This article was written for, and first appeared on, baseballsoftballuk.com.
The countdown to the London Series officially began in the Queen Elizabeth Olympic Park on Sunday as the London Youth Baseball League (LYBL) took home the inaugural MLB Cup London trophy. The all-day event began with a fastpitch competition and concluded with six Little League baseball games, all on a specially created field immediately next to London Stadium. The penultimate game of the day, which decided the title, was a rematch of the 2019 UK Little League Championship.
The day started with a bang in the softball game, as a walk-off hit secured the victory for Team White over Team Blue, with each squad featuring a mixture of the best girls’ softball players from the London area and southeast England. Casey Johnston was awarded Most Valuable Pitcher, while Matilde Crapanzano was named Most Valuable Player after a series of excellent plays as the Blue’s shortstop. Crapanzano appeared at an earlier London Series legacy event, the MLB Cadet Camp at Farnham Park, along with several other softball players at the Cup.
Opening Ceremonies followed, with the two softball teams and four baseball teams introduced and welcomed by Jim Small, MLB’s Senior Vice President of International Business, and John Boyd, CEO of BaseballSoftballUK. Liz Knight, BaseballSoftballUK Development Manager for London, handed out the two MVP awards and medals for the winners, while Small threw out one of three official first pitches.
“The participants here today are…making history by being the first-ever participants in the MLB Cup here in Great Britain,” Small told the assembled players, parents, and fans. “One of the best players on the best team in MLB right now, the Minnesota Twins, is from Germany [Max Kepler]. We don’t yet have a player from the UK, [but] we would love to have some hard work and someday [have you] be able to play Major League Baseball. The best thing about baseball, though, is that it’s fun, and that’s why I hope you guys have here today!”
The four Little League teams certainly took Small at his word, with a series of spirited games following in which two things became clear. First, that LYBL deserved its UK Little League crown and second, that few people have more fun playing baseball and softball than 11-to-13 year-olds. The games even featured 13-year old Alex Paterson, a member of the Great Britain Under-15 national team, as base umpire assisting Blake Taylor.
Baseball play opened with a London Sports triumph over London Mets, 8-0, with Louie Ikeda hitting the first-ever MLB Cup London round-tripper. Ikeda ripped a ball to deep right centre and then raced around the bases for an inside-the-park home run to the excitement of his teammates and a standing ovation from fans and players of both teams. Isaac Rosenthal nearly followed with his own, but was thrown out at the plate on a great play by the Mets’ rightfielder.
“All of these 11 and 12-year-olds have been playing for London Sports since they were five years old,” explained London Sports’ Erik Gustafson later. Gustafson’s son, also named Erik, hurled two scoreless innings in the game. “Although none of these children may grasp the moment, they have been playing baseball all of their lives at London Sports to be able to represent their club at this moment in Great Britain baseball history.”
LYBL took Game Two 4-0 over an All-Star Team that represented a variety of southeast baseball clubs and included two players in their ‘Great Britain’ national team jerseys. London Sports then vanquished the All-Stars 5-2 before LYBL claimed a 6-0 decision over the Mets in Game Four.
With both teams entering with a 2-0 record, Game Five saw a rematch of the UK Little League Qualifier Championship Game between LYBL and London Sports. Travis Harfield’s first inning double got London Youth off to a good start as it took a 2-0 lead in the first and Naotoro Konno worked out of jams in the first and third to preserve a 6-0 shutout. Konno was named Most Valuable Pitcher and Harfield took home MVP honours, with both joining the softball selections in receiving tickets to a game of the London Series, a Red Sox or Yankees hat, and a handsome backpack.
“[It was a] great day at a great venue with great intent to grow the baseball community in the UK and throughout Europe,” commented LYBL’s Jason Fitzgerald. “We impressed upon the kids a few times what it meant to represent the sport, LYBL, their parents and the UK in general in a such a great event. To win was quite an honor and we reminded the boys that they will always be the first to do it!
“Did you guys have fun?” asked Small after the games concluded to the assembled Little Leaguers, who promptly cheered. “I was amazed at the quality of baseball I saw out here and so many of you have so much talent. The main thing is how much fun everyone had and the passion that I saw here for the game of baseball. When I see that I am heartened to know that baseball has a great future here and it’s because of you guys.”
The MLB Cup has been running for nearly a decade, with games in Japan, Korea, China, Taiwan and Mexico. Sunday’s event, however, was the first time it was held in Europe. The MLB Cup London Workshops also took place at the London Stadium Marathon Community Track, where British softball and baseball coaches received high-level instruction from Bill Holmberg, MLB Pitching Coordinator for Europe and Africa, Martin Brunner, Coordinator of Baseball Development Europe, Chad Gravenorst of MLB South Africa, and Liam Carroll, Head Coach for the Great Britain Baseball Senior National Team.
“This was a team effort between MLB, Little League, and BaseballSoftballUK to bring a fun, high-standard youth softball and baseball competition to the London Series,” concluded John Boyd. “We are especially grateful to the volunteers for ensuring the first MLB Cup in Europe was a great experience for all.
“The event was all about the journey from being a Little Leaguer to being a Major Leaguer, played on a bespoke youth field of dreams in the shadows of the London Stadium and the Orbit. This will have helped the inspire the next generation of baseballers and softballers.”
For those who missed the live broadcast, the first, fifth, and sixth games were broadcast on BaseballSoftballUK’s YouTube account and are available for viewing here. For those in the area, Europe’s best amateur baseball prospects will descend upon Farnham Park Tuesday through Thursday for the Elite Development Tournament, and everyone is welcome. More details can be found here.