British baseball, 122 years old, faces an awful lot of ifs this week. If they win their match against Austria today, the Brits have a chance of getting to the European Championship B Pool final. If they do this, they get promoted to the A Pool. If they come first or second in the A Pool, they have the opportunity of competing in the 2000 Olympics in Sydney. And then, if they truly dream the dream, they have every chance of selling their bats and catching mits to passing tourists.
Like many other types of minority British sport, British baseball suffers from low investment. There are very few baseball diamonds with raised mounds. There are very few paid coaches or officials. There are no paid players. There is very little sponsorship. The players must buy their own equipment, pay their own travel, and bring sandwiches.
But there is loads of that spunky British spirit, and most of it comes together in Kingston upon Hull. The head office of the British Baseball Federation is in Hessle, just outside Hull. The Hull Mets and Hull Royals provide nine of the players in the Great Britain squad, with seven in the team. And this year Pool B of the European Championships is taking place in or around Hull, in pleasant spots such as Sydney Smith School and the Eastmount Recreation Centre.
To Hull this week have travelled teams from Yugoslavia, Slovakia, the Czech Republic, Lithuania, Austria, Poland, Croatia and Ireland. Even Norway have come. These players are not quite as good as some in the top flight in Italy, Holland and France, but there was pride in their eyes as they paraded around a hot field behind their flags in the opening ceremony on Sunday. The Cottingham Brass Band played, a few people made speeches about how this was the big one and thanks for coming, and the players talked keenly about their shared desire to crack ball over fence. Then the hosts thrashed Yugoslavia 17-0.
On Monday, about 200 fans had gathered behind the Longhill Estate to see if Britain could do this again against Croatia. "I can't eat for nerves," said Stephen Herbert, president of the BBF. Herbert once played for the Boston Red Sox. Unfortunately it was the Lincolnshire Boston Red Sox, or perhaps Red Socks. He explained the subtleties of the game in lucid tones, but it made me think only of those wacky explanations of cricket that foreigners buy on tea towels: a man goes in, then he's out, then his friend goes in, has a look, hits the ball, runs around like a dog on a rocket, and then his enemies go in. Croatia, in white, were the "home" side despite being away, and Great Britain wore the away kit, which was grey (goes well with jeans). The game began at 3.30.
Our nine Brits slapped themselves into a fervour in the dug-out, and one of them came out to bat. "This guy's good," Herbert said, but he was out without making it to first base, as were the next two hitters. The Croatian pitcher seemed to know a lot of tricks, and hurled the ball with an angry snarl and greedy expectation, a Dominic Cork kind of guy. Before his warm-up the talk was mostly about moving into a cheaper hotel last night (unbelievably, pounds 11 with breakfast) but now it was all focus and fierce pivot. There was no money, and a thin crowd, but no one nancied about at these matches for fear of insults from a coach called Bruno.
Croatia scored the first run, greeted with whoops from the Irish team who had been beaten soundly earlier in the day. Then big Frank Parker emerged from the dugout, a huge man with an enormous belly, a star of the team, the closest our game got to Babe Ruth. Frank's father was also a player, and Frank had been with the squad for 18 years. He steadied himself at the plate and made big contact, and the ball flew high and deep towards centre field, well beyond desperate lunges. He thundered towards first base. Frank was clearly home-run material, but this ground sees very few because of the absurdly strong local winds. They can't turn the diamond round, or else the batters would be facing the sun. But if someone does hit a homer, he has every chance of also hitting any number of Vauxhalls parked just outside the perimeter fence. It's like sitcom village cricket: a six might just land in the vicar's soup.
The only balls that do fly out of the ground go backwards, mishit over the catcher and referee and safety cage, over the crowd and a spiked fence into a drain. "Drain ball!" the kids shout. Many balls are lost before mid-innings. "That's another pounds 6," Stephen Herbert sighs. If they run out of balls, the Hull Daily Mail may just be tempted to print the headline "Drain Stops Play".
As the pitchers dominate the game and the hitters fail to add anything to the score for over an hour, we may glance at the programme notes for a little history. The BBF was founded in 1892 and teams played during the summer at football clubs (including Derby County's Baseball Ground). The game slumped until the 1930s, when Sir John Moores encouraged several local amateur and professional leagues. Tens of thousands attended matches, and some Hull grandfathers remember England beating the United States in the first World Amateur Championships.
At the top flight the game consists of a Premier Division of 16 clubs, won last year by the Menwith Hill Pirates. But there are many newer smaller teems inspired by satellite television and Hollywood fables. "One of our biggest problems are councils," says Kevin Macadam, the BBF's executive director. "Most just think: 'Oh, no ones really interested, let them use a football pitch.' So we have 150 million football pitches."
The most significant breakthrough has been securing the salary of Ralph Rago, a 63-year-old from California hired to coach the national team. Rago's been in charge for a year, and has whipped our boys into a position where we are able to compete favourably with the best Californian high school teams. He's proud that three of his squad are going to train in the States after these championships, including the 19-year-old pitcher Gavin Marshall, reportedly one of the best players Hull has ever produced. Rago is keen to get the baseball culture ingrained into the young, and speaks proudly of the "Pitch, Hit and Run" schemes introduced into 120 comprehensive schools. "But one of the big advantages we have in the States is that the parents are very supportive - they will show up and drive their children to practice. I don't think the typical British parent has reached that level yet. I think that's going to take time. You just don't do those sort of things overnight."
Out on the diamond, Big Frank has ripped his trousers stealing second base. "Christ," someone in the crowd said, "that's pounds 35!" Britain struggled for a run for almost two hours, before squeezing home with an equaliser after a Croatian fielding error at the top of the eighth innings. At the end of the ninth innings, the end of regular play, the score was still 1-1, which meant the game would carry on indefinitely until one team took a lead. Very occasionally games last 20 hours. The scoreboard was sponsored by Burger King, and I like to think I caught big Frank gaze at the logo with longing. Frank had entertained the idea of setting up a beer tent for the match, but the marquee people wanted about a grand.
By the end of the 10th innings, also tied without further score, many in the crowd began observing how this was one of the best games they had ever see, and how high-scoring home-run fiestas were overrated. But their young children were growing restless for their tea and autographs, and began singing that song about diarrhoea.
The two teams huddled in scrums and hit each other's behinds with their aluminium bats. "Let's end it here!" they shouted, and "URRGGHH". And then the Brits did end it there, scoring two runs in the 11th, conceding none in Croatia's reply, and they hugged each other as their mothers held back tears. One player did an interview with Radio Five Live. Gavin Marshall said his pitching arm sill felt good. Stephen Herbert said he was still too nervous to feel all the joy welling up inside.
The following morning I spent 49 pence a minute calling 0891 884533 - the BBF hotline. There was no news yet of the international matches, but plenty of results from mid-June regarding the Croydon Pirates and the Burgess Hill Red Hats. Now if only 100 readers do the same for one minute, Frank Parker would be well on his way to slipping into a new pair of baseball pants. The way it's going, this simple act of kindness could make all the difference between team disintegration and imminent Olympic gold.
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