I’m writing this as it’s 17-6 for the Yankees in the very first MLB regular season game played in London. It’s certainly been a wild ballgame, but even though this matchup does count in the standings, it’s felt much less like a regular season contest and more like a show. That’s fine, the purpose of this series is to sell the sport to a new market, but these games count. Regardless of the final outcome, a team could have a legitimate gripe should they miss the playoffs by a game or two.
The griping of Red Sox fans is a very little issue that I have with the London Series, but it serves as a microcosm of what’s wrong with the idea at the conceptual level. MLB couldn’t make this an exhibition game, build a proper baseball field or get drapes over white seating in the batter’s eye, but they were perfectly capable of getting sponsor's stickers on every single batting helmet.
Baseball does need international growth—it’s too easy for consumers across the globe to access content originating on another continent. Even strictly legal, legitimate digital streaming can get me access to Yankees games in Texas, Women’s World Cup games in France, and cricket in Australia, all without leaving my house in Toronto. Even though baseball is still fundamentally a regional game, there are international consumers that want access to the sport. They’re just not really in London.
Baseball has a pretty good history and life in Europe, with a professional league in Italy, the German Youth Activities program in the Cold War helping to produce 30,000 current baseball players in Germany, and current MLB players like Didi Gregorius being born in Amsterdam and raised in Curaçao. Italy, Germany and the Netherlands all have demonstrated existing interest in baseball, but admittedly none of them feature a city as populous, nor as high profile commercially, as London, the world’s second-most important financial sector as well as a city where English is the first language.
That status as a financial juggernaut works well when MLB is trying to make money off this series, but the first game feels much more like spectacle than competition. This became obvious in the first inning. As the smoke from a very long introductory pyro show cleared, both Rick Porcello and Masahiro Tanaka stunk:
Both pitchers were wild, and when they were over the plate, they got crushed. The first inning saw 12 runs and four pitchers, and I can’t help but think that because both starters flamed out so spectacularly, there was something wrong with the environment the game was played on. I’m not sure whether the mound was wonky, the bullpens not sufficient for a proper warmup, or what the problem was, but both starters were clearly not prepared for the game.
Statcast also had some notable problems, especially in their pitch-by-pitch gamefeed, where the site was unable to record xBA for most of the game. Given that the entire system is built into the stadium itself, the seat-of-your-pants work done in this series probably led to the Statcast system behaving sub-optimally.
And of course, the ballpark itself, with a 385-foot center field, the above mentioned batter’s eye, and foul poles that couldn’t even be drilled into the ground for fear of disturbing the soccer pitch. That center field played a role in the fourth inning, where Luke Voit hit a double to center that would have been an out in either Yankee Stadium or Fenway Park, and Voit’s run came in to score. j
Of course, Voit himself got hurt and left the game the following inning. Injuries are injuries, and who knows what would have happened if these games were played stateside. Voit, however, got hurt in a game 3,500 miles from home, on a field built as quickly as possible.
I’m trying really hard to not sound like a Baseball Grump. International expansion IS good, and it certainly was fun to watch the Yankees and Sox combine for more than twenty runs, in an absurdist sort of way. If you’re trying to convert a bunch of non-fans to baseball, it’s probably easier to do so with an offense explosion than a 4-2 game. The players, or at least the position players, also seemed to genuinely enjoy the trip.
I just want the league to focus on where the game is already strong. The Mexico Series and games in Puerto Rico are already wildly successful, and more than one in ten MLB players come from the Dominican Republic. Putting games in locations that already have baseball infrastructure cut down on the sloppiness we saw in stadium design, and reduce the logistical headaches around getting players, coaches and support staff to Europe and back.
The London Series has been a fun spectacle, but it’s been just that. Between dreadful pitching, jerry-rigged stadiums, and stealing the gimmicks of other teams, it was hard to take yesterday seriously as a regular season baseball contest. If MLB wants this Series to be a perennial event, it’s going to have to confront that.