Six years on from London 2012, the declining legacy of its centrepiece arena is encapsulated in a single 90-minute episode. Inside the London Stadium, which was pretty much gifted to West Ham United in 2015, a riot has broken out. The crowd at a venue designed to “inspire a generation” through athletic excellence watches a bald man in bootcut jeans attack the centre spot with a stolen corner flag. The only gold offered out? The club’s co-owner, David, by a several-thousand-strong baying mob.
To revive the stadium’s image, other sports are being ushered in. Premiership Rugby arrived last weekend and the Cricket World Cup will join the list in the summer of 2019. Then, later that year, Major League Baseball will fly over for a two-game series. But baseball has not “made it” in the United Kingdom yet, especially compared to the NFL and NBA. Does this risk prolonging the London Stadium farce? Why should 50,000 of us care enough to turn up next year?
Firstly, baseball has all the hallmarks of sports we already dedicate ourselves to. Like cricket (in Twenty20 format at least), baseball lasts three hours, and both sports are generally more conservative, traditional pastimes, often played and watched by those averse to the brashness of the football played on either side of the Atlantic.
Like rugby, baseball pits all shapes and sizes against one another. Thirteen inches and 117 pounds separate Houston’s José Altuve from the New York Yankees’ Aaron Judge, but the two were neck-and-neck in the 2017 American League MVP race, the diminutive Altuve coming out on top.
Baseball incorporates an appreciation for the rules, for convention and fair play, while also holding financial clout surpassing even football’s – Giancarlo Stanton’s 13-year, $325m contract, signed while with Miami, is the most expensive in professional sports history.
Baseball also offers its own charms, including genuine competitiveness. Just six clubs have won since the advent of the Premier League in 1992, yet in the same period 14 MLB franchises have tasted World Series glory. Baseball is also the centre of a tech revolution. 4D ball-tracking sensors and even virtual reality are now everyday equipment, recording and evaluating every ball, every footstep, every muscle strain.
So why choose 2018 to get into baseball? This year should be even harder to call, for starters. There are six or seven established front-runners, but at least five others are set up this year to sneak a wildcard spot, a ticket to the notoriously unpredictable play-offs. This after 2017, when the league-wide mark for home runs was obliterated, when the regular season’s best performers, the Los Angeles Dodgers, won a record 43 times in a 50-game stretch, before losing 16 of 17 just weeks later.
The new season starts on Thursday and promises to be another thrill ride. BT Sport show three games a night and YouTube a further two. With MLB coming to our shores next summer, it’s time the UK stopped turning up its nose and embraced a sport so befitting our tastes.