Kurkjian: The beauty of the London Series

LONDON — Some sports are only as international as the International House of Pancakes. Not baseball. It is everywhere, from Cuba to Aruba, from Canada to Panama, from Ty France to Jonathan India.

And this weekend, baseball arrived in England, home to Big Ben, Westminster Abbey, Buckingham Palace and the royals — but it will be the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs, not the Royals from Kansas City, playing at London Stadium. It is international baseball at its best: a 142-year-old Midwest rivalry playing out in historic, ancient and spectacular England. “It will be unforgettable,” Cardinals pitcher Miles Mikolas said.

The Cubs came to London via Pittsburgh, where they swept the Pirates, then flew to England on Wednesday night. They slept on the plane, and early Thursday, they began walking the streets of London.

“It was amazing,” Cubs manager David Ross said. “We saw everything: Big Ben, Parliament, Westminster Abbey. We learned all about Shakespeare and Dickens. … I’m a redneck from Florida. I don’t know much about world history. But it was all so incredible.”

The Cubs finished their day with a private guided tour of Westminster Abbey, a portion of which was rented out by Cubs owner Tom Ricketts.

“That was the most amazing thing I’ve ever seen in my life,” Cubs outfielder Cody Bellinger said. “We were all in awe walking around, looking at all of it, the ceiling. I’ve never seen anything like it. We looked at each other and wondered, ‘How in the world did they build this?'”

Mikolas also visited the Abbey.

“People who have a house built today have to deal with builders who are using brick and plaster and concrete … and I’m in Westminster Abbey thinking, ‘They did a better job building something a thousand years ago,'” Mikolas said. “Today, we build these giant glass buildings. Me, I’ll take a building built out of stone every single time.”

Cardinals shortstop Paul DeJong was equally impressed by the history of the city.

“Our hotel [The Four Seasons] has a statue of Poseidon on the top of it, the architecture is stunning,” he said. “We, too, were wondering how they built all this such a long time ago. I guess they built things out of survival, they had to build them so sturdy so they wouldn’t collapse. But they went way beyond survival, they went from survival to … art.”

DeJong also visited the Tower of London.

“It was remarkable,” he said. “That’s where Anne Boleyn was beheaded. … And we were standing right there today. It was an amazing day. We [the team] took a tour of London in a boat [on the River Thames]. We saw so many sights. It’s amazing how all great civilizations were built on a river, providing transportation, materials.”

Murray Cook, the genius groundskeeper who builds new fields and refurbishes old ones for Major League Baseball, might not have used the Thames, but he too had a construction project ahead of him. Cook began working on the field at London Stadium — a beautiful stadium, outdoors, that seats 55,000 — on June 5. He and his staff turned it into a baseball field in 18 days.

“Murray is a monster,” one MLB official said. “Murray is a magician.”

Cubs catcher Yan Gomes, who was born in Brazil, and is a huge soccer fan, said, “How about that? I finally get to go to a real soccer stadium … and we are playing a baseball game.”

To allow him to do so, Cook’s team first had to take up all the boarding — five layers of it — from a recent concert. Cook had 340 tons of clay flown in to build the infield. He installed artificial turf. He moved home plate back seven feet — from 385 feet to 392 — to try to avoid a repeat of the first game played in this stadium in 2019 when the Yankees beat the Red Sox 17-13. The alleys in right- and left-center field were extended to 387 feet. The ball still carries well, and the turf is thicker and softer than normal artificial turf.

“It’s the bounciest turf I’ve ever seen,” Cubs first baseman Trey Mancini said.

Cubs infielder Nick Madrigal said, “We bounced a ball off the turf, and it bounced up to our eyes. It takes some getting used to. That second hop, the one with topspin, you better be ready.”

The fans didn’t care if the ball bounced too high or if the ball jumped too much — they just wanted to see baseball. And there were Cubs fans and Cardinals fans everywhere in London, including a St. Louis couple married for 35 years: One is a Cubs fan, the other is a Cardinals fan.

“I was in Westminster Abbey and I turned around and there were 10 people in Cardinal hats standing right behind me,” Mikolas said. “So, I took a picture with all of them. The English people around us had no idea who I was. I’m sure they were wondering, ‘Why are they crowding around that guy?'”

Still, there are baseball fans in England. Great Britain fielded a team in the World Baseball Classic. It even won a game, beating Colombia. On Thursday, in a tour around town, we found one British man who had been to games in the United States.

“I went to games in a San Francisco when Barry Bonds hit … like a hundred home runs,” he said. “I went to a game in Yankee Stadium. That was great. I can’t wait for the games here.”

He was right to be excited. Saturday was unforgettable for Cubs outfielder Ian Happ, who hit a home run in his first two at-bats, leading the surging Cubs to a 9-1 victory. So perfect: A guy named Ian hit two home runs in his first game in London. “That’s a pretty popular name in England,” he said. “That was pretty cool.”

It was a big night for Cubs outfielder Mike Tauchman because he played in this series for the Yankees in 2019.

“I am Mr. London … actually, I am Mr. Europe,” Tauchman said with a smile. “Some of the guys asked me what it would be like to play here. I told them, ‘When we leave, it will suck.’ Everything was great tonight. The atmosphere was electric. And, it was 15 degrees cooler [than it was in 2019]. And the game didn’t last four hours.”

It lasted 2:40, and it was a huge win for Major League Baseball. There were home runs, great defensive plays, including a diving catch by Cubs right fielder Seiya Suzuki, and really good pitching, especially by Cubs starter Justin Steele. But it was the sellout crowd of 54,662 that made the night.

“I had to take a moment in the seventh inning to enjoy how much fun everyone was having,” Happ said. “It felt like there were 50,000 people there. And they were singing ‘Sweet Caroline’ in the seventh inning!”

“The crowd was amazing,” Ross said. “And for them to be cheering, ‘Go Cubs Go’ at the end was great.”

It is a special event for me, too: My late mother, the aptly named Joy, was born and raised in Bournemouth, England. We grew up to stories of soccer, lawn bowling, netball (basketball, but without a backboard) and, of course, her favorite, cricket.

I heard my beloved father raise his voice to my beloved mother once. While watching the 1968 World Series, my mom contended that a cricket bowler (pitcher) could throw harder than a major league pitcher. My dad, once a very good baseball player with a great feel for the game, said, “Listen Joy, look — no cricket bowler throws harder than Bob Gibson!”

Fifty-five years later, I watched a baseball game in England. It was fascinating, it was emotional, it was great fun. Mostly, I was moved by how much the players enjoyed the experience of historic London.

“I played three years in Japan,” Mikolas said. “I can only remember a handful of games I played there, maybe a shutout I threw. And I can only remember a few teammates. But I’ll never forget the temples, the shrines, the trip we took to Hiroshima. The experiences. That’s what you remember. That’s what we’ll all remember and never forget from London.”

Baseball in England.


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