HYDE PARK, London – Major League Baseball took an important first step in its oft-discussed ambition to expand its reach in Europe with the highly successful MLB Battlegrounds in London on July 4. As detailed in our article for Baseball America, the success of this event continues the momentum gained by the success of Great Britain in the World Baseball Classic Qualifiers last September, and the astonishing crowds at Hyde Park likely cement London as the first European location for regular season MLB games.
Charlie Hill was hired in December of 2015 to led MLB International’s London office and will be a key figure in the lead-up to hosting two major league clubs. Hill’s team pulled off a spectacular event that started a day earlier with the transformation of British Summer Time’s Great Oak Stage into a pair of batting cages with pop-up stages in front where batting practice hurlers tossed to the Home Run Derby participants. Directly in front of the stage, the expanse was measured into a field with distance-based targets, plus a fence over which players like Shawn Green, Carlos Peña, and Cliff Floyd, hit home runs.
Pyrotechnics, smoke machines, and an East vs. West Coast vibe turned the event into a smashing success while showcasing the fun and family-friendly environment that will be the main draw for baseball in Britain’s capital. The teams were nominally ‘Boston’ and ‘Los Angeles’, and played on Britons’ knowledge of these two cities. The event did not dwell on baseball’s complicated intricacies and, instead, introduced the fun of cheering on one’s favourite slugger and catching home runs.
Battlegrounds laid the ground for official games, which would not happen until summer 2019, but the occasion was a crucial and strategic milestone as the league tested British waters. With more than 20,000 in attendance, a truly Anglo-American setting, and enthusiastic former big leaguers, London will have turned away other contenders—Amsterdam, Paris, or Nettuno, Italy—as the best stage for baseball in Europe. This is exactly what MLB hoped, for the London market is most like the U.S. and it believes marketing would run into fewer cultural barriers, at least from the perspective of language.
We discussed MLB Battlegrounds with Hill and its role as the foundation for hosting an actual Red Sox or Dodgers club (though both are likely to be from the Northeast or Mid-Atlantic for travel reasons). Our chat also touched on the importance of GB Baseball and BaseballSoftballUK in the development of more formal MLB connexions with London. For those who prefer, our conversation is available in audio on our Soundcloud.
Gabriel Fidler: I’m here with Charlie Hill, MLB UK, at MLB Battlegrounds, moments before the Home Run Derby starts to crank up…
Charlie Hill: We gotta be careful, they’re going to peppering us any minute!
GF: We’re standing in the flight path of foul balls, maybe not home runs…
CH: And there’s a t-shirt cannon right now!
GF: Ah yes, we don’t want to be hit with that either! And around us is this great crowd of people who have come from all over Britain—I’ve got people tweeting me saying they’re coming from Liverpool, Manchester, and I’ve come from Durham with lots of Durham University players—but it’s really come together somewhat quickly towards the end.
CH: Yes, it did!
GF: Tell us about the organisation of it and the idea for it.
CH: Well, I think fundamentally what we’ve gotta be doing as an organisation is to ask ourselves some quite challenging questions about how do we put together experiences that are rooted in baseball as we know and love it, but start to make a connexion to audiences that are not accustomed to the sport. And so, there are a whole range of things we have to begin to do which allow us to essentially build a relationship with a new audience, and so we started thinking about where we want to be present, what kinds of formats of the game make sense, and I don’t even know where it began: “Let’s take over a music festival”, but somewhere along the line it made sense and it is amazing to be here, seeing it in front of us. I think it’s essentially a very public experiment. How do we begin to take the sport that we know and love—and look, we understand that the community want games, and we’re working on that, but we gotta do things in between to help build towards that, so that’s what this is all about.
GF: And how long has the planning been going on for this?
CH: It’s been a year, but in earnest the last three or four months. This has been a wild journey; really quick, and it’s amazing to be here.
GF: And, as far as I know, this is the first time MLB has used the ‘Battlegrounds’ phrase. Where did Battlegrounds come from and are there other Battlegrounds events coming up
CH: A couple of days ago we had a first of many—we hope—event at POP Brixton with this new VR experience [the launch of the London Battlegrounds, with virtual reality batting cages and simulations]. We’ve had an amazing time working with Harlequins Rugby Team and Middlesex at Lords which we called a ‘mini home run derby’ on their fields, and I think for us it’s a simple hook for us to begin to try a number of things that are a new way of experiencing the sport and the content of a live event that feel very simple. In this case, let’s take cricket and put it up against baseball, let’s take Cliff [Floyd] against Carlos [Peña], let’s take these matchups which are compelling and easy to understand.
GF: And what’s in the offing for Battlegrounds? Anything planned?
CH: I think we’ll need for about two months! Look, this is just the beginning. We’re literally just scratching the surface. There’s a whole host of folks here that are seeing something that’s really exciting. We’ll do more of this. We’ll be speaking a lot more about it soon, but for now we want to focus on getting this done as best we can, make a great experience for fans both new and old, and there will be a lot more to come soon.
GF: There is, of course, a long tradition of playing baseball [in the UK], mostly at quite a small level, but it’s grown in recent years, particularly as Liam Carroll has completely revolutionised the GB Baseball programme…
CH: He’s a great guy, we’re lucky to have him involved. He’s been absolutely wonderful, the team’s great, and we couldn’t be more grateful for their involvement.
GF: Can you talk more specifically about their involvement for this, and then going forward with getting GB Baseball and BSUK along with MLB in marketing and introducing baseball to London?
CH: Look, I think, at some point we can sit down and talk details, but I think ultimately what we need to do as a group is to spread the word, and that’s to get more people playing, more people watching, more people connecting to other fans. It needs to feel like a movement, and for that to work we need to work together and get everything involved, so we’re really lucky to have a great relationship with BSUK, with GB Baseball. This event proves it; we couldn’t do this alone. This is just the beginning, but I think it’s going to be really exciting working with them.
GF: It’s going to be quite an exciting event tonight as we have the Home Run Derby in just a few minutes. It’s pitted as Red Sox versus LA. Who’s your pick?
CH: [pauses to think hard] I think LA might steal the team win. The dark horse is Federico Celli, he was absolutely pinging it [during batting practice]. I think that Peña’s taking this pretty seriously, but who knows about these cricket guys? If they get ahold of some, it could be fun to watch.
GF: Earlier today, Taylor Hoaglund was sitting in for one of the players, and she was absolutely crushing balls, so there’s a few wild cards here.
CH: It’s going to be great fun!
[Hill’s prediction of Celli was prescient, as the young Italian slugger put on a dramatic finale to best Peña for the title.]
GF: We’re all going to enjoy it, thanks very much for speaking to us.
CH: My pleasure.
For more on MLB Battlegrounds, check out our article for Baseball America (link). We spoke with Carlos Peña (link), Shawn Green, Cliff Floyd, and GB Baseball’s Gary Davison and Will Lintern, and will be unveiling our conversations with them this week.