a package involving Mike Piazza, who, despite hovering on a path towards catching immortality, would play only five games as a Marlin before being dealt to the Mets two months after arrival. For good measure, Huizenga sent World Series hero Renteria to the Cardinals for a moderate return, capping the mother of all fire sales. 

In succeeding such a strongly disliked, polarising owner at the Marlins' helm, one would've thought Jeffrey Loria had a strong foundation from which to build, a clear set of guidelines to act as reference. However, with internal meddling, public politicking and a general aversion to consistency, Loria managed to be even more disliked than his predecessor. In fact, many consider him the worst owner currently involved in professional sports.

That reputation came to a head in 2012 when, after again spending big in the hope of attracting large crowds to the newly-built Marlins Park, Loria, ever the capricious chameleon, embarked on yet another fire sale, perhaps the most vicious, unwarranted and damaging one yet. Big free agent acquisitions, such as Jose Reyes and Mark Buerhle, were traded in the embryonic stages of lengthy contracts; veteran leaders, such as Emilio Bonifacio and Omar Infante, were effectively ditched; and burgeoning stars developed by the Marlins' exemplary system, such as Anibal Sanchez and Hanley Ramirez, were unceremoniously disposed of.

Loria's latest fire sale left very little talent on the Marlins' Major League roster, except for one man with a movie star physique and an omnipotent swing.

One man, with two names: Mike Stanton, who had recently changed his name to Giancarlo.

A big kid from California, Stanton made his Major League debut in 2010, hitting long and towering home runs right from the start. He managed 22 in his debut campaign, and is yet to fall below that plateau, launching 34 in 2011, 37 in 2012, 24 in 2013 and, somewhat remarkably in this age of offensive oppression, 37 last year to lead the National League.

Giancarlo has 154 career home runs at the age of 25, and through just 634 career games. He was the tenth youngest player to reach 100 career round-trippers, and the third youngest active player to hit 150, following Albert Pujols and Alex Rodriguez. By comparison, Barry Bonds required 28 years on the planet to reach 150 dingers. Babe Ruth himself was 26 when he launched number 150.

Thus, it becomes clear that Giancarlo Stanton is a once-in-a-generation gift to baseball; a genuine superstar capable of breaking records, inspiring journalistic hyperbole, and making people dream.

Even the Miami Marlins, this bastion of knee-jerk fatalism, deemed him indispensable in the end.

Even Jeffrey Loria, this nihilistic maverick, had no desire to become Harry Frazee, trading away a history-altering building block.

Even Giancarlo Stanton, this even-keeled genius, could not resist acquiescing to the largest monetary commitment ever made by one sports team to one sportsman.

“This is a big day for us,” said the two-time All-Star. “We're going to start pushing forward here. This is one step to some building blocks we need. We've had some bumps in the road, but that's baseball. It takes time and patience. We're moving in the right direction.”

“This is for the city of Miami, this is for new-found confidence and trust. Starting with me and my teammates and the front office here, we're all agreed we need a winning environment, a winning city, and this is one building block toward a better future and a new way of life down here in Miami.”

Whether it works remains to be seen. No matter what, the entire world is watching.  

Thursday, 13 November 2014

This Winter, MLB Powerhouses Reach Historic Crossroads

Baseball at a philosophical crossroads.
From coast to shining coast, baseball executives are hunkered down for winter, protecting their fiefdoms, tweaking their plans, and concocting their strategies for the long offseason ahead. 

In the dark and seething Bronx, a New York Yankees General Manager prepares to shop for a shortstop for the first time in twenty years. 

Over on Yawkey Way, soon to be sprinkled with snow in the worsening Massachusetts chill, a cadre of otherwise energetic men feel the pressure to construct a quintessential Boston team of which Red Sox Nation can be proud. 

And at the corner of Waveland & Sheffield, just off the biting lake in sweet home Chicago, a dream managerial team strives to put meat on the bones so laboriously assembled.

We live in a unique moment for baseball. The great game has reached a figurative and philosophical crossroad. The way rosters are constructed, much like the way teams are run and the game played, has changed immensely in the past five years, with new regulations, at home and internationally, forcing General Managers to adapt and embark in new directions.

A more comprehensive revenue-sharing system means teams can no longer monopolise assets, like the Yankees and Red Sox did at the century's turn. Once, the finest players from the smallest markets would've tumbled into the open arena at a prime age, to be clawed at by a wealthy half-dozen and eaten alive by the king carnivore. Now, even the most plebeian of ballclubs compete to keep their marquee players, such as Milwaukee with Ryan Braun, Tampa Bay with Evan Longoria, and Colorado with Troy Tulowitzki. The result is a depleted free agency market typically stocked with older veterans plagued by injury and controversy.

This market, and the offensive environment of contemporary baseball as a whole, is further sapped by more stringent testing for performance enhancing drugs. With offence down across the board, it would appear less players are taking the steroid risk, which means production and durability from guys aged 30+ is at a generational nadir. One could even argue that the prime years of an athlete, traditionally considered to be between 27-33 in baseball, has shifted to 24-30. Freshly endowed with large television deals and payments from the juggernaut of fiscal parity that is Selig's MLB, teams are more inclined to lock-up burgeoning stars through this age range, forcing conventional free agent powerhouses, such as Boston, New York, Los Angeles and Chicago, to consider a paradigm shift away from extreme indulgence to considered sustainability. 

Many teams now focus more of their energy and resources into scouting and player development, attempting to create an organic framework around which to pack as many cost-controlled, homegrown, similarly-aged stars as possible. The Cubs, Red Sox, Mets, Giants and Cardinals lead the way in this new approach, which preaches discipline, patience and responsibility in place of impulse, irrationality and haste. 

Similarly, the entire sabermetric sphere has evolved into what I like to call the postmodern realm. Nowadays, teams have moved on from a mere obsession with on-base percentage, and are freshly appreciative of team chemistry and the power of forging a group of twenty-five positive, likeminded guys. Kansas City and San Francisco reached the World Series without tearing the record book apart in any one category. Rather, they had all the right leaders in all the right places, a healthy blend of youth and experience driving their every endeavour.

In this regard, more trust is being placed in the manager than at any time since I began watching baseball. Executives are cognisant of the changing landscape and, more than ever, realise that, with money holding less sway in the modern game, an emphasis must be placed on squeezing from every asset its maximum value. Increasingly, teams are taking the view that, if we're on a near enough equal footing to our rivals, we must simply get more bang for our buck. This means a greater investment in coaching, management and development; a true commitment to the human faculty of improvement. 

Accordingly, teams value their own players more now than at any time in the past thirty years. The various regulations regarding luxury taxes and qualifying offers, coupled with the aforementioned surge in team-friendly extensions for homegrown talents, have created a genuine dearth of readily available superstars. Once, the Red Sox could pluck a 28-year old Manny Ramirez from the open market; the Yankees could add Jason Giambi, Hideki Matsui, Gary Sheffield and Johnny Damon in a five-year spell. Now, one can easily envisage a scenario whereby Mike Trout, Andrew McCutchen and Giancarlo Stanton never become available to other organisations. Often, we hear about hypothetical nine, ten and eleven-year contracts for these franchise-altering players.

This takes away a certain element of fun, with all teams stockpiling talent, all teams guarding their assets like the Holy Grail, and all teams run by geniuses who'd rather poke at their eyes with a rusty fork than concede even one inch to a near rival. 

Cubbie Renaissance

Here, the Chicago Cubs spring to mind. The switch has been flicked at old Wrigley Field, with an already awesome front office headed by Theo Epstein, Jed Hoyer and Jason McLeod adding Joe Maddon, conventionally adjudged to be amongst the most effective managers presently working in baseball, to the enthralling rebuild. The Cubs' very pursuit of Maddon, regardless of Rick Renteria's presence, symbolised an increase in intensity, a quickening transition, a definitive move of the cycle. Maddon, a beacon of vibrant enthusiasm and throbbing desire, instantly puts the Cubs back at the big table, chewing on a gourmet banquet of extreme positivity. The bar has been raised and, pretty soon, games will matter again on the near North Side.

With the Wrigley renovations finally beginning, and a new television deal in the offing, Chicago executives can finally envisage a profound revenue stream which will allow them to make the moves necessary to enrich the homegrown core and begin to attain the lofty objective of competing at the Major League level. Everybody knows the Cubs need starting pitching. Do they go and pluck a Scherzer or Lester from the pile? Will they stitch together a few mid-level arms, such as Justin Masterson and Francisco Liriano? How about a veteran catcher named Martin to coax the best from Jake Arrieta and Travis Wood?

Theo and Jed have toiled tirelessly in stripping and redesigning entirely in their own image the entire Cubs organisation. Finally, they've reached a point where the cornucopia is ready to bloom. One winter of pointed ambition could truly transform their timetable for success, alter forever the complexion of baseball in Chicago, and echo in the annals of baseball history, if the right parts fall into place. 

Beantown Retool 

Meanwhile, in Boston, where Epstein and Hoyer cut their teeth and honed their legend, Ben Cherington, a valued former colleague and present adversary, is similarly preoccupied with adding transformational cogs to his spluttering machine of enigmatic prospects.

At this point, Red Sox Nation is a confused and restless place. After experiencing two 90-loss seasons sandwiched between a deeply emotional World Championship, and watching a succession of stars traded away amid fiscal restructuring, we no longer know what to expect from the Olde Towne Team. 

This winter, the Sox must reiterate their intention to compete in the largest market. After losing Jacoby Ellsbury, failing to offer Jon Lester his true worth, and instigating an impromptu fire sale last summer, Boston needs to flex some muscle. After the debacle of Grady Sizemore and the failure of any prospect beside Mookie Betts to perform, Boston needs to show itself. After a succession of dreary seasons wrapped around one sweet aberration, and just one playoff appearance in the last five years, Boston must come out fighting. 

We need to see that ownership is still interested; that owning Liverpool Football Club hasn't drained Fenway Sports Group of ambition and cash. 

Similarly, the Sox need to find a player who is truly thrilling to watch; a player who can fill the humongous void of class and charisma still gaping from the departure of Kevin Youkilis and, in particular, Manny Ramirez. They need a genuine megastar capable of filling the Boston market; an in-prime competitor to Tom Brady as the biggest media draw in New England. Papi and Pedroia need backup, and Sox fans yearn for that one character who, like Manny, can transcend the sport and city. 

In short, the Red Sox need Giancarlo Stanton. Badly.

As baseball fans, we want to see the biggest stars play for the greatest teams, in the most thriving cities. Stanton, this hulking mass of giddy raw potential, is undoubtedly one of the brightest stars this new era of baseball has to offer. The guy already has 154 career home runs and five consecutive seasons of twenty round-trippers or the age of 25! He is without question the greatest slugger this burgeoning generation will ever see.

Yet, one feels ever so slightly sad that he struts his stuff down in Miami, a veritable baseball wasteland, in a bizarre ballpark, for a Marlins team which still routinely struggles to draw even 20,000 fans and seemingly teeters on the fault line of tectonic plate Loria.

What Stanton does is seriously stupendous, but I can't help but think it'd be even more impressive in a city that actually cares. Giancarlo in Boston would be a scintillating story. One I'm anxious to write.

We know the Red Sox like Stanton. Honestly, who doesn't? Therefore, perhaps it's time for Cherington to actively pursue the one piece which would instantly transform the future of his ballclub. The Marlins are working to extend Giancarlo, but nobody knows whether the dollars are available on Miami's side, nor the inclination to remain in baseball purgatory on Stanton's. If negotiations break down, Cherington could step up his efforts to land the big fish, hauling a battalion of prospects into negotiations. At this point, I think the Red Sox would pretty much allow Miami to select a package of any players bar Pedroia and Ortiz. A package centred around Betts and Cespedes? Sure. Bogaerts, Owens and a few mid-level prospects? Go ahead.

Prospects are valued higher now than at any time in living memory but, when the return is Giancarlo Stanton, you hand over the keys to the farm. 

In modern times, Boston has relied heavily on it's young players. They built three championship teams in a decade largely by virtue of prospects flourishing into stars. However, the triumphs of 2004, 2007 and 2013 weren't so much homegrown as home-flavoured. In all three cases, those teams made sparing use of young players for effect, rather than saturation without purpose. 

In 2007, Pedroia and Ellsbury were plugged in seamlessly. In 2013, it was Xander Bogaerts, quietly starring in the World Series at the age of 21. In both cases, there was a galaxy of stars already in place, on which the burden of production lay, and to which the media gravitated. With Manny and Papi and Youk and JD Drew and Josh Beckett in the clubhouse, Pedroia and Ellsbury could slip under the radar, without the instant overbearing pressure to perform. Similarly, with Jon Lester and John Lackey and Shane Victorino leading the way, there was no need for Bogaerts to worry, no rush for him to matriculate before time. 

When the veteran stars were around, Boston rookies could concentrate on being just that. Rookies. Nothing more, nothing less. But, in 2014, the main problems came when a glut of raw youngsters graduated from Pawtucket to Fenway whilst that traditional framework of support simply wasn't in place. Jonny Gomes was traded alongside Lester; Peavy went just like Lackey; Pedroia struggled with injury; Victorino was absent. All too quickly, green players like Christian Vazquez, Jackie Bradley Jr., Allen Webster, Anthony Ranaudo, Rusney Castillo, Mookie Betts, Brock Holt and Ruby De La Rosa were pushed onto the stage and asked to perform in the searing spotlight, without a script. There was no reference point, no veteran shield. The process had been artificially expedited and, naturally, performance suffered across the board. 

Therefore, Cherington must concentrate on enriching the elite end of his Major League club. Perhaps he makes a big splash through free agency or, in evaluating some of the aforementioned prospects, ships an assortment in return for experienced impact talent, namely Stanton.

Regardless of how, the Sox GM must place a winning and sustainable team on the field, so as to restore order to an increasingly bewildered Red Sox Nation, and possibly save his job.

Yankee Dilemma 

As always, the enemy Yankees will be right there trying to spoil the party. After spending $500m last offseason, Brian Cashman will likely be more considered this time around, but still has a few specific roster spots to fill. On the surface, the Bombers likely need a frontline starter, what with Masahiro Tanaka and CC Sabathia coming off injury-plagued years. Will New York dig further into its cash reserve and ink Max Scherzer or Jon Lester to another exorbitant contract? You wouldn't bet against it.

However, this brand of rampant Yankee capitalism seems far more controversial and ineffective than in bygone years. When they constructed a universe of megastars orbiting Giambi and Rodriguez, it seemed almost acceptable, because the results were available for everybody to see. The Yankees were perennial contenders. Yet, with two consecutive seasons where the Yankees have laid low in October, the club's traditional modus operandi has come under increased scrutiny.

In many respects, how the Yankees approach this offseason is emblematic of the entire crossroads faced by Major League teams: do they join the breakaway crowd by building from within, or do they stick to their guns and risk becoming painfully anachronistic?

It's a real dilemma.

On one hand, they are the New York Yankees, with all the history and mystique and meaning that entails. There is a certain precedent, set long ago by the mighty George Steinbrenner, to upkeep; a precedent which calls for a championship-calibre team to don pinstripes each and every season.

But, on the other hand, the modern baseball climate, as outlined above, simply isn't as compatible with exorbitant expenditure as it once was. Accordingly, the Yankees, constricted by albatross contracts given to ageing, injury-prone players such as Mark Teixeira, Rodriguez, Carlos Beltran and Sabathia, find themselves in a philosophical bind. 

Do they risk the wrath of New York by entertaining a very un-Steinbrenner-like rebuild, or keep pouring good money after bad in the hope of buying their way out of trouble? 

Only time will tell.

Dodger decisions

A similar riddle greets Andrew Friedman in Los Angeles, where his Dodgers, bloated from years of over-indulgence, are in dire need of strategic direction. The Dodgers, a sprawling monolith of sports, grew tired of inefficiency after allowing Ned Colletti free reign and now, with a new team of analytical number-crunchers in command, will strive for more organic success.

In LA, Friedman, the former Tampa Bay Rays GM hired as Dodgers Baseball Operations President, will, much like Epstein in his early days with the Red Sox, seek to utilise small market sensibilities regarding financial efficiency, but on a much grander scale. He'll adhere to the same ethos, mastered in Tampa, of milking every drop of value from every dollar spent, but with more freedom and a larger crumple zone.

In this regard, it's highly probable that Friedman will prune the crowded outfield at Chavez Ravine. In Matt Kemp, Carl Crawford, Andre Ethier and Yasiel Puig, the Dodgers have a lavish group tied to gargantuan contracts. From Friedman's viewpoint of cold mathematics, all four seem grossly overpaid compared with Major League performance. Therefore, trading one or more of these outfielders would be the logical starting point for Friedman and company, should they plan an extreme makeover.

Similarly, the new Dodgers front office, stitched together from valuable cogs in the small market war rooms of Oakland, Tampa and Arizona, subscribes to the modern belief in team chemistry. The aforementioned Joe Maddon was a large part of Friedman's success with the Rays; his manager able to massage every possible victory from the decidedly imperfect roster which could be fashioned with Tampa's minuscule budget.

It's only logical that Friedman would seek to replicate this strong team environment in Los Angeles, which may signal the end of players typically adjudged to be controversial and prickly, such as Puig, Kemp and Crawford. 

Admittedly, we must not lose sight of the fact that this is the Los Angeles Dodgers, equipped with a near bottomless pit of cash. Friedman will naturally scour the market for efficiencies, savings and value, but what happens if, after due diligence, he identifies those attributes in one of the prime free agent players? The prospect of a Kershaw-Greinke-Scherzer-Ryu-Harden rotation, for instance, changes everything, not only in the National League, but in baseball as a whole. 

Ultimately, Friedman has, in Kershaw, a once in a generation building block about which to mould, in his progressive vision, a world class Dodger ballclub. It'll be absolutely fascinating to watch him go about his business this winter. Absolutely fascinating.

Adding on

Elsewhere, the Dodgers' notorious foe, San Francisco, usually takes a year off after winning a World Championship. But, in all seriousness, the Giants, equipped with a fantastic player development system and, in Bruce Bochy, one of the greatest managers of modern times, are always only one or two accent pieces away from serious contention deep into October. 

Similarly, St Louis, a wonderful model franchise, are perhaps just one central superstar away from crossing the Rubicon; Texas, possessing a star-encrusted roster, must decide whether to stick or twist after an injury-ravaged disaster in 2013; and Seattle, freshly endowed with a luxury core of Robinson Cano and Felix Hernandez, will look to add even more impact talent in the fight for relevance.

The search for solutions

Whilst the free agent market is deeper than recent years, it becomes obvious that there simply isn't enough talent to go around. As outlined throughout this article, many of baseball's most powerful organisations require major surgery this winter; surgery beyond the kin of simply dipping into the open market. 

Thus, expect a winter of rampant trading.

Ultimately, the balance of power in Major League Baseball for the next generation rests in the hands of a select cluster of mid-to-small market GMs and owners. Across the land, some of the game's less heralded teams hold extreme autonomy over what shape this sport will take in the years to come. In Miami, where Stanton looms as a glistening prize. In Colorado, where Troy Tulowitzki and Carlos Gonzalez may finally be available. In Philadelphia, where a fire sale is desperately needed. In Tampa, where the Rays must reflect on losing Maddon, Friedman and David Price, the very Rushmore of small market baseball, in the space of three months. Depleted of difference-makers and frustrated as the rest of baseball catches up, do the Rays blow up the whole thing and concentrate on again reinventing the wheel? Do they make Longoria, Ben Zobrist, or Alex Cobb available, risking the eternal admonishment of an already indifferent fanbase and making a move to Montreal ever more likely? 

We just don't know.

What we do know, however, is that these smaller teams have the commodities about which the larger organisations dream. The Red Sox love Giancarlo. The Yankees, Mets and Cardinals yearn for Tulo. The Cubs want Cole Hammels. 

Thus, we see how, in contemporary baseball, the little guy is the kingmaker. He has the assets and ability to shape an entire industry for the next decade. He, finally, has power.

The traditional powerhouses still have a sweet tooth for the cotton candy of superstar excess, but, with time, have become more disciplined, more restrained, more dignified. Now, they're cautious and careful, about chemistry and finance. More than ever, they build for the long term rather than the short.

Amid this tense cauldron each winter, we see which teams are most creative, which teams care deepest about winning, and which teams are sincere in their commitment to fielding a championship-calibre ballclub. 

These days, it takes extreme guts and guile to be a Major League executive. There are no hiding places and no margin for error. One twitch or whim could alter, for better or worse, the very destiny of ones team for perhaps a decade to come. 

The hot stove is crackling, and everything is up for grabs.

Thursday, 30 October 2014

Game Seven for the Ages

A champion. Again.

It all came down to one man, one ball, one strike zone. After nine exhausting months of daily exertion. After 2,461 games between 30 hopeful teams. After 258 days spent rattling around ballparks and rummaging through airports. After a million pitches, a thousand grounders, and hundreds of fly balls. One man. One ball. One strike zone.

What sport but baseball could hold enraptured for the best part of an entire year a global fanbase of millions? What sport, played for three hours every single day from burgeoning spring to encroaching winter, could twist so much, turn so much, and all without discerning it's final famous outcome until the very end? What sport could host a billion micro-battles each summer, between pitcher and hitter, hitter and defence, defence and data, yet still shroud it's ultimate champion in a cloak of invincibility until one last, winner-takes-all contest?

What other sport but baseball?

Every kid who ever picked up a mitt has done a thousand times in fantasy what last night Madison Bumgarner did in real life. Game Seven of the World Series. Crowd thrumming to a beat of stirring passion; world watching your every move. Complete and utter dominance. A place in the annals of history.

Bumgarner, a young man of remarkable calm, poise and talent, joined the many millions who have pitched 21 innings in a singular World Series, including five shutout frames on barely two days rest in the wake of a complete game, and compiled a 2-0 record with 1 epic save, a ridiculous 0.43 ERA and a WHIP of 0.476. The difference between Madison and the aforementioned many millions? He did it at Kauffman Stadium before 40,535 screaming fans, whilst everybody else did it in the backyard with only low-flying, voyeuristic birds for company.

He's incredible,” offered Michael Morse, whose broken-bat, fourth-inning flair to right field scored Pablo Sandoval and forced the Giants into a 3-2 lead that would prove unassailable. “He's a different human being.”

Indeed. And baseball is a different sport.

For sheer, human-wrought drama, any World Series Game 7 is unparalleled in the sporting realm. Gridiron has it's Super Bowl, but those teams carry gargantuan rosters, play barely twenty games a season, and often have seven days of rest and rehabilitation between duels. Similarly, football has the Champions League, but, again, those contests are sporadic, the champion largely determined by finance not skill, commerce not craft, business not talent.

In stark contrast, Major League Baseball, slowly morphing into a paragon of competitive balance and fiscal parity, is far more organic, far more believable, far more achievable for the everyday man. This past week, we were treated to a championship clash not of major market juggernauts or high-powered mercenary units, but of two mid-market teams who nurtured potential into stardom, found the magic formula, and worked towards a common goal.

How can baseball be dying when it still symbolises so clearly the very dream to which America, a nation alive and kicking, aspires?

Not for many years have I enjoyed a World Series like this one, so dominated was it by new names, fresh faces and strategic baseball. We had San Francisco, teetering on the cusp of a greatness having won in 2010 and 2012. We had Kansas City, without a World Series appearance since 1985, with only two winning seasons in the past decade. It was a tale of dynasty and destiny, of human aspiration, of immense sporting evolution. It was truly absorbing.

The absence of the Red Sox, Yankees, Cardinals and Dodgers enraged many people. As we were persistently told, not many tuned in. The worst World Series of all-time, they said. How wrong can you be? Far from being the most dreary encounter imaginable, this was one of the most enjoyable, unsolvable, hopelessly entertaining Fall Classic's in recent memory.

These two teams, well-matched and alike in results yet distinctively different in philosophy and approach, basically played to an impasse, except the superhuman efforts of Bumgarner and his wingmen named Pablo and Pence. For the longest time, they stood toe-to-toe and, with refreshing dignity and smiley respect, knocked the living daylights out of one another.
In this undulating Series, which underscored the thorough capriciousness of baseball, we saw blowouts and nail-biters, offensive ingenuity and defensive brilliance. We saw bright young stars emerge, ready to lead with impish energy a new post-Selig, post-Jeter era of baseball; stars with names like Panik and Cain, Hosmer and Gordon. We saw seven unique battles of wit and wisdom; we saw perhaps the most commanding body of work ever spun by a World Series pitcher; and, finally, we saw one breathless tussle to decide a champion.

Going in to Game 7, nobody had any idea what to expect. Nobody had any idea how to even begin with predictions and prognostications. I had no answer to the question “what will happen in this game?,” should anybody have posed it. Aside from the home crowd backing Kansas City and the accumulative experienced padding San Francisco, neither team had a clear advantage. It was a pure contest; a tribute to Bud Selig, who fought so hard for parity and, having last night witnessed the greatest triumph of competitive balance in a generation, will now depart this bustling arena.

It was a crisp night in Kansas City. Clear. Cool. Dry. Jeremy Guthrie, a noble journeyman who earned my eternal gratitude by once venturing to Britain simply to coach kids in Milton Keynes, threw the first pitch, a changeup strike, at 8.10pm ET, 12.10am GMT. Game on.

The Giants were retired in order in the first, a smart reflex play by Royals third baseman Mike Moustakas robbing Buster Posey of a hit. To the reverberating echo of “MOOOOOSE!,” Kansas City was first to enjoy a surge of momentum.

Watching the Giants' Tim Hudson work in the home half of the first, one became aware that, for baseball fans, this was our last treat of a lengthy season; one last game of punch and counter-punch, of nuance and intricacy and romance as a parting gift before winter. Hudson walked Nori Aoki and, presently, the rounded mountain edge could be felt under foot and in the gut. The veteran gritted his teeth some more and, with true courage, bounced back to retire Cain and Hosmer and end the early threat.

When, leading off the second, Pablo Sandoval was grazed by a Guthrie pitch, the warm fluid of momentum coursed anew into Giant loins. Hunter Pence went down and, with surgeon-like precision, fired a single through the infield and into left, putting runners at first and second with no outs for Brandon Belt. A rally by normal standards; a humongous opportunity in the Seventh Game of a World Series.

Belt lashed a single of his own to right, loading the bases with Sandoval stopping at third. Morse, lanky and languid, strode to the dish and drove a searing sac fly to Aoki, scoring Sandoval with that crucial first run and moving Pence to third, from whence he scored on a further sacrifice from Brandon Crawford. Two-zip, Giants, through an inning-and-a-third.

It's always important to strike back after going behind. Better to thwart the beast than allow it to run amok. The Royals, defying belief yet again, rose from the canvas, with Billy Butler singling up the middle leading off their half of the second. Alex Gordon followed soon thereafter with a meandering liner into the right-centre field gap. Propelled by a rumbling roar from a raucous Royals crowd, Butler chugged round the bases and, with an emphatic slide, scored ahead of the throw. Kauffman Stadium, this sleepy old yard, was transformed into a gyrating maelstrom of whirring blue emotion. Hope and belief rose where uncertainty and worry were creeping in.

Salvador Perez, the Royals' irreplaceable catcher, was plunked, handing Kansas City a two-on, no-out situation of its own. Moustakas lofted a fly ball to left which, though caught easily, allowed Gordon to advance ninety feet. He scored, tying the game, when Omar Infante flew to Gregor Blanco in centre. Two-two, through two.

As fans, we were living with every pitch, trying to anticipate the strategy which seeped from every pore. We wondered whether Bochy would employ Bumgarner in the third inning, whether Ned Yost would turn it over to his superb bullpen super early. It was baseball on a knife's edge, with no room to breathe, with no thought for tomorrow.

Hudson recorded just five outs before being ousted in favour of Jeremy Affeldt, who delivered seven more, adding and subtracting and getting San Fran into the middle innings. Guthrie, on the other hand, lasted a little longer, into the fourth, before handing the keys to Kelvin Herrera, who was greeted by Morse's splintered bat single which pushed the Giants ahead, 3-2.

Along the way, Joe Panik, playing with a suave rectitude belying his years, started perhaps the most mesmeric double play in World Series history; a hush of self-introversion settled upon the thronging masses; and, with a couple out in the fourth, Madison Bumgarner began to warm up. The Giants were going with their best, their horse, their warrior trojan ace.

His introduction momentarily energised the Kansas City crowd, which rediscovered its fight and, when Infante laced a leadoff single, rediscovered its voice. The momentum, ever so nomadic in baseball, began oscillating wildly with each and every pitch. The game became a study in the grim psychology of winning at the elite level. How would the Royals deal with Bumgarner, as the reality of their monumental task began to dawn and daunt? Conversely, how would San Francisco deal with inching ever closer to true dynastic status, true immortality? How would it all play out?

This sharp and biting juxtaposition is why we love sports, why we invest so much in them and project onto them so many of our hopes and dreams. In its most extreme moments, sport, particularly baseball, provides an insight into the mind and mentality of champions. It's Madison Bumgarner staring vacantly from the bench, calm, composed, immersed in a zone of gross concentration we'll never know nor experience. It's Joe Panik, flush-faced and twitchy, muttering to himself esoteric instructions relating to the task at hand. It's Buster Posey, suffering silently through physical and emotional exhaustion that is largely ineffable. We can only marvel at the immense human effort required to win at this level. We can only marvel.

Bumgarner worked his way through initial danger in the fifth, rebounding to whiff Cain and end the threat. Ominously, he got better as the frame went on. Working on barely two days rest, a pitcher is liable to lose velocity and command. Bumgarner showed a little rust with his first half-dozen deliveries, before finding that impenetrable groove, that sweet melodic rhythm. Soon, Posey's mitt was popping. Soon, Madison was snapping the ball, pounding it up and down, in and out. Soon, it became clear that, contrary to any notion of pitch counts and work loads, Bumgarner was just as good as ever, and the Royals were in whole heaps of trouble.

In the middle innings, namely the sixth, every pitch brought a new twist, a new story, a new complexion to this great and beguiling game. Morse struck out looking to end the top half, evoking a cascading cheer from the crowd, full again of swaying optimism. Then, Hosmer, Butler and Gordon, Kansas City's finest, ran into the Bumgarner Buzz-saw, retired easily in order.

The tension remained. In a World Series Game 7, score lodged at 3-2 in the waning hours, anything can happen. Absolutely anything. You can be one pitch away from greatness, one pitch away from death. One hit away from Thomson, one miss away from Branca. One catch away from Mays, one hop away from Buckner. One throw away from Jeter, one pause away from Pesky.

Bumgarner chose to etch his name in history rather than infamy, mowing down the tired, flailing, increasingly inept Royals with complete tranquillity. In one of the most stressful spots sports can muster, he really did just play like it was any other game. At home. In a backyard. On a farm. He doesn't concern himself with comparisons to heroes named Matthewson and Johnson and Young. He doesn't even concern himself too much with the attendant hyperbole of baseball. Rather, he just demands the baseball from Posey, straddles that raised mound, and pours in some of the nastiest, most cunning stuff you're ever likely to see.

One man, one ball, one strike zone.

If we return, momentarily, to every fantasy Game 7 ever played at home or in the daydreaming mind, let me ask you a question. Did you ever lose? No, of course you didn't! You were superhuman. You were untouchable, the greatest player ever to lace a pair of cleats. You operated on a higher plane, in control of the entire situation like Shakespeare before a desk offering pen and paper. Likewise with Madison Bumgarner. He was in total command, just like you as a kid. He even gave up an extra-base hit to Gordon with two outs in the ninth to heighten the drama; had the outfielders kick it around a little until he was safe at third, ninety feet away with the tying run.

Might as well have been ninety miles, because Bumgarner was the author here.

Finally, Perez hoisted a meek pop foul on the third base side. Sandoval raced in and, squeezing it and collapsing in a heap, supplied the full stop, the exclamation point, the bridge to dynastic living.

Another masterpiece.

Another ring.

Another southpaw welcomed into the pantheon of legends.

Tuesday, 21 October 2014

The World Series: A North American Event on the Global Stage

Each October, when the last autumnal hours hold winter at bay, a new chapter is written in the enduring history of baseball's main event. All over the globe, millions of fans will tune in, via television, radio and Internet, to watch the World Series and see new champions doused in the champagne of success. At this time, we see an exponential rise in the volume of Brits asking “why do they call it a World Series, when only teams from America and Canada play?”

The annual debate tends to open a whole can of worms, which British baseball fans are tired of clearing up. The age-old chestnuts get tossed into the fire: teams from other countries should be allowed to play! How can Americans be so arrogant? In what way is this a World Series? 

On a basic level, I understand many of these concerns. However, it's also important to note that, on the whole, such protests come from casual sports fans who have little interest in baseball; from football and cricket fans who like to throw in their two cents whenever baseball is mentioned in mainstream dispatches. 

The truth, no matter how vociferously you may argue to the contrary, is that the American game is far superior, in skill, management, and marketability, than any other variation. When you think of baseball, it's impossible not to think of America. Thus, I've long been a firm believer in MLB's right to market itself as a world league, with a World Series and even a World Champion. 

However, in the interest of full disclosure, I determined to answer once and for all the timeless question regarding the etymology of baseball's crowning showcase. When tackling such issues, there is only one way to seriously begin, and that is talking to Josh Chetwynd, a former catcher for Great Britain and perhaps the finest, most intelligent advocate of the game ever to grace these otherwise uninitiated shores.

“I've broadcasted baseball in the UK for eleven years,” stated Chetwynd, the author of numerous books on the global game, "and I don't think a year has gone by were I haven't been asked this question.” 

I know the feeling.

“One real urban myth,” Chetwynd began, “is that it [the World Series] was named after a paper called The New York World that was the sponsor of an early World Series. That's not true; it's a complete myth.”

Indeed, I've encountered this old yarn before. It's a complete fabrication, lacking in any historical fact, recycled by baseball fans all over the world at this time of year. The World, a tabloid in circulation from 1860-1931, never alluded to any such sponsorship deal, and official Baseball Hall of Fame spokesmen have frequently dispelled the myth.

So, if not from the capricious world of New York tabloids, then from where does the World Series moniker originate? 

As Chetwynd explains, it's largely derived from the aspiration of one man: Albert Goodwill Spalding. A pitcher, manager, executive, and all-round baseball trailblazer, Spalding “wanted to bring baseball literally to the world,” explains Chetwynd. Thus, in 1888, a blend of American capitalism and nationalism motivated Spalding to take baseball on a world tour unheralded in size and daring, wowing audiences in eight different countries, including Australia, Great Britain and France. The Boston Globe wrote that “for boldness and scope, [Spalding's project] tops anything ever before attempted in the world of sports.”

Spalding had a dual motivation. In the first instance, he felt that, by expanding baseball to foreign lands, new consumer markets would become available; market that his wide-reaching sporting goods empire could use to make money. Simultaneously, Spalding could provide a window into an expanding US culture and, in turn, help solidify baseball as a truly American export. 

So it was that an entourage of twenty ballplayers, a cricket coach, and a stable of women were sent off by President Grover Cleveland on a global baseball trek. In time, exhibitions would be played in the shadows of the Sphinx in Egypt, the Eiffel Tower in France, and Rome's Coliseum. A cast of all-star ballplayers, including Hall of Famers Cap Anson and John Montgomery Ward, brought baseball to cities like Naples, Paris and London; Dublin, Birmingham and Glasgow; Manchester, Liverpool and Belfast. 

"Spalding really believed that, with his support, these countries were going to bring baseball into a world purview,” says Chetwynd. "Ultimately, he hoped that the World Series would be exactly that, with the teams from Great Britain, France and elsewhere being good enough to play against those from the United States, with the result being a true World Series."

However, when the level of baseball talent in these foreign lands proved inadequate to America's new-age professionalism, Spalding began to concentrate instead on glorifying the US game. At this time, Spalding's revered Official Baseball Guide began referring to American baseball's championship series as “the World's Championship,” which was later shortened to “World's Series.” Hyperbole was the very zeitgeist of this grand era; Spalding's marketing sense in branding the Series as a global event speaking to a newfound American bravery to grab the world by the collar and make itself known. Americans wanted to be power-brokers on the biggest stage of all, and the World Series was a valuable weapon in the fight.

Whilst there is a factual trail to the term “World Series,” it also works on a visceral level. No domestic team from another country is currently capable of competing commercially nor on the field with Major League Baseball. The standard of play in the US, beginning with the core collegiate system, is far superior. Even Japan and the Dominican Republic, amongst the most baseball-literate of foreign lands, are eons away from the level of professionalism displayed throughout the organised American game.

“The World Series is the pinnacle for any baseball player and fan," says Gabe Kapler, a member of the historic 2004 Boston Red Sox with whom I spoke about the game's global growth. "It's the peak of excitement, the highest test of character and determination a sportsman could ever face."

Kapler, a career .268 hitter who spent parts of twelve Major League seasons with the Rangers, Tigers, Rockies, Brewers and Rays, is most fondly remembered as a Red Sock. Why? Because he was one of just nine Boston players present on the field of play when the team won it's first World Series in 86 years, thus completing an unprecedented postseason run and banishing the Babe Ruth Curse.

Thus, it becomes increasingly clear that baseball's World Series, in name and reality, is a worldwide phenomenon. It's what everybody years for, and what everybody most readily remembers. 

This is particularly true in the Dominican Republic, an island, indeed a culture, which dances to the baseball beat. Keith Winters, a Dominican baseball expert, spent the 2009 season following the Gigantes de Cibao in the Dominican Winter League. As Winters explains, the dream of emulating World Series champions such as Kapler is a way of Dominican life. "Pretty much every Dominican plays with the hopes of making the big leagues, he confers. "Some have a goal to make it to a US college, or simply make the minor leagues, so they can stick around and get a regular job in the United States.”

“One in every 10,000 Dominicans is in the big leagues," Winters continues. "By comparison, the number in the US last year was one in every 500,000 people.” This level of Dominican success on the world baseball stage breeds excitement and hope for many young children in the country, who, wishing to tread in the footsteps of countrymen such as David Ortiz and Albert Pujols, often see baseball as an escape from poverty and a catalyst for prosperity. 

“Most Dominicans know someone that is fairly close to them - a relative, an ex-teammate, or somebody from their town – that has made the big leagues,” illustrates Winters, “which makes the dream seem attainable.”

In many respects, Major League Baseball is the league of dreams. On the 2014 Opening Day rosters of all thirty teams, 224, players were foreign-born, good for 26.3% of the total workforce. A total of sixteen different countries were represented in MLB this season. The Texas Rangers had 15 foreign players on its initial 25-man roster, with the San Francisco Giants (13) and Chicago White Sox (11) close behind.

Furthermore, the sheer volume of games makes MLB the most-watch sports league on the planet, in gross terms. Nowadays, internet connections make it all the more easier for Major League Baseball to reach new enclaves, and those watching aspire to win a ring just like Gabe Kapler.

For instance, let Winters regale you with a tale of Dominican October: “During playoffs time in the big leagues, Dominicans are always interested in what other Dominicans are doing. One quote I love that I heard from a librarian one day in the Dominican during the Phillies vs Yankees World Series in 2009, when he said 'I don't care who wins, but whatever team has more Dominicans, that is who I want to win.' The whole country was rooting for Pedro Martinez and the Phillies that year, even though the Yankees had a few Dominicans too. Pedro is a legend down there.”

So, could a country such as the Dominican ever harness it's passion for baseball and channel it into direct competition with the US Major Leagues? Will we ever see Spalding's initial plan come to fruition and have domestic teams from all over the world competing with the might of MLB? One day, will we have a World Series between the New York Yankees and the Gigantes de Cibao? 

Winters doesn't think so. "The best we can hope for as far as a true World Series would be something like the Toyota Cup in soccer," he explains, "in which the domestic league champions all play some sort of playoff.”

For arguments sake, let's look at the main rivals to Major League Baseball should a thirst for international competition emerge. The popular consensus holds that the nearest alternative to MLB, in terms of professionalism, fan interest and history, is Japan's Nippon Professional Baseball league (NPB). If, in some quirky development, MLB was to expand, Japan would surely send the most adaptable franchises. 

In Japan, baseball is of huge interest, with the Major League success of demigods such as Ichiro Suzuki, Hideki Matsui and Yu Darvish providing a modern chapter in a historical narrative previously dominated by home run hero Sadaharu Oh. It is notoriously difficult to find accurate attendance records for NPB games, but the league averages 25,000 per contest, which substantiates its claim as a professional baseball powerhouse. The levels of professionalism, talent and celebrity associated with NPB are perhaps the most comparable with MLB throughout the entire world. However, the Japanese league still lags far behind the US Major Leagues in many other areas. 

For instance, in 2013, the Yomiuri Giants, Japan's glamour team, became the first NPB team to break the 3,000,000 threshold in attendance since 2010. On one level, this inspires deep admiration and speaks to the undeniable popularity of the Japanese game. When viewed through an MLB prism, however, the distance between its nearest competitors still resembles a canyon: in 2013, eight MLB teams reached the 3,000,000 mark. 

Furthermore, the migration of NPB's biggest stars is most indicative of MLB's impenetrable standing as baseball's definitive league. The goal for Japanese players, just as for Dominicans, Venezuelans, Cubans, Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, Colombians, and every other nationality, is to one day venture to the United States to play ball. Ichiro, Dice-K, Yu, Nomo, the list of great Japanese players making a success of MLB is seemingly endless. How can any nation even think of competing with MLB, if it's best talents understandably join the enemy? 

By extension, how can we ever question MLB's right to call its showcase event a World Series?

This is all highly relative. Here in Britain, we recently cherished the opening of Farnham Park, the fruit of years of dedication from the baseball community. At last, we have a respectable, showcase diamond. For us, it works, it's something to be immensely proud of, a monument to our extensive development as a baseball-playing nation. Obviously, there is just no comparison with Major League Baseball, however. Farnham Park probably ranks as a Spring Training practice diamond for MLB teams; a fantastic achievement for us Brits, yet barely a blip on the US-tinted baseball radar. It shows, more than ever, why we should just be content with MLB's standing as the true world league, and respect it's right for a World Series moniker. 

It may never pit the Chicago Cubs against the Seibu Lions, the Leones del Escogido against the London Mets, or the Tigres de Quintana Roo against the Sydney Blue Sox, but the World Series is an elite event on the global sports calendar. 

So, let your misplaced indignation rest, pick up a beer, and become ensconced in one of the greatest sporting spectacles of all.

**This article is intended as an update of an earlier piece penned for this blog back in October 2013. To that end, many of the interviews contained therein were completed in September 2013. This version should be viewed as an enrichment and an update. Thank you.

Monday, 20 October 2014

Baseball on Five: Triumph & Tragedy in the Depths of British Night

For one glorious moment, let us be transported back to a year early in the new millennium. A simpler year, in a sweeter age. A year less cynical and more hospitable to magic. Say 2006, or 2008.

Late October. Chill in the air. Swift and murky days. Heavy, evocative nights. Elsewhere, people rest and slouch as is Sunday's encouragement, drawing eye-burning warmth from familial chat and the living room fire. Normalcy reigns. 

Yet, within the breast of those sworn to the hardy fiefdom of British baseball, a wholly disproportionate and largely ineffable excitement stirs and whirs and purrs. 

Shortly after one in the morning, that first, unmistakeable chord of the hair-raising sound track moans from the television. You sit up in bed, pulling at the duvet for additional comfort, careful not to wake the sleeping house. Now, you're full of adrenaline. Now, you're ready.

The sculpted, porcelain face of Jonny Gould, the exquisite presenter of our beloved show, protrudes brightly from atop a tuxedo, as tradition dictates for Game One of the World Series.
"Good evening, fellow baseball nuts!," he beams, for perhaps the 400th time and, for perhaps the 400th time, it sends a tingle down your spine, forms a ball in your throat.

Major League Baseball on Channel Five. A show unlike any other I've been fortunate to encounter, and unlike any I'll see again. The longest-running show ever to be spawned by that station, it managed not only to top one million viewers on a meagre budget, but also assemble the most intelligent, affectionate, avuncular and deeply unforgettable cast of experts imaginable. It managed to make accessible, nay intrinsic to very well-being of thousands, a game of startling inactivity and nuance that unfurled an ocean away in the dead of British night.

What greater compliment can be accorded? What finer legacy can be bestowed? What more can be said?

This show was intrinsic to my basic happiness as a child. Even now, as a conscious adult, I'm rendered awestruck contemplating how it managed to be so many things and achieve so much with so comparatively little. It was warm, charming and a source of dense companionship. It was razor sharp and inimitably precise at educating people about this complex game, but in the most laid back, relaxed and chilled manner possible. It was at once stomach-ticklingly entertaining and awe-inspiringly informative. All seamless. All smooth. All so agreeable.

The show, which twice a week carried live broadcasts of a Major League game, gave me hour upon blissful hour of fulfilment, inspiration and joy. In the days before instant news at your fingertips, and before MLB TV worked without the dangling of a wireless router from an open window, Baseball on Five was an indispensable tool in the arsenal of any British fan of North American sport. It was our major source of baseball news, views, and highlights, a sequestered treasure buried deep in the TV listings.

On many an occasion, my adolescent week was so filled to brimming with baseball-y stuff that the prospect of a live game on Five rendered me almost euphoric. At times, I'd read so many baseball books, watched so many baseball films and scoured so many baseball websites during a week that Baseball on Five became a mirage, daring me to indulge and explode into another stratosphere of fandom as a complete and utter baseball-dependent maniac. 

I discovered the show and, by extension the marvellous game of baseball, by accident in the autumn of 2004, when awaiting a late night Dutch football package from Five that never materialised due to the overrunning of a certain World Series Game 4 between the Cardinals and Red Sox. I became a regular, enraptured, and truly fascinated viewer from that very point, aged ten or eleven. By twelve, I was hopelessly hooked, forced to invent ever more innovative ways of keeping oneself awake undetected until 4.30 am with primary school in the morning. 

Aside from the achingly stupendous displays of baseball why was the show so wonderful, so mesmeric, so addictive? The camaraderie, the fellowship, the sense of belonging. The infectious enthusiasm and the personable nature transcendent of usual television shows.

If you watched it for any length of time, you'll understand the indescribable, intangible burning of pleasure it evoked. If you didn't? Well, this whole article seems a little stupid, doesn't it?

The show had so many quirks and, thus, was far more natural, organic and human than any other sports show. The purpose of Baseball on Five wasn't to sell advertising, flog merchandise or make money and, accordingly, the people involved weren't mercenary, distant or robotic. Rather, the show's sole aim, seemingly, was to educate people in, and entertain them with, baseball. Above all else, a love of the game pervaded.

Naturally, conveyed with such conviction and devotion, this message affected those watching. If you polled every British baseball fan in the land as to the genesis of their interest, I guarantee at least 98% would cite the humble show brought to life by Jonny Gould, Josh Chetwynd, Erik Jansen, David Lengel, Todd Macklin and the gang. Baseball on Five spurned a cult and moved a generation. To be a part of it is a great gift we should forever cherish.

Personally, I cannot thank that show, and those guys, enough for introducing to me a sport, hobby and passion that has become a central part of my life and fledging career. Without the show, and without the excellence with which they conceived and delivered it, I never would have discovered baseball. And without baseball, I never would have discovered that books can be interesting, delightful and beguiling. And without that inspiration to read, I never would have encountered the works of Kahn, Angell, Shaughnessy, Gammons, Vecsey, Massarotti, Montville and so many other wonderful writers who so thrilled me with words. And without words, I would be entirely lost.

"I can easily say that Five was the most enjoyable job I've ever had," says Chetwynd, conveying a similar sense of gratitude at his involvement in the classic show. "I'm a late night person by design, and I just loved the people and the work."

"It was very different to reporting," continues Josh, at one time or another involved in baseball as a player, coach, envoy, writer, journalist, presenter, historian, analyst and agent, "and certainly different to doing a live game, which I did at the World Series for the BBC. But the laid back nature and the pure fun we had is something I will always cherish."

Josh, affectionately known as JC to thousands throughout Britain, occupied the Baseball on Five hot seat between 2001-03 and 2006-08. He was an absolute master at making the game accessible to the rookie fan and diehard veteran addict alike. I still don't know how he managed to keep everybody happy all of the time. 

"I was always aware that I was serving two different audiences: those who knew the game really well and those who might be tuning in for the first time," explains Chetwynd, a modest, smart and accommodating guy. "My goal was to never talk down to the audience, whether I was explaining the grip of a two-seam fastball or going over what exactly a balk was. I wanted to be clear but not patronising."

Indeed, JC taught me more about baseball than anybody else. If you're a Brit reading this, you're likely of a similar viewpoint. He explained the fundamental minutiae for beginners and experts, without making it tedious or overwhelming for either. With Josh, much like baseball itself, there was always another layer of fact, history and trivia. For instance, he taught me not only the myriad of different pitches, but how, why and when a pitcher may elect to hurl them. 

Over time, the show helped me know intimately practically every player in the big leagues. I can still recite, verbatim, the starting lineup of most every team throughout the 2008 season, a rare and not insignificant skill. Ultimately, Baseball on Five furnished me not only with casual enjoyment, but also an encyclopaedic knowledge of the game. In this respect, I regard the people behind the show, chiefly JC, as truly epic crusaders in the battle to expand and enrich America's game on British shores.

Yet, they never came across as pretentious, lofty or entitled. The mood was chilled, the ambiance tranquil. The guys had personality and idiosyncrasies. Jonny with his bouffant hair, Hawaiian shirts and comical grasp of fantasy baseball; Erik with his Expos-induced mourning and serial addiction to the most demonic of food; Davey Lengel with his superhuman commutes from Brooklyn that truly defied belief.

It wasn't so much a community as a family, with everybody bringing something to the table.

"I really loved every member of the group," recalls Chetwynd, more than a little mawkishly. "It was like family."

"Of course, Jonny Gould was centre of the universe. It is impossible not to love the man, even though he's amazingly self-absorbed and forgetful. Still, he's charming beyond belief and, at his core, a very warm-hearted man."

"Erik Janssen has a fantastic, wry sense of humour. He would be in the control room trying to make us laugh. He is also very talented at what he does, but in an understated way, which always meant a laid back environment."

"David Lengel is truly one of the funniest people. When he took over for me for the year-and-half I went back to the states people would tell me 'you guys are so different!' When I saw him on air for the first time, I totally understood. He puts it all out there and his demeanour and attitude is so funny. Off camera, he is incredibly giving and generous. He's the type of guy who would really go to bat for his friends at the first word of a request."

"I also got to work with Mike Carlson, better known for his NFL work, and Mark Webster," continues Chetwynd. "Both are great guys, albeit very different personalities."

"Regardless of who I sat across from, I always thought there was a good chemistry. Primarily, because we were almost always having fun."

Josh was quick to mention the folks working with relentless appetite behind the scenes. "Ivor the floor manager; Jo and Liz, the camera women among others; Paul and George, the VT guys; assistant producers like Rog, Gibbo, Paul Dodd."

"Working late at night with people for years, you really get to know them. I remember our final party after everything had been cancelled and it was truly a family atmosphere. I still keep in touch with many of them. Even though I'm now in the States, I talk to Erik at least twice a month."

What other shows can boast such a wholesome, welcoming, friendly dynamic? Not many, I guarantee.

Baseball on Five was first broadcast on Opening Day, 1997, beaming into British homes a contest between the defending world champion New York Yankees and the embryonic Florida Marlins. Initially, the show, raw and rudimentary, was carried sporadically as part of Five's late night Live & Dangerous sports strand, with analysis from the lovable Todd Macklin and little else beside. Tommy Boyd, a journeyman presenter with no expressed interest in baseball, was the first host, and a pretty lousy one at that.

In its first season, the show was notoriously bad. Aside from the splendid insight provided by Macklin, who had the patience of a saint, there was very little baseball knowledge on display. All too often, those involved saw it as a show inconveniently about baseball, rather than a baseball show. Moreover, nobody seemed to care, with the prevailing British apathy towards North American sport seeping through. 

From amid the unrefined, disinterested wreckage, one man came forth to revolutionise the show, set Britain on a path to serious baseball fandom, and rewrite the laws of televisual production. One man. A Canadian. Mr Erik Janssen.

In Roads to Redemption, an epochal baseball guide penned by English author Craig W Thomas (highly recommended for newer fans or those nostalgic about a bygone age), Janssen describes, in typically witty terms, his introduction to Baseball on Five during those dark old days:

"I watched the show when it was on in its first year, and it was terrible. They were doing everything wrong. The presenter would say 'okay, here's the Thome home run,' and it would be someone striking out. No one seemed to know anything about baseball. It was just awful."

Erik Janssen, the show's saviour.
So infuriated was Janssen that he did something entirely out of character: he rang up Five to complain. After reeling off items from an actual, written list, Erik was invited to stop by and provide some advice on the finer points of baseball. After all, he appeared to know the game far better than anybody Five presently employed, with the obvious exception of Macklin.

Initially a voluntary mentor, Janssen wound up staying at Five for a decade, becoming producer of the baseball show in 1998 and later working on NHL and NFL broadcasts. 

His first task at Baseball on Five was to hire a new presenter. Boyd, never accused of open-mindedness, mysteriously disappeared one day in May '97 citing, among other things, a sworn hatred for baseball, which, to the eternal chagrin of hardcore fans, he branded "glorified rounders." In his stead, Jonny Gould, a bubbly, borderline hyperactive figurehead, was granted a three-show trial which, under Janssen's edict, blossomed into eleven faultless years and over 500 sensational episodes.
Jonny Gould
A new dawn.

With a new dream team at the helm, spearheaded by Erik and anchored by Jonny & Todd following a complete overhaul, the show simply exploded in performance and popularity. During the late-90s, many of the core foundations and unmistakable mannerisms that made Baseball on Five so popular were put in place. 

By the dawning millennium, the show regularly averaged six-figure audience ratings, and peaked at over one million during the epochal Yankees-Mets Subway Series of 2000. A true halcyon moment in the show's evolution, this was also a tremendous achievement in the context of British televisual history; a low-budget show which, with baseball, chased darkened nights through to early breakfast, commanding the attention of so many people. Truly unprecedented. 

In his foreword for Roads to Redemption, Gould wrote that "Five once did some research into who watched the show. Apparently, most of our viewers were students, train drivers, night-shift workers, insomniacs and breast-feeding mothers!" 

"But you don't have to have lactating nipples to be a confirmed 'baseball nut'," he continued. "It appeals to all sorts of people, from Premiership footballers (Charlton Athletic's Chris Perry has been known to go to training on three hours sleep), to rugby World Cup winners (England skipper Martin Johnson), to showbiz types (TV comedian Phil Jupitus), and even allegedly members of the Royal family, though diplomacy prevents me from saying who." 

Following the spine-tingling 2001 World Series, won by the Arizona Diamondbacks from a Yankees team attempting to provide a salve for its city in the wake of unspeakable terrorist-wrought devastation, Todd Macklin bowed out, leaving the show and returning to Canada with his wife. A gaping void emerged, to be eventually filled by a boisterous man with a boyish love for the game. 

"I had actually never seen the show before I tried out for a position before the beginning of the 2002 season," recalls Josh Chetwynd of happy times. "I'd been working at Major League Baseball as a communications executive when it became clear neither Brett Barash nor Pat Garrigan [two short-lived Macklin repalcements] were coming back."

"I'd had TV experience when I worked as a reporter covering the entertainment industry for USA Today," Chetwynd explains. "So I was comfortable in front of a camera."

JC, in his playing days.
"I also had a baseball background, from NCAA Division 1 at Northwestern University, to a brief stint as an independent ball professional in the Frontier League, and for a number of years catcher for GB."

"So the MLB folks asked me if I wanted to try out. I sat next to Jonny Gould in a room with a camera and we riffed quite well. I was thrilled to get the job. So much so, I pushed off plans to return to the States to go to law school."

Chetwynd gave the show an extra injection of energy, with his youthful spontaneity, unbridled passion and exhaustive attention to detail aiding its professionalism and affirming its educative properties. He saw his mission, first and foremost, as to arm viewers with a sound level of understanding so as then to enjoy the baseball and frolics on offer. He succeeded in the most remarkable way, without coming across in the slightest arrogant, pretentious or condescending. 

As Josh alluded to earlier, he long held a desire to study law back home in the United States and, midway through the 2003 season, returned to Arizona to do just that. Five scoured the market for a stopgap replacement before ultimately hiring another lively, intelligent and downright hilarious expert by the name of David Lengel. It soon became obvious that the family had a new, eternal member.
David Lengel, in a league of his own.

A man of boundless energy and tremendous wit, Davey poured fuel on the open fire of entertainment, trading tongue-in-cheek barbs with Jonny and forming a simply mesmeric bond with his audience. More mellow than his fine predecessor, Lengel was able to make the role his own with stunning rapidity, forming new traditions, developing new mannerisms and concocting new ways for the show to expand. Oftentimes considered so laid back as to be horizontall, Davey took his work very seriously, deep down. After all, who else would regularly commute from Brooklyn to London on a weekly basis merely to work through the night on a niche sports programme? 

I'll always have a special place in my heart for Davey Lengel, because he was the co-host when I first discovered this addictive show and this therapeutic sport. Along with Jonny Gould, he brought baseball to life in my living room, for which I'm eternally grateful. Perhaps if the presenters weren't so friendly, caring and passionate, so thoroughly adept at selling the game to swathes of undecided observers, the game would've passed me by, a truly unthinkable horror.

I do have one favourite David Lengel story, however, which still evokes laughter in British baseball circles, and which he still struggles to live down. You likely remember it. Game 3 of the 2005 World Series. Astros, White Sox. First pitch shortly after 1am GMT. Jonny and David open the show looking dapper and fresh, full of trademark enthusiasm and off-beat humour. Houston jumps out to an early 4-0 lead, only for Chicago to pounce with a five-run fifth equalled only by Jason Lane's game-tying, eighth-inning double. Then, the innings begin to creep by at a glacial speed. Tied through nine...then ten...and eleven. In the studio, poor old Davey began to visibly wilt, consumed by the searing heat of production lights, stricken by the attendant numbness of sitting still for five hours straight, and haunted by the steady, inexorable encroachment of morning. 

Still the game went on. Twelfth inning, still tied. Thirteenth, similarly so. Pitching change after life-threatening pitching change. At-bat after interminable at-bat. The guys simply ran out of words, with Lengel left in a crumbled heap of exhaustion between innings, warmly derided by Gould as, of all things, softcore. Mercifully, the game ground to a cherished conclusion after fourteen painstaking frames, when the White Sox scored two and somehow closed out the longest game, in terms of innings played and time taken, in Fall Classic history. Just before 7 am, the guys signed-off, bringing to a close the most monumental broadcast in Baseball on Five lore. 

In the ensuing years, from 2006 through to its sad demise in '08, the show gathered a sublime momentum, becoming an increasingly intrinsic part of thousands of lives. During this period, when the chemistry was set, the formula was tested, and the production quality was greatly improved, Baseball on Five morphed from a highly-educational, serially-enjoyable showcase into a wide-reaching, all-pervading cult. The actual show, and the actual game coverage it contained, became just one outgrowth of a flowing, baseball-mad phenomena it helped create. 

Live from the 2007 All-Star Game in San Francisco.
Brits were watching, playing and consuming baseball in quantities unseen in six or seven decades. The show, basking in deeply unprecedented levels of popularity and participation, soared to new heights. Spurred by the show's performance, Five sanctioned live, on-site broadcasts of three All-Star Games, taking Erik, Jonny, Josh and Davey to Pittsburgh, San Francisco and old Yankee Stadium in its final days. Similarly, the guys embarked on annual, otherworldly road-trips, taking in five or six Major League games in a week of food, fun and, er, fights

"We were like brothers on those road trips," Josh recalls. "It was inevitable that we'd be scrapping off camera and exhausted by each other's idiosyncrasies by the end."

"The best trip, in my opinion, was the last one, in which we went to the Astros' Triple-A affiliate Round Rock Express. The people there were so nice and Jonny threw out a pretty nice first pitch!”

"We ultimately had a dizzy bat race, in which I beat Jonny and knocked him down in the process. Jonny is so crazy competitive and, if you asked him, to this day, he'd say I deliberately dropped him. Alas, we just ran into each other and it was an accident. Still, he couldn't handle losing."

I truly believe that Baseball on Five came along at the perfect time, with the characters and business of baseball at that time providing an environment of enjoyment hospitable to such shenanigans. Despite the plague of steroid and performance-enhancing drug abuse prevalent in the early-2000s, a subject on which JC spun some of his finest oratory, this, for my liking, was a truly golden era in the game's history. 

So long was its run, Baseball on Five meshed together three different and distinct eras, all exciting, all eliciting awe from the watching masses. The epoch of Clemens, Pedro, Randy Johnson, Glavine, Maddux, Moyer, Frank Thomas and Kenny Rogers joined that of Albert, Manny, Papi, Vladi, Thome, A-Rod and Andruw. We also saw the fledging Miguel Cabrera, a raw David Price, a burgeoning David Wright and a cluster of present stars with names like Longoria and Pedroia. 

Discovering Baseball on Five when I did, in the way I did, provided me a prism through which to view an eccentric, eclectic, electric era of sports, and afforded me the opportunity to learn this game and this craft from some of the noblest role models and finest players ever to lace a pair of cleats. To be taught the moral fabric of baseball from Derek Jeter and Chipper Jones, even through the medium of television an ocean away, is a remarkable gift. A gift for which I'll be forever thankful. 

In addition to its grand overhead missions of growing the game in Britain and introducing fans to a crop of tremendous superstars, Baseball on Five also mastered the little things to produce a well-rounded, something-for-everyone show. I fondly remember so many of the quirks which made it great. The reading of viewer emails and questions; the literal seventh inning stretch and JC's perennial mauling of Erik at In-game Trivia; the weekly updates on Britain's premier fantasy baseball league, so longingly beloved by the competitive Jonny Gould. I remember The Good, the Bad and the Ugly; Weaver Watch; and Phil Jupitus' Baseball Library. I remember Josh expounding on the illegitimacy of Bonds' home run records and the absurdity of the modern All-Star Game during the notorious One Minute Rant. I remember the Ballpark Breakdown, the cashmere baritone of Jon Miller, and the iconic ESPN Sunday Night Baseball broadcasts before they were butchered in the post-modern realm.

One of the most memorable Baseball on Five idiosyncrasies was the one whereby the show would simply be taken off the air once the clock struck 6 am, owing to a shared studio with Channel Five breakfast news. Only in extreme cases, such as the aforementioned 2005 World Series, were games allowed to overrun this rigorous deadline. I remember one particular game, during the very zenith of my manic Red Sox fandom, between The Olde Towne Team and the dreaded Yankees, live from Fenway Park. Must have been '07 or '08. The game was amongst the most exciting, enrapturing and thoroughly pleasing I've ever witnessed. These two powerhouses of baseball, these eternally warring sects, clobbered one another from pillar to post, trading bloody blows like Rocky Balboa and Apollo Creed.

The innings meandered by, with a fearsome energy radiating from the Fens into my bedroom, lit only by the evergreen glow of baseball. At around 5.57am, David Ortiz strode to the dish in extra innings, encouraged by a surging wave of hope from the grandstand. At my imploring to hit one out and end the absorbing contest before the imposing Channel Five deadline, Big Papi lofted a fastball high towards the Green Monster in left. "Get up! Get up!," I barked, wincing at the ball's flailing parabola. It hit high off the wall, Ortiz wound up on second base with a leadoff double, smashing his hands together with volcanic ramifications, as Boston thrashed to the sound of sheer incredulity. Just as the camera panned from a beaming Ortiz to a cool-looking Manny Ramirez at the plate, ready to hit and likely win the game, night melted into morning, and the images flickering on my small TV changed from a frothing Fenway Park to a clinical news studio. Erik Janssen always did love a good cliffhanger. 

Alas, following the enchanting 2008 season, our beloved Baseball on Five drew to a cold conclusion. As part of a cost-cutting measure during the awakening recession, Five, ever a bastion of late-night sports coverage, dispensed with its package of Major a League Baseball. 

I was plunged into something amounting to trauma. A dull ache of regret. A sudden pang of sadness. A debilitating emptiness. So many questions raced through our minds. How? Why? What next, for myself, for baseball in Britain, for Jonny and Josh and Erik and Davey? 

It was a time of immeasurable sorrow.

"The economy was bad at the time," explains Chetwynd, "and I believe Five wasn't doing great. There were cheaper ways to programme late nights and I think they were driven by that, which is sad as the baseball show was its longest running programme."

"I remember going to visit my family in the US just before Christmas in 2008 and being told that there were just some details that needed to be worked out, but that the show was coming back. Within a few days of being in the States, I was told the show was done. It was a huge kick in the guts to all of us. Very, very sad times."

Amid rumour and counter-rumour, snipe and counter-snipe, Jonny Gould emerged with an open letter to the baseball-loving masses, confirming the show's unfortunate demise in a piece of prose that still makes my heart sink. Here is that letter, in all its epoch-capturing, dream-shattering beauty:

Welcome Fellow Baseball Nuts……. God I’m going to miss saying that.

I’m sure most of you have heard the rumours. Five TV have ended their association with our beloved sport, or at least they have not committed to another season of Baseball on Five every Wednesday and Sunday night. 

The rumours have been many and mixed, and I’m sorry that I’m not in a position to fully clarify the situation for you. What I can tell you is that if this is the end, it has been one hell of a ride. 

Understandably many of our hardcore viewers are pretty pissed off with Five, but remember they have made a 12-year commitment and for that alone we should all be very grateful.

So what’s next? Well first and foremost the movers and the shakers in UK Baseball are still committed to finding a home for Baseball on UK television. There is no guarantee as to when or even if that will happen, but we are committed to keeping the baseball family intact. 

To that end we are continuing the Fantasy League this season regardless of whether my Baseball TV career has legs. So get your fantasy caps on tilt because it’s time to play ball!

Baseball – it’s a hardcore thing!!

Jonny Gould

Just like that, it was all over. Baseball did return to British television, with BT still broadcasting many games per week, but the lack of a studio presence, and the lack of intimacy, renders one a paralysed ball of overwhelming nostalgia. Josh, Erik and occasionally Jonny did return with a radio show on BBC Radio Five Live, but, after a few seasons, this was also nixed. Now, for the best part of six years, the truly unique spirit of Baseball on Five has been lost. 

I find it so sad that an entire generation of Brits has rounded into adolescence knowing only the NFL as the face of North American sport. Baseball, this far more enchanting, satisfying, and human game, exists largely undetected once again. A crying shame.

In the sickening aftermath of Baseball on Five, the act of watching baseball, and life as a whole, became slightly duller and more predictable. I struggle to find genuine magic in it any more. Genuine companionship. The intermittent years have flown by, bringing a steady stream of events and creations that make the show seem distantly anachronistic and my stomach-clamping nostalgia ever so slightly silly: adulthood, social media, political correctness, professional employment and responsibility. However, a part of me still yearns to spend sleepless nights watching baseball and stuffing my face with cookies, with little regard for the consequences.

As JC once wrote, British baseball campaigners are distinguished by their hope, determination and belief. Thus, I've fought long and hard for the return of Baseball on Five, without a great deal of success. I've wrote many letters, fired innumerable emails, and practically begged the power brokers at Five to reconsider their hasty decision to wield the axe. One such reply pretty well sums up their perspective:

However, along the way, I've been fortunate to befriend, and get to know, in real life, our heroes of the late night screen. I exchanged emails with Jonny attempting to make sense of our pain at the show's termination, and he even sent me one of his famous goody bags, full of baseball gifts, to ease the agony. Similarly, with encouragement and advice from Josh, David and Craig W Thomas, I found the conviction to pursue a career as, of all things, a sports writer specialising in baseball. I even shared the 2013 British Baseball Writing Award with JC, an honour which, no matter how long I toil, shall remain a career highlight. 

The guys have all moved on. Josh returned to Arizona and continues to author books and present radio shows of astounding depth. David enjoys a wide-ranging freelance career and still provides exceptional baseball reporting for the Guardian. Jonny is now an auctioneer to the rich and famous. Erik, meanwhile, continues to produce, most recently at the Sochi Winter Olympics. 

All good things must come to an end and, regrettably, I think that era, with that sparkle and that perfect blend of inspirational people, has gone forever. We now live in an era too fast, too hostile, and too cynical for a show like Baseball on Five to work. 

Ultimately, my feelings towards the show's legacy cannot be of sadness and melancholy, but gratefulness and pride. I'm grateful for its introducing to me the greatest game man ever conceived, and I'm proud of what, together, we, the hardcore and ever so slightly asinine British baseball community, were able to create. 

To build the warmest, funniest, most sensationally addictive sports show ever to grace terrestrial television in the United Kingdom required spades of passion and dedication from many men and women. I'm just glad to have played a part, no matter how small.