The University of East Anglia’s baseball team, the Blue Sox, just won the national tournament for the third straight year. Wait, baseball? Yes; not only do people play baseball in England, but UEA has a baseball team, and they’re really, really good.
The tournament was played in Farnham Park in Slough over the course of two days and involved five different teams throughout the UK. In the first match, UEA won 9-5 against Southampton. UEA also won the final match 11-3 against Imperial, but it was the 7-3 victory over Nottingham that most of the players remember, as UEA left it late to score all seven runs in the very last inning.
“We played for our lives”, said baseball coach Ethan Attwood. “Nottingham had this huge, new pitcher. For three innings, he was dominant. Chris Blandford, who hadn’t struck out for two years, struck out. I struck out. But then he started to waver and in the last inning, we took the lead”.
Baseball is kind of like rounders (but not) and also kind of like cricket (but also not cricket) and kind of like running in a circle (that may or may not be exactly right). A pitcher throws a ball. A batter tries to hit it. There’s a field. There are bases. It’s all very metaphorical; you run around in a circle in a desperate attempt to make it home.
“With a lot of sport there’s a wall”, Attwood said. “With football, you can’t play if you’re not fast. With rugby, you can’t play if you’re not strong. But with baseball, the skills you need are so diverse that you’ll be good at some aspect of it”.
And it’s OK if you’ve never played before. “Most people who sign up haven’t played before,” says Blue Sox President Emma James. “Every year we have to train people up. We start by explaining the rules”.
While some are totally new to the sport, some have watched it for years. On a family holiday in Florida, Elliot Wotton watched the Tampa Bay Devil Rays play for the first time, and was hooked. When he arrived at UEA, he signed up. Three weeks later, he was on the national squad. “It was amazing. You don’t get a lot of opportunities to play in a national tournament, so being able to play in it after three weeks of joining the team was pretty surreal,” Wotton said. “I’ve been watching it for a long time. I kept thinking, ‘Oh, I’m in that position now’. You get a buzz”.
Then there are the players who have played baseball before, who show others how it’s done. Take Joe Rollwagen, an exchange student from Minnesotta, who Andreas Fopp credits with turning him into an electrifying pitcher. Fopp pitched for a total of 11 innings in the two day tournament against 52 different batters. He struck out nearly 40% of those at bat, emerging with a 2.45 ERA. He had pitched a little while studying at an International School in Germany, but here, he’s been getting a lot more attention.
“I certainly have had a lot of people come up to me and say, ‘Heard you did well. Congrats!’ I’ve never experienced anything like it because over in Germany I was kind of a bit further down in terms of pitching ability”, Fopp said. “UK baseball is still developing. It’s nice that I’m here for a full, three year course to see it develop”.
When Fopp was considering universities, his mum came across the UEA baseball page. He created a Twitter account, and promptly followed them. “It’s kind of a dream come true that I’m on the team”, he said.
If you watch a baseball game, you’ll probably see a lot of people standing around. It’s sometimes like watching paint dry, but while the paint dries, something crazy will happen that you’ll miss if you’re not looking. Someone will make a double play, someone will catch a ball with their bare hand, a pitcher will throw a 90mph fast ball.
Baseball players are a tough old bunch. “Don’t listen to anyone who says baseball doesn’t fuck you up; we’re lucky we still have both our ears”, said Attwood. The catcher’s elbow is barely attached to his arm. We’re like a platoon of soldiers after a war”.
Like the American mailman mantra “Neither snow nor rain nor heat nor gloom of night”, the Blue Sox play all year round and have thus thrown their share of waterlogged baseballs in Nottingham. “We are FedEx, except we play baseball”, James said.
One of the reasons the team is so good is because they know each other so well. Don’t take for granted the role played by team socials, organized by Social Secretary Roz Cresswell, in building the team spirit and camaraderie essential for success. “Everyone knows each other’s strengths and weaknesses and the closeness of the group means we can tell if someone is likely to make silly errors through being stressed”, she said.
For catcher Tom Mott, being able to communicate is super important. He has to know what the pitcher is about to do. “You’re playing with your pitcher, and you communicate with him, and everyone is communicating with each other”, Mott said. “The Blue Sox just have a great atmosphere, whether or not they’re playing or on the bench. Just the family appeal is so great”.
The Blue Sox only started playing softball last season, which may have accounted for their defeat this past weekend, but there was still massive potential. Casey Ditzler, for instance, managed to hit a single, double, triple, and a home run during the tournament.
Softball uses a larger ball as well as underhanded, and slower pitching. While the baseball squad included two girls, the softball tournament was about half female. But softball is exploding throughout the UK, even more so than baseball. While only 5 teams participated in the baseball tournament, 12 teams took part in the national softball tournament last weekend.
But, by and large, the Blue Sox remain their own biggest fans: “We don’t get any money from the Union. We don’t really get noticed by the University,” James said. “But, every week, we play for the love of the sport”.