Baseball. If you build it they will come. A field in Iowa. Or a west London prison. Build it and bats will sing out. Every year I dread the start of the London baseball season (it’s inconvenient, time consuming and cold,) but by the end, find a grudging affection, if not respect and love, for what these crazy Americans manage to put together year after year after year. On the playing fields of Wormword Scrubs, a category B facility. And a hideously run down Athletics complex. It boasts its own weather system, different to whatever else may be taking place in London. Usually cloudy, often damp, though actual pouring rain is rare. Cold, regardless of the sunshine. And the wind. Oh the wind. Frenzied, relentless wind. All the time. Which makes it very easy, on those treasured days of full sun, to get badly burned. Ones core remains swaddled in trousers and jackets and blankets, but feet and noses and arms exposed to the piercing rays. It happens to me every year. And every year I am shocked. But then, baseball at the Scrubs (what the cool kids call it) does have an element of Groundhog Day.
My children have been playing up there since we first moved to London, almost 13 years ago. When there was nothing but packs of over excited children and a few bats and balls. It has grown more sophisticated over time. Not just equipment wise, but a chain coffee van arrived a few years ago, changing the atmosphere of the place forever. Suddenly a day at the Scrubs wasn’t quite so devoid of luxury. A BBQ tent arrived soon after. Then a vendor of American “food” (100% junk) and this year, one enterprising mother set up a Philly Chilly business. The queues went on forever. Her veggie chilly topped with guancamole is sublime.
Back in those early days everyone and I mean everyone was at the American School of London and lived in St. John’s Wood. They were here for one, two years tops. Their experience was exclusively of the insulated ex-pat variety. Except us, or so it seemed. We were the freaks who lived south of the river and sent their kids to be educated with the English. But times have changed. More and more of the families live all over London, some even further south than us! The children go to English schools and play English sports and have English accents, for lots of reasons, including the slashing of perks by American companies, and the number of families who are long-term residents. And many more mixed nationalities, with the American parent (of either sex) being the driving force for joining the baseball. And sometimes not even that. One of the most involved families at the moment is German/Italian. Why? No clue. But boy can their boys play! And the particularly beautiful thing about this is that now it really is LONDON baseball. Kids chat about football and cricket. They mix sports terminology. They recognized each other from other things. It is American, with international flavouring.
The fields themselves are vast and baseball takes only the middle portion. League football, for all ages, happens round the edges. One corner is the exclusive domain of model airplane flyers. Sometimes the athletics track is in use. The small area with a variety of exercise bars is always full of shirtless young men, showing off their strength. Dogs and their owners are everywhere and it is not uncommon for play to stop because and animal has suddenly appeared between first and second base. I always wonder what the locals make of this highly organized but totally alien activity taking over such a large section of the Scrubs. Sometimes they stop and watch. Mostly they ignore it and carry on along. They are Londoners after all. The Scrubs is remote, or as remote as one can get in a major city. Set well behind the prison and a collection of hospitals, it is a long walk from the main road. Yet one morning, last year, we arrived to find a man sleeping one off just behind what was going to be the home run fence for my younger daughter’s softball game. We just left him there. He did finally come to, in about the 4th inning, and just shuffled away. Must have been quite the night! And to wake to find oneself in the middle of a ball game, well that is a tale for the lads. A few years ago two burnt out cars were on the fields, police all round. This meant that games had to be moved over to one side, but no one complained. Kids (and adults) were fascinated by the scene. Speculation and rumour was rampant. So exciting.
I have a clear memory of walking my newborn 4th child, Katherine, around during one of those horrible rainy, sleety storms London can have, wondering why in the world I had agreed to come. For years I avoided going as much as I could, limited myself to just driving husband and children up and back and up and back (it is NOT a convenient location to where we live), sometimes not even getting out of the car. I wasn’t missed. London Baseball was, and remains, a world of Dads. American (for the most part) Dads who, again for the most part, are the serious players in the City (why else are they here). Yet they make time for this. Lots and lots of time. One Saturday my husband arrived to coach with his suitcase in tow. The taxi came to get him to his flight to Australia (business, not pleasure) before the last out. And he isn’t the only one. Plenty have shown up straight off a flight from Frankfurt, NYC, Singapore, Tokyo, LA or any other place important men happen to go. Bleary-eyed but willing. Their dedication is extraordinary. Humbling, even. They are fathers at their absolute best. Well most of them anyway. A few of these important men are pretty awful. Their behavior in front of their, and other people’s children, inexcusable. Their need to win (correction, their need for their 11 year old to win) beggars belief. But there aren’t many of those. And, of course, they provide hours of gossip for the rest of us.
Yes, there are mothers there too. But even the softball coaches are predominantly men. Its a Dads thing. We are just the cheering section. Thankfully. Because I am hopeless. I can’t throw or catch or hit. The idea of someone hurling a hard ball at me, at my request, is absurd. My understanding of the rules is basic. My attention wanders. I am always cold. ALWAYS. But, once I get there, I do love watching.
It is a full compliment of experience and my husband and children have done it all. Starting with T-ball, moving up to coaches pitch, then the junior softball and baseball and now, finally the seniors. But that T-ball. It requires a patience most of these men didn‘t know they had. But have they do. These diddy little things, jerseys all down to their knees. No clue how to throw or catch or if either of those actions are really necessary. Lots of tears (actually, the tears last, for both the boys and girls, right up to the end). Kids lie down, they wander off, they chat. They run the wrong way. Or not at all. But outs remain uncounted and every game ends in a tie. A game of endurance over skill. Yet these men do it (my own husband did it for years), with enthusiasm.
Over time, attention focuses, skills are honed, games are played, plays are made, fly balls caught, strike outs, stolen bases, home runs. Proper competition. Sadly, it ends at age 13. After that, it becomes another organization and it gets serious. Or rather, the Dads get serious. Really, really serious. And the promise of a trip to Poland for a place in the Little League World Series gets adult hearts pumping. And grown men fighting, sometimes literally. But that is for the true-believers, like mine, but not me. I am happy to stay at the Scrubs.
Next year, only my youngest Katherine will be eligible to play. I will be down from four games to try and watch to just one. But watch I will. On ground where children call the games “matches” and even the Commissioners refer to the field as the “pitch.” Where the weather, even when nice, is awful. Where you can never, ever, ever, ever ask someone to shag the balls (means soooo something else entirely). And where I grudgingly settle into a rickety lawn chair
with a very faded St George’s Cross, purchased for 3 pounds at Tesco during a World Cup more than a decade ago, cold and windswept, with my takeaway coffee from the van, and someone else’s dog at my feet, watching fathers spending time with their children, and admiring kids of a mix of nationalities playing the greatest of all the American games. Aah, what it is to be an American in London. Or as they say here: See you at the Scrubs.