Baseball: Diamonds are a groundsman's worst friend: Richard Weekes on why The Oval is admitting base stealers and screwballs

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The Independent Online
HARRY BRIND will be at his usual post, inspecting pitches, at The Oval today and tomorrow. However, if the Boston Red Sox or New York Mets players serve up a bad one, they won't have Harry docking them 25 points. 'I'll be watching the games,' Brind, the Surrey head groundsman and Test and County Cricket Board pitch troubleshooter, said. 'But I can't understand any of it.'

There have been a few other blank looks of incomprehension this week as American baseball and English cricket, those two branches of the stick-and-ball tree, have been thrown together in preparation for the French's Baseball Festival this weekend.

Alec Stewart, who will start things off today with a home-run derby - along with Graham Thorpe and Syd Lawrence, as well as Clare Taylor and Debra Maybury from the England women's cricket team - was surprised to learn that top pitchers deliver the fastball at just under 100mph. 'Oh well,' he sighed, 'early practice for the West Indies.'

In fact, for the home-run contest, the pitching will be more cherry-pie thrower than Curtly Ambrose, with the ball lobbed nicely up over the plate. Each competitor will be allowed 10 'outs' - balls not hit for a home run - before they are out. After the England cricketers have shown their prowess (or lack of it) with a round bat, some of the Americans will try to hit for six a selection of fine old English dobbers with a cricket bat.

Tomorrow's hors d'oeuvre, at the unsporting hour of 9.30am, will be the deciding game in the British Premier League final between the Humberside Mets and the Bedford Chicksands Indians.

Each day's main course will be a nine-inning game between the New York Mets and the Red Sox. Not the real thing - the first teams are plodding through games 161 and 162 of the season this weekend - but the clubs' leading minor league players.

This Oval outing is by way of a dry (make that wet) run for the promised appearance at Lord's and three other European venues of two teams of major league All Stars in 12 months' time. In typically belated fashion, Major League Baseball has woken up to what the NFL and NBA realised years ago: there are marketing and merchandising gains to be made from promoting America's national sports on European soil.

This week, unfortunately, the boys of summer have hit London just when typical cricket weather has taken a grip. 'It's been very difficult to get the soil for the bases bedded down,' Brind said. The Surrey groundstaff have been turning their HQ into something resembling a baseball field under the direction of Murray Cook, head groundsman at West Palm Beach, Florida, the spring training ground of the Atlanta Braves and Montreal Expos. His last foreign foray was on a minor league tour of the Soviet Union in 1991. 'If we can turn a soccer field in Tallinn into a diamond, we can do it here,' he said.

After yesterday's downpour, Mike Carlson, Major League Baseball International's man in London, conceded that batting practice would be cancelled to assist mopping-up operations, but pledged that the batsmen 'will be prepared to play in light drizzle'.

If the players insist on sliding headfirst into second base, by tomorrow night the place will look more like Woodstock than The Oval, let alone Shea Stadium.

(Photograph omitted)