take me out to the ball game old chap

​This is Baseball — British-style

Under heavy May skies and with an FA Cup-induced hangover, VICE Sports crawled across London to watch baseball, British-style, in Finsbury Park.

by Dave Phelan
17 July 2015, 10:55am

Photo by the author

London. 06.30 — in the morning. Sweating Stella. Crying Gin. Last night, a friend's birthday. One entwined with an FA Cup final.

Rain. Always fucking rain. And now, baseball. DEFINITELY ON, chirps Twitter. Bollocks.

The familiar stench of the Metropolitan line stings leaky nostrils: a cocktail of BO and ammonia. Walk through King's Cross. Still walking. Hope to see light by some time next year. Still walking.

Weary heads bobble above beer-stained Arsenal shirts. Red ants descending on their spiritual nest; Islington. No time for them, on to Manor House.

"You are here". Here being Finsbury Park. Are serving as reassurance to a bourgeoning Jaegermeister-flavoured existential crisis.

How many kids will take their first drugs here this summer? Thousands, probably.

A diamond straddled by the A503 desert. Batting cages rattle a gentle chorus and an Australian is manning the barbecue. He is at one with meat. "Want a burger?" He's not impressed with a vegetarian flirtation in its infancy. "You should start your experiment tomorrow, mate."

London Mets. T-shirts, hoodies and hats are pinned to a wall. Men stroll about swinging bats at imaginary balls. It's pastoral — despite the Skycopter overhead. Fucking Arsenal.

READ MORE: The Quest to Make Baseball Relevant in Britain

The sentinel of the hot dogs says his (English) boy plays for the youth team. "And I run the concession stand." Concession is an Americanism.

"Coach Henson," he shouts towards the batting cages, cutting a hole through frontal lobes in the process. "A journalist for you."

Erick Henson waves but there are more important things than cosying up to the liberal media. Despite the post code. Back to batting.

The rain is coming. Clouds are dark. No vegetarian flirtation among the floating insects. Swat. Kevin Costner never had to swat. Swat.

Lower tier squads do battle on the diamond. A few are portly. Some seem fit. All look happy.

Mets at bat. A ball goes high. Two Southampton Mustangs chase it. Neither aware of the other. Bam. Straight in the kisser. One collapses. "Are there any ice packs?" the meat maestro is asked. "No, but does he want a burger?"

The senior squad are posing for profile pictures. They adopt the kind of positions familiar to American kids who do their business in cards, all pouty and mean but familiar and exciting at the same time.

"He speaks three languages," says one Met. "And he loves that camera," says a teammate.

Another Australian — there are many — stands up. A third baseman. "Bum hole, mate?" Photographer giggles awkwardly. "No bum hole then." Hard not to be taken by the mischievous schoolboy grin that sprawls across his face.

Camera equipment goes flying. Imagine, death by hurricane in Finsbury Park. This is bleak. But the optimism is infectious.

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The place is falling asunder now. A young American man has dropped his chocolate milk while trotting out of the wooden shack that is the Mets changing room. He looks devastated. His colleague wistfully spits sunflower seed shells into air. It could be a scene from Stand By Me.

When the New York Giants filled Stamford Bridge in the early 20th century its hard to imagine chocolate beverages being spilled. At least not when King George V showed up. Sunflower seed shells on the other hand.

Under a tree with Coach Henson. "Excuse my spitting . . . chewing tobacco," he says, holding up a congealed brown lump.

Hangover is dissipating, being replaced by a crush on whatever it is that is happening here.

"The team has been here for around ten years and was mainly for youth, but as that first batch of youth players got older they expanded and added an adult team."

Henson points towards a young man, maybe 18-years-old, in front of a photographer. "He's been with us since he was eight, he's from across the road."

Henson played Division One college ball. He never made the big leagues, but it hasn't dampened his enthusiasm for the sport.

"I played [for the Mets] for two years and now I strictly manage ... We've gone from having 24 kids to 130. It's just blown up."

The Mets' under-16 side (image via London Mets on Twitter)

Henson says the youth programmes are comprised of mainly British kids and those of ex-pats here either temporarily or permanently. The club has become a beacon of sporting hope for youngsters that have been "washed out" of football or baseball's natural rival in Britain — cricket.

While the core of the senior team is British, there are two import players. They elevate the standard of the senior team and help out the youth players in their spare time, Henson says. Like their coach, the players are unsubsidised and receive only moderate expenses.

Major League Baseball shares a Soho office with the British Baseball Federation and Henson is hopeful that at some point in the future that will turn into a positive for the game in Britain.

"Holland started little league in the 80s and now they've got players in the MLB ... what I try to explain to people is that we're in London, we've probably got the largest ex-pat fanbase. The American bankers, the Canadians, the Japanese and Australians: all of these countries are right here in London."

Henson's involvement is a labour of love. One that has taken a relative toll on his personal life. "My wife has threatened me a few times ... but I see the potential and I have a vision."

READ MORE: Basketball to British Eyes is Both Flawed and Blessed

That vision will manifest itself in the short term with a dirt infield that is more common to the game than the weedy mud of north London.

In the long term, he says, surveying the final innings of the undercard game, he wants a 10,000-seater stadium. "Could you imagine?"

He leaves for a pre-game team photo. A vodka-shaped troll returns to tap a merry dance on Irish brains.

The grey sky is cracking. There is blue in there, somewhere. A real danger of sunlight is looming.

Perched on a bench behind third base. "Play ball," bellows the umpire. Hungarian, according to the boy chatting with his father.

On the horizon there are two defiant footballers. They are jeered and mocked. Baseball is the only British game in town today. To hell or to Islington.

The boy is infatuated with the players' nationalities and stats. "He's French," he says. "No," his father responds, "he's Austrian". The boy shrugs. "Same thing."

The Mustangs bench is whispering. Their catcher is the unlikely ace in their batting hole. As night follows day, the hitherto catcher steps up to face the tall drink of water pitching for the Mets.

First, strike. Second, swing. And, crack. It's out of here. Until it hits a tree and bounces back in here. All agree to a homerun. The Mustang rounds bases triumphantly.

Henson and his men out to bat. The wind has picked up — carving through broken men's souls at will. The menacing sunshine has abated. This is baseball, British-style.

The batsman looks towards his coach. Coach pulls his nose, flicks his ear and rubs his chest. A graceful curveball. A determined swing. No dice.

Rain patters down on the infield. Beef-infused smoke wafts over from the outfield. It's too much for the weak.

The front gate is performing an alluring striptease. Only a fool would leave now. Only a fool would reject the kind of honest-to-Jesus effort being made by the few for the benefit of many.

Cans of Kronenbourg fizz. There is giggling in the distance. The gate is nearer now. Head hangs low. Head hangs in shame.

Walk through King's Cross. Still walking.

@morethanaphelan

If you're not hungover, or a whinging toe rag that can't handle hangovers, British baseball is good fun and fixtures etc can be found here