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Yankees sweep Red Sox in London as baseball dreams come true

Think of everything you have ever wanted, then cram it all into one weekend. That was me at the Major League Baseball London Series, a kid in an adult’s body, a man whose dream came true.

Attending your first ballgame is a rite of passage. It typically happens when you are five or six years old, maybe earlier in particularly passionate families. You travel in the car with your dad, pay for box seats on the first base side, and ascend a ramp into the verdant nirvana of America’s national pastime.

My story is a little different. My story is quintessentially British. This weekend, at the age of 24, I had the defining moment of my baseball childhood. The New York Yankees played the Boston Red Sox in a two-game series at London’s Olympic Stadium, and I was there to witness it. Words can barely describe my excitement. 

I have been a baseball fan since 2004, when I was nine years old. A fairly common narrative, you may conclude, except I have followed the game with tireless dedication more than 3,000 miles away from its epicentre. An ocean separates my home in Merseyside, England, from Fenway Park and Yankee Stadium. Getting there always seemed unlikely, but still I followed through the night, dreaming of just one opportunity to watch my favourite sport. Dreaming of moments like this weekend. 

On Friday morning, I boarded a train in Liverpool with my brother and girlfriend, bound for London, bound for baseball. From Euston, we zigzagged underground to Stratford, home to the Olympic Stadium, the first Major League Baseball stadium ever to present itself before my very eyes. This was real. Oh my god, this was real.

London Series Workout Day

Thanks to one of the many British baseball fan groups that have sprung up in recent times, I managed to score tickets to Friday’s workout, during which both teams took batting practice and spoke with the world’s media. As a devout baseball writer, seeing so many iconic journalists and broadcasters up close was a sequestered treat. Spotting role models like Ken Rosenthal, Buster Olney and Joel Sherman was surreal. So many Twitter avatars came alive before me. These people actually exist beyond social media. Who knew?

I got to meet one such role model, Ken Davidoff of the New York Post, among the most esteemed newspapers in America. I have followed Ken’s work for many years, relying on the information disseminated by him and many colleagues to form my appreciation and knowledge of baseball. 

I connected with Ken via LinkedIn a few weeks before the London Series, mainly seeking advice on how to develop my baseball writing aspirations. Ken enjoyed my article previewing the series, and he suggested that we meet at the workout day. It was a pleasure to spend time in Ken’s company and a privilege to appear in his piece on Britain’s most dedicated baseball fans

In the first of many dreamlike moments, I subsequently found myself just twenty feet from Reggie Jackson and Andy Pettitte, two Yankee greats shooting the breeze. They have ten World Series rings between them, baseball royalty on an ambassadorial trip to the United Kingdom. It was one of the coolest things I have ever seen. 

Aaron Judge and Gary Sanchez put on a show in batting practice and I enjoyed my first session of autograph-hunting by the Yankee dugout. Coming within touching distance of players like Didi Gregorius and DJ LeMahieu was awesome. These people have only existed in my computer screen, pixelated figments of MLB.tv. Now they were here in London, ignoring my requests for a signed ball. What an honour. I was totally starstruck.

Aaron Judge of the New York Yankees signs autographs during the MLB London Series 2019.

Aaron Hicks signed the most autographs, spending almost five minutes with a pen beside the dugout. I was impressed by his willingness to interact with the adoring public. Aaron gained a new fan right here.

While the Red Sox hit, I managed to meet up with Josh Chetwynd, the legendary presenter of Baseball on Five, the show that spawned so many hardcore fans in Britain. Josh has been a loyal supporter of my work over the years, providing encouragement and tips. I’m eternally grateful for his classiness and trademark enthusiasm, without which I may never have become a baseball fan. It was great to finally meet Josh and express my gratitude face-to-face. You will rarely meet a more intelligent and passionate baseball man.

The highlight of Boston’s BP session was receiving a wave from manager Alex Cora and a ball from a nondescript reliever with a beard. Forgive me, whoever you were, but I forgot to bring my glasses. Thank you, regardless. That was another thrilling ‘first’ in my baseball fandom, and it means a lot.

On the train back to central London, I noticed a familiar face. Familiar to me, at least, if nobody else. Only after instigating a conversation did I confirm the identity of Cliff Floyd, a solid outfielder who played for seven teams during my childhood, predominantly the Marlins, Expos and Cubs.

I shook Cliff’s hand and expressed my respect for his fine career, during which he played more than 1,600 games and hit more than 200 home runs. Floyd won the World Series with Florida in 1997 and maintained a career batting average of .278.  He appreciated my sentiment as an eager fan, if not the unprovoked attention on a busy train.

The Red Sox-Yankees rivalry

At the workout day, Red Sox fans far outnumbered their New York counterparts. It was quite surprising, therefore, to see so many Yankee shirts and caps on the tube heading to Saturday’s game. This team is a big deal, far bigger than even I appreciated. I felt fortunate to be part of this epic rivalry. The big league intensity was very real.

Like many people this weekend, I had the chance to meet online friends in the flesh for the first time. Such was the case with Mark Blakemore, his son and @CelticYankees, who have also followed my baseball work since the earliest days. Mark kindly gifted me a ticket for Sunday’s game, without which I would have faced the unthinkable prospect of being somewhere other than the stadium while the Yankees and Red Sox played in my own country. Thanks, Mark. I owe you one.

Behind the marketing stunts and advertising gimmicks, the slogans and the montages, these fanbases really do not like each other. Even all these years later, in the post-Curse vacuum, there’s a bubbling resentment among Red Sox fans towards New York and a feverish rebellion among Yankee fans towards Boston. They are diametrically opposed but somehow cut from a similar cloth. Such is the confounding nature of hostility.

My first ever baseball game 

Our tickets for my first ever baseball game were on the back row, deep in left field, way out in foul territory. I was the happiest person in the world. That moment when I emerged into the seating bowl, amid a raucous crowd, will live with me forever. A lifetime of faith proved worthwhile. Vindication wore a star-spangled banner.

New York Yankees vs Boston Red Sox, MLB London Series 2019, London Olympic Stadium.

As the national anthems played, goosebumps trembled across my whole body. Tears formed in my eyes. I was struck by the sheer improbability of it all - of being there to finally watch a Major League Baseball game, but also of England being able to pull this off.

The logistical operation to make this happen was monumental. From the food and drinks right down to the bullpen mound and the most innocuous pieces of equipment, there is a fine line between authentic and cheesy. London got it right, ever so blissfully right, and witnessing a crowd of 59,659 in my homeland, the largest for any Major League game in 16 years, was one of the proudest feelings I can remember.

The fact that, across America, such events are staged daily from February until October renders me speechless. I can only applaud your peerless work ethic and voracious appetite for sport. To be a baseball fan requires stamina beyond the kind of any other recreational endeavour. It’s unique for our time.

Before the game, we had a great view of Masahiro Tanaka and Sanchez warming up in the Yankee bullpen, another special vignette from the weekend. The Japanese hurler didn’t last very long in the game, however, as Boston and New York both scored six runs in the first inning. Turns out our Olympic Stadium is like Coors Field on steroids.

Aaron Hicks, my new favourite underdog, hit the first ever Major League home run on European soil. Brett Gardner also went yard for New York, as did Aaron Judge. I called his shot, eyeing the almost comic mismatch between his hulking physique and the shallow London dimensions. The Yankees and Red Sox combined for seven homers in total, decimating the ball with startling anachronism.

As a nation, our first experience of Major League Baseball was decidedly unrealistic, at least from an offensive standpoint. Boston and New York combined for 37 hits, burned through 16 different pitchers, and were eventually separated by just four runs in 30. The Yankees outlasted the Red Sox 17-13 in a game that fell within three minutes of being the longest ever for a nine-inning regular season game.

We stayed until the end, soaking up every second of the 4 hours and 42 minutes of rare baseball exposure. Participating in a mass rendition of Sweet Caroline, a staple of Fenway Park, was a cool experience, as was watching Aroldis Chapman seal the win from beside the Yankee dugout as we snuck into the posh seats late on. They even played New York, New York after the final out, surely the first such serenading of a Yankee win at a Red Sox ‘home’ game that has ever been recorded.

Yankees sweep Red Sox

My view for the Sunday capper was spectacular. Once again, thanks Mark. My brother managed to find a last-minute ticket, too, and we shared another fantastic afternoon at the ballpark. Nath has endured my loquacious baseball ramblings since he was a kid, so to see him so engrossed in the game was magical. He also has a robust knowledge about baseball that will only grow with further exposure. The annual London Series is something that needs to happen, Mr Manfred. We got this.

New York Yankees vs Boston Red Sox, MLB London Series 2019, London Olympic Stadium.

Just before first pitch, I managed to nab an autograph from Mark Teixeira, the former Yankee first basemen, as he exited the field following his pre-game duties for ESPN. Another World Series champion, Teixeira became just the fifth switch-hitter to reach 400 career home runs in 2016. This was a big deal for me. Everyone remembers their first signed ball, right? I’ll cherish it forever.

Mark Teixeira signed ball, New York Yankees vs Boston Red Sox, MLB London Series 2019, London Olympic Stadium.

Sunday was defined by an impressive Yankee comeback. Trailing 4-0 after the first inning, New York gradually chipped away in the pristine London sun. Entering the seventh inning, a crowd of 59,059 was party to a tight duel. Then the Red Sox bullpen imploded, as it so frequently does. The Yankees exploded for nine runs with big hits from Hicks, Sanchez and Gio Urshela. They eventually held off a late Red Sox counter-comeback, triumphing 12-8 to sweep the inaugural London Series.

Lessons from the MLB London Series

I learned a lot this weekend, far beyond the box score. We saw 50 runs and 65 hits, 4 errors and 10 homers, but this was about more than numbers. This was a celebration of unity and a refinement of fun. This was feat of elite organisation and a showcase of immense skill. This was the greatest weekend of my life.

People complain about baseball games being too slow, too long and too stagnant, but that’s kinda the point. Only a certain breed understands. A day at the ballpark is community in motion. It is learning and reminiscing, hoping and praying. It is taking time to stop and breathe in the otherwise chaotic whirlwind of contemporary life. It is relaxation, reconnecting with your younger self, and allowing the mind to wander. Baseball is the greatest sporting portal to introverted contemplation that exists in our lexicon. That is a wonderful thing that should never be broken.

The access that baseball fans have to their idols is unequaled. Fans mingle around the stadium, unsegregated and merry. Once your ticket is scanned, you are largely free to roam the entire stadium, stopping for food or to meet new people. We simply don’t have that luxury in English sport, so prone to hatred and division.

Even the fact that you get to keep any ball that enters the stands is subtle beauty. It’s a sacred tradition symbolic of a more innocent time. Those values of compassion and generosity will never lose utility, and baseball should be proud of its contribution in this regard.

Cracker Jacks, ballpark food, New York Yankees vs Boston Red Sox, MLB London Series 2019, London Olympic Stadium.

There’s a rhythm to baseball that is impossible to replicate, a lyrical tranquility that calms the anxious and soothes the worried. In my battles with mental ill health, I have discovered a new form of treatment: the gentle susurrus of a ballpark crowd, rising with each strike, undulating with every out and peaking in moments of mounting suspense.

At the ballpark, you are free to just sit and think, sit and enjoy. You are free to just be, and be yourself, for there is no greater way to spend a summers’ day than with the people you love obsessing over something of minimal mortal significance.

That’s why baseball is so special, because in a world where we’re all just wasting time, you might as well do it with peanuts and Cracker Jack.

I can’t wait to do it all again.

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