World

Baseball fans enjoy homers, a bit of heckling in London park

A vivid piece of American sports culture was displayed in London's Hyde Park as baseball came to town on July 4, the U.S. Independence Day.

The exhibition Tuesday featured several former major leaguers playing a Home Run Derby in one of London's best-known open spaces.

It's part of Major League Baseball's plan to showcase the game to build interest in Britain and Europe, where soccer is the overwhelmingly favorite sport. The move comes during the summer hiatus in England's Premier League.

Part of Hyde Park was transformed into a baseball field on a warm summer evening as fans entered the batting cage to try out their swings — one of the best hitters was a woman wearing a Red Sox uniform.

There were a few English touches — Pimms's with lemonade for sale at the bar — but Americana was in vogue, with some wearing outfits based on the stars and stripes to mark Independence Day.

The event drew several thousand enthusiastic fans and provided a needed boost for British baseball teams, who rubbed shoulders with former major leaguers, including Carlos Pena and Cliff Floyd.

"This event is a big start because if this goes well baseball's popularity is only going to build and build," said 20-year-old Josh Heues, who traveled 90 minutes to get here with several teammates from the Northampton-based Centurions.

The home run competitors were divided into Red Sox and Dodgers, each wearing uniforms from those major league clubs. Some fans in New York Yankees hats were politely heckled by Red Sox fans.

Charlie Hill, the managing director of Major League Baseball for Europe, the Middle East and Africa, says it's possible that some regular-season games will be played in London as soon as the 2019 season.

"The teams are enthusiastic," he said. "That is the target and it's becoming the expectation."

If MLB league games are played in London in two years, baseball will still be way behind the National Football League and the National Basketball Association, which have played official games in Britain for decades.

Hill said the exhibition was a Home Run Derby, similar to the one that precedes the league's All-Star Game, an easy-to-understand demonstration of hitting prowess.

One concern is that baseball's somewhat arcane rules might make the game seem incomprehensible to Britons — much as Americans can be slow to grasp the finer points of cricket.

"We don't want to play games here from a cold start," Hill said.

The former major leaguers were joined by several prominent British cricket players who tried their hand at knocking baseballs out of the park. They showed impressive skill with a baseball bat.

John Boyd, who heads Baseball Softball UK, said there's already strong interest in the game. He says there's an estimated 1.5 million baseball fans in Britain, partly because it's become so much easier to watch live games.

"Now I can watch it at the pub," Boyd said. "I have an app that lets me watch it in real time. The globalization of tech has made it a lot easier to follow other countries' national pastimes."