By Don Leypoldt
The scene at Montpelier’s Recreation Field couldn’t have been more American.
It was July 4th. The Americans were ready to “fight” the British in our National Pastime. Bombs were bursting in air.
Which is why Vermont Mountaineer GM Brian Gallagher was worried. The “bombs bursting in air” took the form of a lightning and rain delay which postponed the start of the Vermont- Great Britain Under 23 exhibition for 90 minutes.
Montpelier was the third of four NECBL stops in the Great Britain National side tour. With time to kill during the delays, the Mountaineers entertained the sellout crowd by engaging in “British” games: “jousting” (One player on piggyback charging at another), trying their hand at a makeshift cricket match and bringing out the inevitable soccer ball.
When the weather cleared, Vermont put up a crooked number in each of the first three innings en route to a 15-1 victory.
But the tour was as much about hospitality and sportsmanship as it was anything else. After all, as Winston Churchill repeatedly pointed out, there is a “special relationship” between the American and British nations. GB U-23 received a huge ovation at first pitch, and an equally huge ovation when they plated their run. North Adams SteepleCat GM Sean McGrath, who hosted Great Britain the evening before, called the U-23 team “great people who were very appreciative.”
“The Under 23 squad was first developed because, in the U.K, there is quite a gap between the U-18 team and the senior team,” explained Jo Ratcliff, the U23 General Manager- and “Mum” of three baseball players herself. “It was put in place to bridge that gap and give these players the chance to be the best they can be.
“We have a worker at BSUK (Baseball Softball United Kingdom), Jason Greenberg, who went to Williams College. We have our accommodations there,” Ratcliff continued. “A friend of his, who also went to Williams put the tour together by looking at Leagues in the area. He felt that your league was most appropriate for our guys.”
The British tour started on Monday, July 2nd in North Adams, when they fell to the host SteepleCats 7-0. Cat starter Bubba Boroniel set the tone by pitching five innings of shutout, four-hit ball. Julian Santos hit a two-run double in the second and Charlie Law homered in the third to ignite the North Adams’ offense.
The next evening, the British U-23 team traveled to Keene, a game mercifully called after six innings as the Swamp Bats coasted to a 33-0 win. DH Austin Wheeler and catcher Cameron O’Brien each hit a grand slam and combined for 14 RBI. CF Evan Campbell and Keene native Brett Barrett each hit two homers. Another Keene native, Chad Rafferty, toed the rubber and yielded just three base runners in his four-inning stint.
The tour concluded on July 5th in Holyoke. The Blue Sox put up two in the first and two in the second as they ultimately cruised to a 5-2 win. DH Rocco Gondak drove in two runners on a sacrifice fly and a single while Blue Sock pitching faced the minimum number of batters through 3.1 innings before Great Britain RF Michael Trask roped a double.
GB starting pitcher Ben Pearson deserves credit for yielding just two base runners in his final four innings of work against Holyoke. Pearson, whose battery mate is his brother James, effectively used his off-speed pitches to keep batters off balance. Yet the biggest ovation of the night might have belonged to regular Blue Sock first baseman Connor Spencer. His rendition of the pre-game National Anthem deservedly brought him a huge hand.
“We try and do an international tour every year. Great Britain was awarded a team in the World Baseball Classic next year, along with Australia, so they wanted to get a team out there and do a tour,” noted Holyoke GM Kirk Fredriksson. “There aren’t many guys on this roster who will be on their WBC roster, but they still wanted to tour and asked if we wanted to play some games.
“The level of competition may be,” Fredriksson paused, “a little more than they thought but they are having a great time during their stay here and that is what is important. We’re happy to have them here tonight.”
There may have been a future Great Britain WBC player in a Holyoke uniform. Pitcher Josh Mason, fresh in to Central Massachusetts from Stony Brook and their odds-defying College World Series run, is the son of a former British citizen. His mother was born in Hong Kong when the city was a British protectorate. She immigrated to America as a child.
“I don’t think it makes a difference,” Mason said candidly about his heritage. “I think every game you should be playing your full and you should take every game seriously. I’m going to go out there and try my best every time.”
“Baseball is not just a game played in this country anymore. It’s a game that is enjoyed world-wide and that is the reason why you have the World Baseball Classic and had it in the Olympics,” Fredriksson observed. “Baseball is one of those games that crosses so many lines, whether it be nationality, religion or whatever. You all get on the field and you are all brothers so hopefully we can get that out of it. That, and the chance to play an international team is special for (Holyoke).”
Mason’s story validates that. So does Liam Carroll’s. Carroll is the head coach of the GB U23 side. He played for several British national teams when he was younger, graduating to both playing and coaching in the British National League. From 2005 to 2010, Carroll served as the director of baseball operations for UNLV. What could be more British than Vegas?
“It’s growing. It is still a minority sport,” commented Ratcliff on the state of baseball in the U.K. “Football, cricket and rugby are big, but we have four leagues: Single A, Double-A, Triple-A and a National League. We have 58 adult teams and youth programs as well.”
Ratcliff also dismissed the notion that British cricket fields provide a great feeder system. Transferring from cricket to baseball isn’t unheard of but “the sports are more different than you think,” she said.
Despite the distance between New England and “Old” England, baseball is more similar than you think. Great Britain’s navy blue uniforms, red trim and white numbers bore a striking resemblance to the Blue Sox’ batting practice jerseys. More importantly, the tour drove home the feeling of connectedness that Fredriksson described.
“We’re hoping to have a 50/50 raffle to help with some of their transportation costs. We’re also going to present them with some gifts before the game so they can take them back to their countries,” Fredriksson said, “something with which to remember Holyoke. We’re hoping to have a real good game and remember the whole day as a good experience.”
“You’ve been fantastic hosts,” Ratcliff offered. “It’s been a fabulous experience coming over here. One of the main reasons to come out here is that our guys don’t have the opportunity to face pitching at the speed that you pitch. For them, to come out here and face this sort of pitching is terrific. Also, the experience of seeing big-scale baseball events.
“In the U.K., we have some reasonable facilities and some good grounds. But we don’t have dugouts. Very few places have bleachers. We certainly don’t have advertising or huge crowds unless it’s the National baseball championships. Playing to the crowds we’ve played to the last few days is an experience our players have never had before.”