LONDON — The twins, now 16 months old and already able to claim they were there in nappies at Busch Stadium when Albert Pujols hit one of his final home runs, wake up at 7:15 a.m. British Summer Time, and as their father goes through their morning ritual, he begins his.
Mornings are for the ‘Birds.
Andy Mackie toggled a switch in his MLB app to “hide scores” so that, five hours or so after the previous day’s game has ended, he can log on from his London home, load up the Cardinals game, and watch as if it was live, every day.
“Some days it’s absolutely brutal,” Mackie said. “Have your morning coffee and you get to the seventh inning, look at the score, they’re behind, and see at the bottom how much time is left in the game. You start reversing it on whether it seems like there’s a bottom of the ninth, or not, and you go, ‘Well, that cannot be great.’”
“That’s the other thing about being a Cardinal fan in the UK,” said Scott Seamons, also of London, and wearing a Stan Musial T-shirt. “Sometimes the first thing you know in the day is what happened the night before. You check the box score when you wake up. You reflect about it at 6 or 7 p.m., OK, bad day today, why is that? Ah! First thing I did today was find out the Cardinals had lost.”
Baseball, it’s not just for breakfast — this weekend.
As Major League Baseball resumes its London Series for the first time since 2019, the Cardinals will host their archrival Cubs at London Stadium in the first National League games played in the United Kingdom. First pitch for the first game is set for 6 p.m. London time. And Cardinals fans from around the UK plan to flock to the home of West Ham United to see their team — or just one player. Daniel Valdez, who grew up the Dominican Republic and now works in the financial industry in London, received tickets as a birthday gift, and the giver knew him well. They purchased seats with a great view of third base and Nolan Arenado.
“I love baseball in general. I do love the Cardinals. But a good 70% of this is Arenado,” Valdez said. “Maybe it’s more. I just want to see him just be him.”
The Cardinals arrived Thursday morning after their overnight flight from Washington, and if that didn’t leave a little jetlag, their first experience with London traffic did as it took more than a hour to inch from a nearby airport to their hotel. Many of the traveling party, including Saturday starter Adam Wainwright and Sunday starter Jack Flaherty, boarded double-decker buses at the team hotel, headed for a dinner cruise along the Thames. Chairman Bill DeWitt Jr., president of baseball operations John Mozeliak, and manager Oliver Marmol were also present.
Marmol and DeWitt scored seats on the top deck for the best view.
In 2019, Major League Baseball brought the Yankees and Red Sox to London for the first regular season games played in the UK and a widening of the MLB World Tour map. The Cardinals-Cubs series was set for 2020 and canceled due to the pandemic, so they return to reclaim momentum, not just benefit from it. The marketing remains similar as MLB is building the London Series “around rivalries — an idea that transcends sports,” said Charles Hill, MLB’s vice president of international business operations on Thursday at London Stadium.
The slogan “old rivalry, new ground” appears all around London Stadium. Baseball’s longest-running rivalry between two clubs that have never moved cities is moving across the Atlantic.
“For us, 2019 was a bit of a proof point,” Hill continued. “We’ve had to come in eyes wide open that we’re a new sport here. We’re introducing ourselves.”
Perhaps, no team so far more than the Cardinals.
“The Cardinals are the least known team of the four that have come here,” said longtime UK journalist and sportswriter Matthew Engel over his tea this week. He is semi-retired but “got called out of the bullpen” to write this week on the Cardinals for The Guardian.
“If you actually talk about UK fandom, obviously Yankees are well represented,” explained Russell Eassom, one of the co-hosts of a UK-based baseball podcast, Bat Flips & Nerds. “I think Toronto is a very well (liked) team because you’ve got Canada. We actually have quite a few Cubs fans. The Florida teams are quite well supported in the UK because it’s a popular holiday destination. From all the community meet-ups that we have there is no one team that massively stands out as everybody supports this team. Everybody usually has a fairly unique reason why they support a team. That does mean if a team puts the right effort in they could really capture that market.
“Being the home team for this really felt to me this is (the Cardinals) trying to push out — let’s show the rest of the world a bit of like why this part of American loves this team. Can we do that in the UK? Can we become one of those teams?”
The Cardinals fans from the UK who shared their stories on becoming fans do, as advertised, come across as proper “unique.” Some have never been to St. Louis.
Few bring up the 11 World Series titles as a reason.
Seamons, a civil servant in the British government, made sure to note that he became a Cardinals fan during a visit to the States in 2011 — but when the team was trailing in the standings before its September surge. He did not want to be known as a “glory hunter,” the British equivalent of bandwagoner. Matt Holliday hit two home runs in a game he watched and became “the man who dragged me in.” Grant Sales, a correction officer in Kent, England, got an NHL video game for his PC and thrilled in scoring goals with Blues great Brett Hull and became a Blues fan. When Sales got an iPhone he added an app for a local St. Louis sports radio station in hopes of info on his favorite team.
“All the news was Cardinals, Cardinals, Cardinals,” he said.
He was hooked.
“I can recall Game 6 in my sleep,” Sales said.
And other fans around him nod. He doesn’t need to say the year.
Mackie, who does digital marketing for sports outlet The Athletic, is in the “MLB on Five” generation — named for the program Channel Five in the UK aired from 1997 to 2008. It was the soundtrack to all-night study sessions, the gateway to baseball. For Mackie it was Mark McGwire’s homer binge in 1998. He took his twins to St. Louis for games this past year, and a Pujols’ homer brought one to tears. Or, maybe it was the noise.
“I’ve got thankless teams over here,” said Engel, sharing how he is a Cardinals fan. “On that David Freese night, I suddenly realized that I like how this team does its thing. I like the tradition. I could see on the TV the intensity of the support. I fell in love with that.”
In an effort now to actively expand their brand, the Cardinals gave up two home games to participate in the London Series. They will play next season at Rickwood Field in Birmingham, Alabama, and they have expressed interest in being one of the teams selected for games in Japan. They, like Major League Baseball, are tiptoeing into a market that already has a beloved bat and ball sport, cricket.
Oscar Russell, an infielder for the amateur club London Meteors, said baseball “may not be, but we think of it as American’s oldest sport.” New to them, but not unfamiliar. Baseball has elements of rounders, it’s a clear cousin of cricket, and shares elements of fencing (pitcher/batter duels) and English football’s sustained tension.
“The crowd plays a role in building that tension — bases loaded, 3-2 count, you can feel that crackling energy in the same way on a through ball in on the keeper with that collective gasp,” said John McGee, a co-host of Bat Flips & Nerds. “This is the $64 million question of the whole enterprise: It’s a long-haul investment for baseball, so are they in it for that? The NFL in the UK didn’t happen overnight.”
The Chicago Bears played Dallas in 1986. Other exhibitions followed.
A regular-season game didn’t come to London until 2007.
This year three regular-season games will be played in the UK.
“The fundamental problem for a baseball fan in the UK is there are 162 games and the vast majority of them are in the middle of the night,” McGee said. “The Cubs are a clever choice for the Wrigley (Field) afternoon games.”
Earlier this week, when Paul DeJong hit a home run late in the Cardinals’ win at Washington it was 2:30 a.m. London time. The game ended at 2:53 a.m. Mackie found out hours later, tending to the twins. This weekend, he and the others will watch what happens live.
Cardinals are coming to them.
On their schedule.
“All of this just feels like an added bonus,” Seamons said. “I love following the Cardinals, and when I started following the Cardinals the idea that they’d come to the UK was not even on my radar. It is exciting. They are going to be here. If they never came, I’d still be a Cardinals fan. They’re here — and it’s exciting.”
@dgoold on Twitter