Major League Baseball is beginning to seriously think globally and we’re not just referring to the permission it’s given Tampa Bay Rays ownership to consider splitting home games with Montreal.
The game wants to aggressively span the continents, establish roots and strengthen marketing possibilities. And that’s why the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox will be playing games in London on Saturday and Sunday.
Just like the NFL has done over the years, MLB is spreading its wings in Great Britain. It hopes this experiment using the game’s most alluring rivalry will create a blueprint the game can expand upon in future years.
As if the Red Sox playing the Yankees in London doesn’t sound weird enough, they will also be playing on artificial turf, the antithesis of their storied battles in three generations of Yankee Stadium and venerable Fenway Park.
MLB organizers have been in London for weeks getting things ready for the games, which will be played at Olympic Stadium. The Yankees and Red Sox played Wednesday and were given Thursday and Friday off to travel and prepare for the first European games in the league’s history.
Olympic Stadium is the home of West Ham’s football club and to protect its grass surface, gravel was laid over it and the artificial surface was laid on top of it.
“It’s the first Yankees-Red Sox game out of the country, so why not a lot of firsts?” New York pitcher CC Sabathia said a few weeks ago. “I think it will be fine.”
Only three MLB teams play on artificial surfaces: Toronto, Tampa Bay and Arizona. Arizona switched this season from grass to turf. Texas will do the same when its new ballpark opens next spring.
“I’m assuming it’s like Toronto’s or Tampa’s, so it shouldn’t be an issue,” Yankees manager Aaron Boone said.
If you’ve lost count, the Yankees have played the Red Sox 2,200 times. No one will ever forget the next two. The Red Sox will be the home team, but both teams will wear home whites. When the Yankees played in Tokyo in 2004, they wore white and the Rays gray – despite the fact Tampa Bay was designated the home team.
The stadium is totally being reconfigured for the weekend, Foul poles, a batter’s eye, a backstop and fencing have been built along with the dugouts – the Red Sox are on the first-base side.
They’ve even built temporary clubhouses and batting cages on the warm-up track under the stands because goodness knows you don’t want to piss off a baseball player.
This is just the start of things for MLB in London. There will be another series next season between the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs.
Remember, the Yankees just set the MLB record for home runs in consecutive games and you may expect more this weekend. The field dimensions are 330 feet down each foul line and 385 feet to center with a 16-foot wall.
MLB has an international committee that’s been looking into taking the game to other places but London, Tokyo, Australia, Puerto Rico and Mexico.
“We know that the future for us includes billions of fans in China, and includes billions of fans in India,” Dodgers president Stan Kasten, the head of baseball’s international committee, told The Athletic.
“Increasingly – because of social media, and the Internet and probably even moreso in the future because of (legalized sports) gambling – we are going to have fans all over. And remember, we have more product than any other sport – more games, every day.”
The 2016 collective-bargaining agreement calls for each player to receive $60,000 for the inconvenience.
MLB has not been to Europe in 26 years when there was a rain-shortened series between Red Sox and Mets minor leaguers in London. That series took place at a cricket venue. Aside from generating more fans, the MLB is hoping Europe with also begin producing more players.
MLB sales figures tell them Europe accounts for 30 percent of its international consumer products revenue. The 120,000 tickets for the London Series sold out almost immediately; 70 percent purchased by residents of the U.K.
When the concept of bringing MLB games to London was first discussed, commissioner Rob Manfred let it be known the Yankees-Red Sox would have to be the first to the plate because of its history. It’s a tough pill for the Red Sox to swallow. These games would have been played in Boston. But MLB is reimbursing the team approximately $7 million for its lost opportunity.
To add some humor to the event, there will even be a mascot race. A Twitter vote was held to determine which figures should represent London. The winners: Freddie Mercury, Winston Churchill, King Henry VIII and the Loch Ness Monster.
James Williams, London Stadium’s head groundsman, told the New York Times his mates have even learned how to roll out a tarp in case it rains.
“I know the boys are excited and we can’t wait to get over there,” Aaron Judge said. “We get the chance to spread the game of baseball and meet some new fans.”