LONDON -- It may be just over a year until Europe gets its first taste of Major League Baseball, but as the Boston Red Sox's double-header with the New York Yankees was confirmed in a small central London cinema, the message from the powers that be was resolute. MLB is here to stay.
The two matches planned for June 2019 in the 55,000-capacity Olympic Stadium are not intended to be mere 'blink and you will miss it' gimmicks. A two-year deal has been signed, underlining a commitment from major league ball clubs, MLB and London to make this partnership work on a long-term basis as baseball joins their NFL and NBA cousins in bringing their sport to the UK.
"In future years there may be many more games in London and maybe a baseball team permanently," said Sadiq Khan, the London mayor, while labelling the city the "sporting capital of the world".
The promotional video announcing what has been officially named the 'London Series' juxtaposed American and British images, but this was an announcement rooted in tradition and rivalry. John W. Henry, the owner of both Liverpool FC and the Boston Red Sox, referenced how King George V and Sir Winston Churchill were both present in the crowd when American Navy and Army teams played in London some 100 years ago. Then he turned to the familiar, comparing the Red Sox-Yankees match-up to football's Merseyside, London and Manchester derbies of the Premier League. But hovering above these touch points was the 117-year, 2,215-game rivalry between the Yankees and Red Sox - 'Old Rivarly, New Ground' was the announcement's slogan.
Match-ups barely come bigger. Yankees' managing general partner Hal Steinbrenner talked of the excitement within his ball club over the match, but equally how they will stay true to their loyal fans with one eye on expansion. Tim Slavin, senior counsel for the MLB's Players' Association, touched on player welfare but also their duty to buy into the vision and creative thought shown by the stakeholders in making this match a reality. He also pointed to whether those watching the two matches will one day follow in the footsteps of the 223 overseas-born players who turned out on this season's Opening Day.
Much excitement married with resolute confidence they have the right formula to ensure MLB hits the ground running across June 29 and 30 in 2019. It has been a match two years in the making. Logistical difficulties and the introduction of the new Collective Bargaining Agreement curtailed ambitions for these games to happen a year earlier. But Manfred, who has been a strong advocate of taking MLB to the world since taking over as the league's commissioner in 2015, has worked closely with Khan to make this a reality, ensuring the Olympic Stadium fits baseball's needs.
"Well I think that the facility, London Stadium, [being] a good facility for baseball, a good retrofit in terms of having a major league quality baseball facility [is] number one but secondly the reputation of the city," Manfred told ESPN.
"Mayor Khan has been very aggressive about the idea of having Major League Baseball here and we think it is going to be a nice little marriage." Manfred has looked to lessons from NFL and NBA who have had matches in London since 2007 and 2011 respectively, which poses the question, what's taken the MLB so long? "I think that our schedule is a more difficult logistical issue just because we play, you know, 162 times in 187 days, building in time to travel back and forth to London comfortably with the time change, a little more complicated than it is for some other sports, but we're just excited to be coming," Manfred said. MLB's two-year deal is less of a stick in the ground than the NFL's original five-year agreement back in 2006 to take two regular season matches overseas but similar to the NBA's two-game commitment back in 2010.
For the London side of things, Khan wanted to see how NFL and NBA fared before welcoming MLB to the capital. "Well it's not an unreasonable thing to want to do due diligence to make sure that we can deliver on the promises that we are making," Khan told ESPN. "I think if you are a great sportsman, whatever sport you do, you want to be able to play in front of the best sports fans in the world, and next year is going to be amazing. "We were quite keen for it to be a competitive game, not an exhibition match and because of the work that we have done over the last period [with the Olympic Stadium], they're reassured now. We've got the two best known baseball teams coming to London. Most of us have a Yankees or a Red Socks baseball cap and it's great to see these teams playing competitively in London."
Khan suggested one day an MLB franchise may grace London, but such idle dreams are for later years and while MLB would like to see future matches played in Europe the focus is on ensuring next June's games are a success.
He also played down any concerns over these two fixtures clashing with the 2019 Cricket World Cup. Two marquee matches take place in that tournament across the same two dates, including a rematch of the 2015 final between Australia and New Zealand at Lord's in London on June 29. It remains to be seen how the UK public welcome baseball, but this announcement did not seem like it was MLB jumping into the same swimming pool as NFL and NBA. Instead they want a separate identity, focused on match experience and the excitement of the rivalry but yet there remain those aspects out of anyone's control.
As 'Take Me Out To The Ball Game' played on loop, the press announcement was delayed by 45 minutes due to London's traffic holding up the protagonists. Then there was the question of our wonderfully unpredictable weather. "Pray" was Manfred's solution to the weather when asked about the possibility of the matches being rained off if we enjoy a typical British summer.
Then come the ticket sales. Manfred looks to the ex-pat community and the pre-game activities teed up as reasons for optimism that both matches will comfortably sell out but there will be uncertainty over how the UK public will greet MLB -- a similar anxiety surrounded the early days of other Transatlantic adventures. And while there is interest from other teams to follow suit, there is pressure to deliver marquee matches year-on-year, something both the NFL and NBA have been criticised for. But for baseball, the question will become how can they follow up on an act like Red Sox-Yankees? But aside from lingering doubts, which only time and marketing can iron out, this was well thought-out, well executed as two of sports' biggest teams prepare to roll into town.
"Well, with this particular rivalry, these two teams, I can tell you that we are going to see some very good younger, competitive teams," Hal Steinbrenner told ESPN. "You are going to see some hard play, and that hard play, of course, is from decades and decades of this rivalry thriving. The passion of the players and the passion of the fans, I think it is going to be exciting. I think that we've got the right two teams."