Given the buzz generated by the pair of games between the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox over the past weekend, the unlikely marriage between London and Major League Baseball could be one that lasts.
What’s not in doubt is that on a sweltering weekend in the British capital, the London Stadium was the place to be for royals and any self-respecting A-lister.
Like the annual NBA London Game, celebs came out to hobnob with players, from Spike Lee and Rudy Giuliani to Prince Harry and Meghan, Duchess of Sussex, who visited each team’s locker room before Saturday’s game.
Meghan embraced Red Sox outfielder Mookie Betts, who is believed to be her distant relative. An amateur genealogist traced their lineage back 150 years to the same small town in Alabama.
British MP Ed Miliband, a Red Sox fan, discussed strategy with visiting Americans, while former New York mayor and Yankee fan Giuliani weighed in on the prospect of the sport taking off in the UK.
“I think the Brits love sports, and I think if baseball does what (the NFL) does and sticks with it, and stays here for four or five or six years, they will love it,” Giuliani told CNN Sport.
“They love baseball; they will probably find a way to bet on it. They will probably bet on innings, half innings, balls and strikes … they love to bet.”
The MLB came armed with stars and scoring, welcomed by glorious weather and sellout crowds who sang “Sweet Caroline” during a break in the eighth inning as though they were in Boston’s Fenway Park.
“It felt like a huge event,” said Yankee manager Aaron Boone, whose team picked up a pair of wins with the record-breaking score lines of 17-13 and 12-8 to secure the best record in the American League halfway through the season.
“The energy in the building never let up and you could feel that … it was a lot of fun to be a part of that.”
Years after the NFL and NBA established themselves with European audiences by holding annual mid-season games in London, the MLB announced last year that it would send two of its global sporting brands across the pond.
It soon became evident that the team’s logos carried far more fame than their players did in England.
Although the Yankees 6-foot 8-inch, 282-pound star slugger Aaron Judge is hard to miss, he went unrecognized while walking around the London Eye while sightseeing on Thursday — even by tourists wearing Yankee hats.
“They had no idea who I was,” he recalled. “I said, ‘Hi, I’m Aaron, good to meet you.'”
Nevertheless, both managers and their players were aware of the gravity of the moment.
“The opportunity to showcase our game over here is great, and we should feel excited to play a little bit of a role in hopefully spreading our sport,” Boone noted.
Fears that the games would be tainted by low-scoring pitching duels, or possibly get rained-out given London’s unpredictable summer weather, were quickly swept aside.
Taking advantage of the short outfield fences, the teams combined for 50 runs — a record for consecutive games played in their 117-year rivalry — while blasting 10 home runs and 65 hits over the weekend.
On the downside, there was a total of 28 pitching changes, which led to long delays.
By the time fireworks exploded and Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” was played after the final out of Saturday’s nearly five-hour marathon — the first inning alone took 58 minutes — half of the 60,000 seats at London Stadium were empty.
Players, however, relished the surroundings and appeared undeterred by the new scenery that included artificial turf.
“It felt like a soccer match here, it was pretty cool,” said Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius, whose eighth inning homer on Sunday extended the Yankees record home run streak to 31 games. “It’s fun being out here, crazy atmosphere.”
Gregorius, a Dutch-national who grew up between Amsterdam and Curaçao, is one of 12 foreign-born players on the Yankees representing nine countries from Nicaragua to Japan.
Among the hoard of assembled media over the weekend were at least 40 members of the Japanese press, on hand for Yankees pitcher Masahiro Tanaka’s shaky start on Saturday (he lasted less than an inning, giving up six runs).
But out of the league’s 251 international players that started the season, Gregorius is one of only three Europeans — something the MLB is hoping to change.
“For me this means a lot, being back in Europe,” said Gregorius, whose family traveled from the Netherlands to be in the stands on Sunday. “We’re trying to grow baseball all over the place.
“Soccer is dominant all over Europe, which I understand, because I grew up playing soccer a little bit,” he added. “But if people can see that there are more sports other than soccer — you can’t force it — but if they get interested in it, it will be pretty cool to get people from London and other places in Europe to get in the Major League and represent their countries.”
Red Sox manager Alex Cora, who is from Puerto Rico, echoed the sentiment. Despite the defending champions’ messy play, he called the event’s execution “outstanding” and pushed for further games beyond next year’s matchups between the Chicago Cubs and St. Luis Cardinals.
“Hopefully other teams can experience this venue,” he said.
Britain’s cup of tea?
Though the MLB’s aim is to grow the sport in Europe, a large portion of seats were filled by existing baseball fans who traveled from the US.
Among them were Bob and Maureen Gatulis, lifelong Red Sox fans living in Needham, Massachusetts, who were “more than surprised” to hear their team was coming to London.
“I’m 65-years-old, something like this has never happened,” Bob Gatulis said, while waiting on line at the souvenir stand before the first game. “So as soon as I heard about it, I said jeez I think I want to go.”
He wasn’t sold on the notion that America’s pastime would soon be Britain’s cup of tea, however.
“I don’t know, baseball is a slow game,” he said. “There’s a lot of history to baseball and a lot of nuances that you have to be a fan of the game to understand.”
Patrick Shine and his nine-year-old son Freddie traveled 50 miles from the town of Reading to the game, but were only vaguely aware of the rules, the father admitted. They were attending as fans of the NFL’s Miami Dolphins.
“We love American sports,” he said. “This is a spillover for us because baseball is not really known here.”
Briton Bob Carter, 60, was gifted his tickets from his daughter, and the two decided they were rooting for the Red Sox on Sunday.
But Carter lost interest about halfway through the game and streamed the Cricket World Cup on his phone to watch England play India. “This is not as exciting as English football, or one day cricket,” he said.
Chicago college student Jeremiah Baprocki, 20, has been to every one of the league’s 30 ballparks. He came away impressed by the authenticity the baseball field placed on the grounds of West Ham United.
“The transformation is incredible; they made it look like an actual baseball field,” he said. “Walking in for the first time you can tell it was a soccer stadium because of how enormous it was on a baseball scale. Most MLB ballparks aren’t this huge.”
“London was a great host, and I think they will be a great host next year too,” he added.
If the past couple of days are anything to go by, the Cubs and the Cardinals — another historic rivalry between two popular teams — are set for a big weekend next year.
The Yankees and Red Sox attracted the most fans for any MLB regular season game in 16 years on Saturday, according to Baseball Reference.
Judge even blasted a home run for the record crowd, securing at least a little more fame before returning home.
But will Londoner’s interest wane as lesser-known teams fly over? That remains to be seen.