LONDON >> Imagine stirring renditions of “Sweet Caroline” and “Take Me Out to the Ball Game” belted out by fans munching on Cracker Jack sold by roving vendors.
If that sounds like a typical regular-season game between the New York Yankees and the Boston Red Sox, that is the goal in England this weekend. But it will be anything but routine.
The teams are scheduled to play twice at London Stadium in the first regular-season Major League Baseball games in Europe, and organizers are working to give the games the flavor of a typical June series in Boston or New York — or at least as much as possible in an Olympic-size stadium in the East End of London.
“Baseball is a unique experience,” said Charlie Hill, the vice president of MLB International, which is based in London. “We want to give people in London that taste of an authentic baseball game with all the little rituals.”
Baseball has staged regular-season games in Mexico, Australia and Japan, but bringing the big leagues to Britain, where cricket is the dominant bat-and-ball sport, will involve some of the typical sights and sounds of baseball, but with a slight Cockney accent.
KING HENRY VIII AND FREDDIE MERCURY GO TOE-TO-TOE
As far as anyone can tell, there have never been mascot races at either Fenway Park or Yankee Stadium for a Red Sox-Yankees game. Those are mostly reserved for Milwaukee (sausages), Washington (presidents) and the more adventurous minors, but organizers of the London Series wanted to add that particular slice of Americana.
So, a Twitter vote was held to determine Britain’s four most mascot-worthy figures. The queen didn’t quite make the cut, although Freddie Mercury of the rock band Queen was one of the winners. The other three to battle it out during the game will be Winston Churchill, King Henry VIII and the Loch Ness Monster.
(The Beatles and William Shakespeare failed to make it. And you thought the voting for the Baseball Hall of Fame was controversial).
THE FOOD WILL COME TO THEM
Baseball fans in the United States and Canada are familiar with concessionaires wandering the stadium selling hot dogs and the like, but roving vendors are not common in Britain. Soccer fans typically wait until halftime to sprint to the concession stand and get a hot cup of Bovril, so the idea of roving vendors in Britain are alien.
So the concessionaires went through a crash course led by a team of instructors from the United States to learn how to induce people to pay for food and drinks without ever leaving their seats.
“We’re going to ask people to hand their money down the row of strangers and then have a bag of peanuts tossed over to them by a hawker,” Hill said. “That’s not something they are used to.”
EVEN DAVE GROHL THINKS IT’S HUGE
Baseball barely even registers as a niche sport in Britain, but every ticket for this series was snapped up in less than 45 minutes when they went on sale in December, organizers said.
MLB said that 70% of the roughly 120,000 tickets were purchased from within Britain, presumably including ticket brokers, and that 20% were sold in the United States, leaving 10% for fans from other countries.
The high demand explains why the series is being held at London Stadium. It was considered the only venue with enough space to fit more than 3 acres of French artificial turf in front of 60,000 seats — nearly 60% more than the capacity of Fenway Park.
“London Stadium,” said Graham Gilmore, the stadium’s chief executive, “can do it all.”
The arena was built for the 2012 Summer Olympics and is now home to West Ham United, the English Premier League soccer club. It has hosted the Rugby World Cup and huge concerts by the Rolling Stones and Beyoncé. When rock band Foo Fighters played there last year, frontman Dave Grohl lauded the size of the building and made a disparaging comment about Wembley Stadium, London’s more famous venue, in a comment that forever endeared him to Gilmore.
FITTING A DIAMOND IN AN OVAL
The area on the ground, including the running track, is so vast that it required 141,900 square feet of artificial turf, imported from France, to cover it, plus the infield dirt and clay shipped in from Slippery Rock, Pennsylvania.
The 16-foot-high center-field wall will be 390 feet away from home plate — the rest of the walls will measure between 4 and 8 feet. There is also a roof that extends over home plate, so there will be specific ground rules pertaining to balls hitting it.
One unique feature is that home plate will be on one side of the oval — not one of the ends — creating vast amounts of foul territory. Most fields in oval-shaped stadiums, like the old Polo Grounds and Olympic Stadium in Montreal, had home plate tucked into one end, or in a corner.
James Williams, London Stadium’s head groundsman, said that his crew has had to learn many new things about baseball fields.
“We even learned how to roll out the tarp,” he said. “This is definitely the biggest project I’ve ever been involved in. There’s been quite a few sleepless nights.”
This is also the first time the Red Sox and Yankees have played a regular-season game on plastic grass. When the series is over, the turf will be rolled up and stored until next year when the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs play in London.
Thirteen months ago, a contingent of major league officials toured the stadium with Gilmore, the stadium boss, to make sure it would be appropriate for baseball. The group included Commissioner Rob Manfred, Yankees and Red Sox owners, and members of the players’ association. Gilmore was surprised by something that had nothing to do with the field layout.
“I didn’t understand the power of the players union,” Gilmore said.
One concern was the clubhouses. Soccer locker rooms are generally more spartan than baseball clubhouses, so, swanky, temporary accommodations were built to accommodate the tastes and standards of major league baseball players. Dugouts also had to be built from scratch, along with a wall to separate the players as they enter the playing field.
WHAT IF IT RAINS?
When a reporter asked organizers about the possibility of rain, the response was glowering stares. But, you know, it has been known to rain in the British Isles.
Every attempt will be made to get the games in, and Williams, the stadium groundsman, said the field drainage system — which was put to the test by heavy downpours earlier this month — was enhanced for the series, with extra piping placed beneath a layer of stone chips.
But even though both teams have an off day scheduled for Monday, they would not play a makeup game in London, according to Hill. It is a home series for the Red Sox, so in the unlikely scenario of a rainout, the game would be made up in Boston. Most likely, though, if there is rain, they will wait it out and hope for the best.
“There are some massive challenges,” Gilmore said, “including the expectations of MLB and the players’ union. We have to make sure we are at the top of our game.”