Interview with Bob Fromer from BSUK

Have you ever watched baseball on TV and thought like giving it a go? Do you play Rounders or Cricket and fancy a new sport? Well the sports of Baseball and Softball are developing and becoming increasingly popular here in the UK with more teams and players playing the sport. To find out more we sat down to interview Bob Fromer from BaseballSoftballUK to find how you can get involved in the sports and how you can develop your game.

What is the role of the BSUK in the development of baseball and softball in the UK?

BSUK, which stands for “BaseballSoftballUK”, is an agency created in 2000 by the two national governing bodies for the sports – the British Baseball Federation and British Softball Federation. BSUK’s primary job, for which we are funded by Sport England, not by the Federations, is to promote, grow and develop the two sports by increasing participation among adults, children and young people; establishing coaching and coach-training programmes; developing schools programmes (both in-curriculum and after-school) in primary and secondary schools; creating school-club links; creating training and coaching manuals; and ensuring that equality and child protection programmes in both sports are present and robust. We also manage communications on behalf of the Federations, administer members’ registration through our website and help the Federations in various other ways. Because of the regional set-up for Sport England funding at present, BSUK has paid staff and concentrates its programmes in four regions: London, the South East, the North West and the West Midlands – though we can and do support the development of baseball and softball in other areas of the country.

What is your role within the organisation and what does it entail?

BSUK now has – or will have when we fill all our posts – around 16 staff members, of which about two-thirds are Development staff and work as Regional Development Officers, Regional Coaches-in-Residence and National Development Managers. The rest of the staff is administrative and operational. My own title is “Communications Consultant” and my role is mainly to do with communications – creating and posting stories on the BSUK website (www.baseballsoftballuk.com), creating monthly E-Bulletins for both Federations and helping to promote the sports in national and regional media. However, I am also the General Manager of the GB Women’s Softball Team programme, which has risen over the past decade from nowhere to 10th in the world.

How big is the sport in the UK and is it growing in popularity?

Baseball in the UK goes back to the 19th century, and was a large minority sport in this country before the Second World War, when there were hundreds of teams. Throughout the second half of the 20th century, the game shrank dramatically, though it has now started to expand once again. The British Baseball Federation has around 50 clubs and 80 member teams in the UK, adding up to around 2,000 youth and adult participants – plus thousands of children and young people who come in contact with the sports through school and Local Authority programmes.

By contrast, the British Softball Federation only dates from 1984 – but thanks to an explosion of recreational corporate Co-ed Slowpitch teams in the late 1980s, there are currently around 400 affiliated softball teams in 20 leagues in England, Scotland and Wales – plus all those school and Local Authority participants and a lot of one-off corporate softball activity. Softball, too, is growing, with existing leagues adding teams and a new league or two starting each year.

There are two main formats in softball – Fastpitch and Slowpitch. The dominant format in the UK is Co-ed Slowpitch, where teams are made up of equal numbers of male and female players. As the title implies, the ball is pitched slowly in Slowpitch and is easy to hit, which makes the game very accessible for new players and people who do not normally think of themselves as “athletes”, while and men and women (or boys and girls) playing together gives the game a social dimension. But Slowpitch still demands skill and tactical awareness and is a challenging game at higher levels

We also have a small number of women’s and men’s teams that play Fastpitch, which is the international competition form of the sport (Women’s Fastpitch is the Olympic format). Again, the name is descriptive: the ball is pitched at high speed in Fastpitch, as in baseball, and hitting it is a difficult skill. Many of our softball programmes for children and young people are geared to Fastpitch, as it is the more demanding format (if you can play Fastpitch, you can play Slowpitch), and we have junior fastpitch leagues for girls and soon for boys.

Internationally, Great Britain has always punched above its weight, considering that baseball and softball are minority sports here with little external funding. The GB Baseball Team finished second in the European Championships in 2007 and has qualified for World Championships in 2009. The GB Co-ed Slowpitch Team has won five straight European Championships and won the Slowpitch World Cup in 2002. It will hope to win a sixth European title when we host the 2008 European Slowpitch Championships at the University of Southampton from July 8-12. The GB Men’s Fastpitch Team finished 9th in World Championships in 2004 and the GB Women’s Fastpitch Team finished tenth in World Championships in 2006 – both tremendous achievements considering our short history and lack of resources.

BSUK is trying to provide a solid underpinning for national teams in both sports by running Baseball and Softball Youth Academies and managing youth national team programmes at U-13, U-16 and U-19 age levels.

What changes have you noticed in the game and the British scene since you have been involved?

I’ve been involved with both sports in the UK (though mainly softball) since the early 1970s.

With baseball, I’ve seen the game go through a depressing period of decline and maladministration and then recover so that now new teams are being added every year, administration is improving, BSUK’s development work is increasing quantity and quality in the sport and the senior national team is achieving its best-ever results.

Softball is a story of massive growth in a short period of time. Go back to the 1970s, and there were a couple of ex-pat pick-up games in London parks and almost nothing outside the capital. Then, in the 1980s, Co-ed Slowpitch became fashionable among middle-class British professionals in London in industries such as advertising, design, banking, surveying and publishing and the sport took off and has never looked back. Hundreds of teams came into being almost overnight in London, and then leagues were seeded in most major cities around the country. Now the sport has a large recreational base and a growing number of competitive and elite teams – but it remains a fun sport played in good spirit, and with tremendous opportunities for women and girls to take part, both in the Co-ed Slowpitch format and in the Olympic format of Women’s Fastpitch.

Many young people in the UK grow up playing similar sports like Rounders and Cricket. Are there any skills you can bring across from these sports if you wanted to start baseball or softball?

Absolutely! Baseball is almost certainly derived from rounders (as softball later came from baseball). All four sports are what are described in the school PE curriculum as “striking and fielding” sports, and all are about hitting a ball with a bat, and catching and throwing the ball. Not only the key skills but a lot of tactical and strategic thinking are transferable from cricket and rounders to baseball and softball.

What skills or strengths do you need to be a great baseball or softball player?

Unlike some of the North American sports (basketball and American football), you don’t need to be extraordinarily tall or large to succeed at baseball or softball. Like football, it can be played, even at the highest levels, by ordinary-sized human beings. Nor are baseball and softball aerobically demanding sports; they’re about skill rather than endurance. The best players have good hand-eye coordination, quick reflexes, speed (although this isn’t essential), “soft hands” (like the best fielders in cricket), strong throwing arms and a good tactical brain.

To play baseball or softball safely you need the proper equipment. How easy or expensive is this to come across?

There are both general and specialist suppliers in the UK who carry the basic equipment to play either sport – bats, balls and fielder’s gloves – and safety equipment such as batting helmets and special protective gear for catchers (the equivalent to a wicket-keeper in cricket), as well as playing uniforms (which can range from a T-shirt with a team name to the kind of uniforms worn by Major League Baseball players). All of this playing and safety equipment and uniforms can also be ordered online from overseas suppliers, often more cheaply than it can be bought in the UK. Advice on suppliers can be obtained by contacting BSUK. Bats and gloves are not that cheap – a good bat can cost £60 and up and a good glove £30 and up – but they are one-off purchases that will last for years. Safety equipment is not expensive.

How easy is it to find a baseball or softball team to play for in the UK?

There are baseball clubs and teams in many areas of the country and softball leagues in most major cities and some towns: London, Brighton, Bristol, Redhill, Oxford, Portsmouth/Southampton, Birmingham, Nottingham, Leeds, Manchester, Newcastle, Glasgow and Edinburgh. For specific information and contacts for teams and leagues in both sports, see the baseball and softball pages on the BSUK website (www.baseballsoftballuk.com).

How hard is it for somebody from the UK to make it in to the American MLB? Are there many British people currently plying their trade at the Major League level and do you ever see baseball becoming a professional sport over here?

Major League Baseball in America is becoming more and more international, with players from many countries around the world playing for MLB teams. However, Europe is in many ways less developed at an elite level of baseball than other areas of the world, especially Asia, Oceania and Central and South America, and there are fewer European players in Major League Baseball than from other regions. So far, no British players (ie, born and raised here) have yet played for an MLB team, and only a few Europeans. On the other hand, a number of past and present MLB players have been born here – the most famous is Bobby Thomson, born in Glasgow, who in 1951 hit probably the most famous home run in MLB history, the “shot heard round the world” that gave the New York Giants victory over the Brooklyn Dodgers in a playoff game to decide who would go to the World Series.

Baseball is already a semi-professional sport in Holland and Italy, and could become a professional sport in those countries in time. British baseball is a long way from that, in part because we lack dedicated fields, let alone stadiums, in which to play the game and because the way sport is administered and funded here at government level makes it very difficult for minority sports to develop facilities and professional infrastructure.

We have seen the NBA, NFL and NHL all come over to the UK for games. Do you think an organisation like the MLB would ever come to the UK for a game?

MLB has played exhibition and regular season games in Japan, Mexico and Puerto Rico in recent years and is very keen to stage a game in Europe. The issue is finding an appropriate stadium (football pitches do not have the right dimensions). The UK is a good bet for such a game because cricket pitches are much closer to having the right dimensions. There was a game played between two Minor League baseball teams (from the Red Sox and Mets’ organisations) in 1993 at The Oval cricket ground in London, and there have been discussions with The Oval and Lords. Nothing is certain, but watch this space.

And finally what advice would you give to any young person wanting to play baseball or softball?

Do it! Young people will find a warm welcome at baseball and softball clubs, and will have opportunities to learn and play the game they choose. The best way to get started is to contact BSUK for advice and for contact information for their nearest team.

Young people – even with no experience – are also always welcome at baseball and softball Academy sessions, which are held monthly at locations around the country. Again, contact BSUK for more information.