Q&A with Matt Smith from Baseball Great Britain

I don’t remember precisely what I was initially hunting down, but quite some time ago when I was looking for unique links for the site here, I stumbled across Baseball Great Britain via a Google search. Knowing that there is a general position of we-started-it-first from the island because of games like rounders and cricket (and also knowing that baseball is not as huge in England as it is over here), I decided to poke around a little on the website and its’ links, a lot of which are rather fascinating. The writers for the site love baseball, and keep track of games here via ESPN and online via MLB.TV, and have maintained the website in various forms since early 2006, keeping regular features like the Weekly BST Guide (where MLB games viewable in Great Britain are listed – because of the time difference, not a lot of west coast games are viewable at any sane time in England), You Are the Scorer every Friday, and general news about the British leagues, among many others. Throw into this the fact that I have relatives over there, and my mother’s father was from Cornwall, so I have blood ties to the country – and my curiosity was piqued.

So I decided to write to Matt Smith, the owner and maintainer of the website, and see if he could answer some questions that his site and its links brought up as I was surfing. Turns out a lot of the English teams are what we might refer to as “beer league”. But make no mistake about the level of devotion of these teams have to this great game. After all, they’re playing baseball! In Great Britain! You have to love that. Here is what Matt was kind enough to tell me about his website and baseball across the pond.

What is your favorite US team/player and why, and also, who do your fellow writers follow?

“The Oakland A’s are my favorite team, I’m afraid! They were one of the first teams I saw on TV here in Britain (may have just been on the highlights rather than a featured live game) and I was instantly caught by their uniforms, which included green and gold. My local soccer team, Norwich City, play in green and yellow and as I had no other reason to pick an MLB team, that seemed as good as any! They’ve proved to be a decent choice over the last eleven years since I started watching baseball in 1998, even if they haven’t quite gone on to achieve postseason success.  I like the fact that they are an ‘underdog’ team, although the current losing sequence isn’t such great fun.  Hopefully the growing pains will be worthwhile over the next few years.  The AL West has some great young talent that should make it a brilliant division in years to come.

My favorite player should by rights be an Oakland A, but I can’t say there’s much choice at the moment.  Our young lefty Brett Anderson has made a big impression this season so I’ll throw my support behind him. I guess generally I would go with Albert Pujols just for his sheer hitting ability.

As for other BaseballGB writers, you’ll be pleased to know that Joe Gray is a Mariners fan and his favorite player is Ichiro.  The other regular contributor Mark George is a Dodgers fan.”

Along the same lines as above, who do you personally follow locally?

“I don’t really support any single team. There aren’t any teams near where I live and baseball is still very much a developing sport here.  I kind of support all of them really, in the sense that I just want to see the sport grow in this country and the success of individual ballclubs will play a key part in that.”

The Bristol Badgers website currently features a tile ad saying that they are “recruiting now”. Are British teams on a sort of sign-up basis, or are there scouts?

“Baseball is an amateur sport in the UK, even in the top league: the National Baseball League. The current level of British baseball is such that teams are always on the lookout for new players, even if they have limited experience of playing the game.  A good illustration of this is the Croydon Pirates. They are a team in the NBL and they had to forfeit two games earlier in the season because they didn’t have enough players to play the games.    By ‘recruiting’, the Badgers basically mean that if anyone out there is keen to join their ballclub, they can go along to a practice session.  If they are committed and have a bit of talent for the game, in time they can make the team.  That’s really the level that British baseball is at right now.

Particularly at the lower levels, the main ambition is simply to get people playing the game.  Hopefully as more people take an interest in the sport, the overall standard will go up.”

How are the members of the Great Britain National team decided upon?

“I believe they are selected by the Head Coach Stephan Rapaglia with input from people like the Great Britain General Manager Alan Smith (I don’t know the exact process used).  In the last few years there has been a big effort to go out and recruit British-eligible players to the team who are not actually based in Britain (e.g. Americans and Canadians who qualify for Britain due to being born here or having a British parent etc).  This is predominantly done by holding try-out camps in the States and it’s possible that Team GB also gets in contact with players to see whether they are interested in playing for the team.

It’s not a policy that has won unanimous approval among British baseball players/fans in the past as it obviously means less British-based players make the roster, but I think it’s the right approach to take.  The current level of British play means that a team made up exclusively of British-based players wouldn’t get too far (with all due respect to those players).  By mixing in the ‘imported’ talent with home-based players, the team is able to qualify for and compete in higher-quality tournaments which should help to make those home-based players better.  They then go back into the British league as more experienced and talented players, which raises the standard of play there and so the knock-on effect continues with the other players in the league. In theory!

To be honest, the approach was vindicated two years ago when we came second in the European Baseball Championships just behind the Netherlands, which was a fantastic achievement.  Our best player, and the tournament MVP, was Brant Ust who two years ago was on the Mariners’ Triple-A team roster.  Finishing second in that tournament meant that we qualified for the Baseball World Cup that will be held in September this year. If interested, our Q&A with Brant can be found here.

Do British teams operate at the trade level in a similar manner as US teams, or are players mostly stagnant, and remain playing on the teams they start on? Likewise, are these paid positions?

“As it’s an amateur competition, players aren’t traded or paid.  Who you play for partly depends on where you live, really!  For example, the main reason the Croydon Pirates have struggled this year is because they have lost a number of their best players, not through trades but simply because they have left the area (gone back to America, Canada etc) for non-baseball reasons.  Of course, this means that teams who have a youth program and bring through their own players can really benefit as they are more likely to stay with the team for many years.  Both the Bracknell Blazers and the Richmond Flames in the NBL have benefitted in this way this year.”

How long is the season in Great Britain? Is the length of the season dependent upon the level the team is playing at? Of course we have single A through triple A in the States, and I see that British teams work much the same way. What is the playing level of these teams comparable to, and has anyone from these teams ever been scouted or drafted by a US team?

“As you suspected, the length of seasons differs depending on the league.  The amateur nature of the sport, and the lack of ballparks (with lights etc), means that teams only play on Sundays so a season is very short compared to what you are used to.  The NBL is twenty-four games long and is played as a series of twelve double-headers, for example.  It’s difficult to say what the level of play is really as I’m not overly familiar with the standards in the Minors. I wouldn’t be surprised if our highest league doesn’t even match a top college league in the States.

I’m not aware of any Brits having been scouted by a US team.  However, there are a growing number of European players who are being scouted and drafted by MLB teams, partly via an annual three-week MLB European Academy.  The Twins recently signed a 16 year old from Germany called Max Kepler-Rozcyki and, of course, the Mariners have two notable Europeans in their Minor League system in Greg Halman (Netherlands) and Alex Liddi (Italy).”

Is there any sort of final national game like the World Series, or any sort of organized All-Star games? How seriously are the rankings taken (I noticed the Croydon Pirates are down 0-18)?

“There is a postseason stage to British baseball, which has been revamped for 2009.  There will be a ‘Final 4’ competition for each of the 4 main levels of play.  Each Final 4, known as the National Baseball Championship, will be played over a weekend and will be played under the ‘double-elimination’ format seen in the World Baseball Classic.  It would be a bit of an exaggeration to call them ‘national games’ though due to the limited number of teams involved and the general awareness of them!  Even the NBL Championship will go under the radar of 99.9% of Brits and won’t receive any TV or press coverage.

How seriously the rankings are taken depends on how each team is doing, I think.  Certainly the Croydon Pirates are desperate to avoid a win-less season.  From a general standpoint, again it’s mainly about getting people out there playing the sport, so the rankings themselves aren’t overly important in the grand scheme of things.”

What is fan attendance like for British games?

“Not great! We don’t have any actual ballparks with seating or such like.  Spectators are mainly family and friends of the players, plus any locals who happen to take an interest. It’s a bit better than ‘three men and a dog’, but probably not by much for some clubs!”

Can you tell me a little bit about the quality and existence of baseball fields in England?

“Needless to say, Britain’s not exactly overrun with baseball fields and they vary in quality.  Some have a full dirt diamond while others only have dirt around the bases (like an artificial turf ballpark).  Most do not have a permanent outfield fence and instead a temporary one will be erected and taken down again. As mentioned earlier, we don’t have any stadiums with seating and such, but at the moment the focus is really on building up decent facilities for the players.  Hopefully the links I’ve provided give a good indication of the sort of facilities that are available.

There’s a big battle for playing space and obviously baseball often comes somewhere near the bottom of the pile with the other competing sports (someone always thinks that only having 30 soccer pitches in a small area isn’t enough etc).  Each baseball club relies on building up a good relationship with their local council to find them a plot and to support them in developing it.  This whole process takes a lot of commitment from the people behind each baseball club.  All of the administration and organization in raising funds, applying for grants, getting planning permission and the like takes a lot of dedication, often with setbacks along the way.  It’s not easy creating and maintaining good baseball (and softball) facilities, but thankfully there are a good number of ballclubs that are doing a great job in improving their facilities bit by bit. If you want to link to a good example of a club working hard to build up their facilities then the efforts by Herts Baseball Club are a good place to start.”

I just took a look around some more of your links, and found one for Welsh baseball, where the rules seem to differ pretty vastly at least as far as scoring is concerned. I am vaguely familiar with the existence of rounders, and of course cricket and baseball are well-known cousins; is there a concerted effort from clubs to make the sport uniquely British (or Welsh), or are the US rules followed, by and large?

“The vast majority of baseball in Britain is played under the US rules in Britain.  That’s part of the attraction for some as it helps to make the sport different to the other traditional English choices people have.  The Welsh baseball version is quite a localized thing, played in several areas of Wales and also in Liverpool.  It’s really a hybrid of US baseball, rounders and cricket.”

If you’d like to find out more about British baseball (and Welsh! I’d highly recommend that link for US aficionados), go to the Baseball Great Britian  site. Also featured in their blogroll is a blog called Baseball Over Here, written by an American living in England, and Twins Limey, a blog from a Brit living in Minnesota, among many others (yours truly included). Below I have included some links that Matt was kind enough to ferret out for me, aerial photos of several baseball fields in England via Google Earth. A little throw-in that I wasn’t expecting, but is nonetheless super cool.

Extra special thanks to Matt for all his patience with all of my scheduling issues, sickness, and general lack of doing anything remotely close to “quickly”.

Croydon Pirates – Roundshaw

Bracknell Blazers

London Mets – Finsbury Park

Richmond Flames

Herts Falcons

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5 Responses to Q&A with Matt Smith from Baseball Great Britain

  1. Pingback: BaseballGB » Blog Archive » BaseballGB on Section 331

  2. Matt Smith says:

    Thanks again for taking an interest in British baseball! There’s not a great number of fans over here, but we more than make up for that with our passion for the game.

  3. section331 says:

    Sorry for not mentioning it had been published – I did it right before I passed out on cold medicine again. Damn this summer cold. Thanks again to you, too! It was fun, and I learned a lot. 🙂

  4. Craig D says:

    I wonder if there are any plans by MLB to play any exhibition games in the UK in the near future (Like the NFL does)

  5. Matt Smith says:

    Hi Craig. It has been rumoured in the past and collections of Major Leaguers have come across to play exhibitions. The most recent was in 1993 when a Minor League game was played here. The trouble is, we don’t have a ballpark for them to come and play in. Using somewhere like a cricket ground (as used in 1993) is possible, but it doesn’t produce particularly good playing conditions (due to the dimensions) and wouldn’t be great for the fans either.

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