Call Up of the Year: A Classic Experience

December 29, 2016

PC: Tom Flack

 

In my early twenties, I landed a part-time job with the San Francisco Giants. I saw the greatest hitter in my lifetime, Barry Bonds, belt 73 home runs in a season. The following year I watched him bat .370. In 2004, 10 days after I moved to Boston, the Red Sox completed their legendary comeback from three games behind the Yankees. With a bloody sock here and a perfect game there, apart from the Cubs winning the World Series, I thought I had seen it all during my life in baseball.

 

More than a decade later, after stepping into the role of public relations for Great Britain at the final qualifying round for the World Baseball Classic (WBCQ), I’ve finally realized how little I knew. 

 

Auxiliary policemen enjoy WBSQ atmosphere    PC: Paul Stodart 

 

It happened on Coney Island where America’s greatest city, and one of baseball’s spiritual homes, ends in an abrupt, tangled swirl of rollercoasters at the edge of the Atlantic. Standing proudly in the middle of this carnival atmosphere is an oasis, MCU Park, single-A affiliate of the NY Mets. Usually closed by the time the promise of a lingering summer starts to fade, this September it played host to the winner-takes-all tournament between four nations. 

 

Though I had spent weeks making plans for the event, as soon as I touched down at La Guardia airport, it became obvious there were things about to happen I could neither anticipate nor control. 

 

The Initiation

From remembering hundreds of names to figuring out the press box etiquette there was a lot to understand, a lot more to do, and some things would simply have to be missed. Top of that list was the rookie initiation. Every player on the team has to learn the British national anthem no matter which commonwealth they come from. Normally a closed door affair, I convince management this was something the world would want a front row ticket to see.

 

The location was carefully selected. It had to be busy, and it had to be big. In the Big Apple that could only be Times Square. While the team got as close as possible (with the bus driver requiring additional ‘incentive’) pitching coach Trevor Hoffman (who has a British mum) warmed up the singers with a round of ‘Do Re Mi’s’. Though I was unable to attend I’ve been told it proved one of the team’s most defining moments. 

 

 

The Crew

There are 28 players in each squad, plus 13 operations staff, including equipment manager, trainers and security. Team GB’s security was handled by Woody, a third generation policeman from Philly. Woody did so much more than security. He played tour guide as the team bus took different, winding routes each day and lent me his phone, on multiple occasions, to cut my international dialing charges. When he commented, “This is major league”, following an outstanding play, he served as a subtle, walking reminder of how lucky I was to be there. Above all, he always had our backs, giving us the freedom to do our jobs well.

 

Keeping everyone in his view, Woody scopes out the situation from the stands     PC: Tom Flack 

 

The people who contributed to the team’s success are too numerous to count, but a few deserve their own side note. Our unofficial number 42, Paul, flew from Amsterdam to New York, at his own expense, to take photos and capture video. From a PR side, that meant we could produce quality content and give fans back home an opportunity to experience some of the action too. It is a contribution you could not put too fine a point on. 

 

Some players came with friends, some with families, a couple brought an entourage but Nateshon Thomas, who was called up to the British team little more than 48 hours before the tournament began, was accompanied by a tourist bureau. The British Virgin Islands fans brandished banners and flags, relentlessly cheering. They even managed to get a plaque made up for Thomas that they presented to him at the event. That’s some serious efficiency! 

 

Nateshon Thomas with Virgin Islands fans    PC: Paul Stodart

 

The Hotel

Give or take a pit stop to the local tacoria or hot dog cart (thanks for buying, Trevor!), my time was entirely split between the ballpark and the hotel. For one week some 200 players, officials and MLB/WBCQ staff called it home. It was here, over sausage and eggs in the morning, or a beer at night’s end in the hotel bar, that the conversations were most illuminating. 

 

For example, one in the morning the final night of the tournament, as we reflected on the week’s events, Ike Davis strode into the lounge. Former New York Met, Brooklyn native and proud member of victorious team Israel, he stopped, eyed that evening’s starting pitcher, Spencer Kreisberg, and said: “Hey. Nice change up. The best PE teacher I’ve ever faced.” Kreisberg, who had struck him out in the first, said nothing. It was my first peak behind the curtain where I realized how much is left on the field, and what happens when it’s not. 

 

Players enjoy downtime together  PC: Tom Flack

 

Media Access

While players spend their time between hotel, clubhouse and field, media run laps around the stadium. Press box to locker room and every nook and cranny in between the labyrinth of corridors seems never-ending. No place is safe. People are always competing for your attention. Even the elevator doors are no match for a peaceful moment. Someone is bound to sneak on as the doors are closing saying, ‘So glad I caught you’ as you're running late to a meeting you never even knew you had. 

 

At MCU, there is a multimedia room for press conferences, and a press box tucked away on the third floor, with a commanding view of not only the field, but the Cyclone roller-coaster and the ocean. It was from there I finally had a moment that would be my own. 

 

Pressbox view of MCU Park    PC: Paul Stodart

 

As I shared the balcony with a Major League scout and a sound technician going through his check, the sky’s light began to gently flex from blue to pink. As the players took their inconsequential hacks, a group of journalists huddled patiently by the dugout, like mothers outside a schoolyard. But for the tiny, reverberating, expansive din of Rihanna singing This is What You Came For, the world fell silent. This was the calm that made the storm bearable. 

 

And that storm swiftly passed its eye. It felt like a wedding, except everyone was getting married. This moment was all the more real because then, from my bird’s eye view, I suddenly saw what it took to create it. I realized there is still so much to learn, so much I couldn’t possibly have known. Baseball is infinite, and it’s not only American. It’s also Pakistani, Israeli, Brazilian and British. Some of us haven’t spent our lives gripping a baseball but it has gripped us just the same. 

 

It’s as much about what you’re missing as what you are there for. Standing by the field after Israel celebrates their WBC berth, a senior MLB official taps me on the shoulder and says, “Hey Tom - they’re waiting in the media room. The press conference is ready to begin. Liam wouldn’t start without you.”

 

Who, me?

 

It’s easy to get lost in the moment. It’s much harder, and so much better, when they don’t stop coming. Bring on Tokyo.

 

 

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