New setting for the old ball game

Croydon Pirates III's Stephen Stafford hits one out of the ... gym. Photo: Jim Barg

It’s a sight familiar to anyone who has played baseball in cold climates: pre-season practices held in gymnasiums, instead of on diamond-shaped fields.

But the tip-off that this practice isn’t being held in baseball’s traditional home of North America comes when you notice the cricket bats lying around.

Croydon is one of the few English hotbeds of baseball, and Croydon Pirates have been pitching and batting here for almost 30 years. Their home ground, Roundshaw, located just outside Croydon, hosts many of the UK’s national championships, held each year in August. The club was founded in 1981 by players from another Croydon team, the Blue Jays.

“The Pirates’ founders were not getting much playing time as members of the Blue Jays, so they decided to start their own club,” says Harvey Sahker, who is hoping to finish a yearbook about the club’s history in time for next year.

Team coach Dave Ward came along a year later. Ward credits his Canadian-born father with imparting a love for the game to his three sons.

“When we were growing up, we had all the equipment, baseball mitts, etc. So when my brothers and I started to play in Croydon, we had a general understanding of the game anyway.”

While the Pirates’ first team is stocked with ex-pats from America and Australia, their second team (Pirates III – formed in 2002) is where younger players from the UK learn about the game.

“Our second team is stocked with players who’ve played socially. We also have people who had never played the game, but who’ve been coached up to our standard.” adds Ward.

The underground nature of the sport in the UK means that its very existence can be a surprise to those familiar with the game in North America.

“I was completely shocked when I found out there was baseball here,” says Pirates second baseman Alex von Rosenbach. “I’d actually joined a cricket team the week before because it was the closest equivalent to baseball.”

The Pirates currently play in the British Baseball Federation’s first tier, the National Premier League, and have a proud history, gaining promotion in 1998 and winning two titles in 2004 and 2005.

“Other clubs have won more national titles, but few British clubs can boast the Pirates’ longevity,” says Sahker, a former Pirate now living in Toronto. He joined the Blue Jays in 1988, and moved to the Pirates in 1994.

“I had played plenty of softball in Toronto, where I was born and raised, and the opportunity to play baseball [in the UK] was something that I wanted to take advantage of.”

He is asking ex-players for their memories, to be included in his book. “The yearbook needs to have a critical mass of submissions from current and former players. Without sufficient input from them, the yearbook will fail.” he says.

This year’s NBL schedule has not been confirmed, but league play traditionally begins in late April and ends in September. The NBL is similar in format to non-league football, split along northern and southern divisions, with the division winners playing for the national title at the end of the season.

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