Baseball might look gentle but it is also relentless. The season begins on Thursday and will stretch into October, with every team playing 162 games each. For the first time two will take place in London this year, with the Boston Red Sox facing the New York Yankees at West Ham’s stadium in June.
For now, all 30 teams migrate south to either Florida or Arizona to guarantee appropriate weather for pre-season, or spring training. Florida takes spring training seriously. The stands are full and the excitement is real, but no-one really cares about the score.
“From a results standpoint, no. I don’t think there’s ever been a correlation between what you do down here and the season,” says Yankees manager Aaron Boone. “The one thing I always say is we’re not in spring training to win games, we’re here to get individuals ready for the season.”
The Sox have a vast campus dedicated to that aim known as Fenway South. JetBlue Park, its 10,823-capacity stadium, shares identical dimensions to their normal home Fenway Park, complete with a modified version of the Green Monster outfield wall. There’s no point hitting home runs easily here then finding it twice as hard when it matters.
“The wall, the angles, all of that – it actually helps us,” says Red Sox manager Alex Cora. “We do all of the fundamental work here and I think it helps out.”
The Red Sox have been spending spring in Fort Myers since 1993 and plenty of residents watch the team on TV for the rest of the year, a little slice of the Gulf Coast that is forever New England.
It is a venue which lies dormant apart from the odd high school game for the rest of the year, flanked by six full-sized practice fields, a tent of batting cages that could house a decent Glastonbury crowd, boxes of peanuts arrive via forklift, and it is all punctuated with lawns manicured as neatly as Augusta fairways.
Indoors, the players prepare for their 12th game in as many days. Boisterous noises come from the locker-room as the doors swing open, but it's suspiciously wholesome inside. Some enjoy an energetic game of ping pong, a cagier corner houses a card school. The mood is upbeat and optimistic, as you would hope for a team that won last year’s World Series.
“Spring training has always been a terrific, exciting time of the year,” says former Yankee Alex “A-Rod” Rodriguez, here on broadcasting duty. “You have 30 teams who all think they can win a World Series. Everyone’s full of great health and optimism and this year’s no different. It’s really a celebration of our game.”
Maintaining that positive mood is crucial given the amount of time these players will spend together in the season that follows. “You’ve got about 100 young players that are here, but only space for 25 on the final roster” says Rodriguez. "So you have 50-75 who are here to learn and get mentored by the players and coaches. It’s a really important time of the year, particularly to create the type of chemistry that you want from the entire organisation.”
One of the Red Sox's biggest stars is Mookie Betts, a strutting presence on the field who moves with the confidence of a man who knows he’s got the edge on his opponent before he has faced a pitch. His parents gave him the middle name “Lynn” so his initials would correspond with Major League Baseball. His first child, a daughter, was born nine days after the Sox clinched the World Series. “She’s four months now and that kind of took up most of the off-season,” he says.
Later, when in the field and wearing a microphone, he speaks with more detail about how he spent his winter: “She’s nasty. Nobody ever explained that. You don’t really know about what goes into these diapers so, public service announcement: brace yourself.
“It is not fun.”
Travel north up 141 miles of bland freeway and you reach Tampa, where the New York Yankees are stationed at a bespoke facility of their own. George M. Steinbrenner Field is named for the former owner so concerned with the image of his team he banned players from growing their hair below collar-length, and any facial hair beyond moustaches. The club is still under the family’s control and there still isn’t a beard to be seen in the locker-room.
When the fans arrive for an entertaining Friday night game against the Detroit Tigers the most common number on jerseys is Aaron Judge’s 99. “Judge” is written above the number on the replicas, unlike Judge’s actual jersey when he takes the field. Names on backs are another modern trapping eschewed by the traditionalist Yankees. “After I swing I try to breathe out,” he says. “It makes me feel quicker and I feel like I’m trying to blow the ball out of the stadium.” It doesn’t seem too fanciful given his 6’7” frame.
He is now one of his team’s most prolific hitters, but he wasn’t an immediate success. His first season batting average of .179 was so disappointing he has had custom insoles made to display it in his shoes, as extra motivation. “I’ve got it in my cleats now too, so whenever I put them on I’ve got a reminder,” he says.
A tiny detail in a sport that combines thousands of them to form a hypnotic allure. The smaller scale of spring training stadia gives any observer space to see its subtleties. The home plate umpire resting a hand on the back of the catcher as the pitcher begins his windup. The indignity of full-throttled swing-and-miss, causing a batter to lose their balance. The pleasure of a crowd watching the trajectory of an airborne ball together, only sure towards the bottom of its parabola if it’s an easy catch or heading over the fence, for a home run.
It remains to be seen how many of those delightful moments will transmit in a 60,000-seater stadium designed for athletics later this year in London. If even a small amount can be harnessed, baseball will win plenty of new fans.
- The Boston Red Sox will play the New York Yankees in the first ever Mitel & MLB Present London Series 2019 on June 29–30 at London Stadium. For all the latest event updates, register at mlb.com/londonseries