In the UK's top baseball league, crowds are small, babysitters are key and the Mets are a dynasty

Baseball at the highest club level in Britain is competitive but it’s a league in which babysitters are just as important as balls and strikes

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LONDON (AP) — This might be the year, mate. The London Mets are the defending champs, but they're looking beatable.

The London Capitals have been close, and they've got ace pitcher Masa Hashiguchi.

Talk about a subway series.

These two National Baseball League teams meet for the first time this season later this month.

And they might meet at the pub afterward.

Baseball at the highest club level in Britain is competitive, but it's a league in which babysitters are just as important as balls and strikes. Teams are a mélange of locals and expats — some with college and minor league experience. Only one guy throws 90 mph. Just about everyone works or goes to school.

Sometimes just getting to midweek practice is a task.

“A Zoom call — I might have my baseball pants on and still a dress shirt on the top, getting ready to run out the door as soon as I can,” Capitals manager Cole Ryan said.

The destination is Finsbury Park, home to both the Mets and Capitals. They're part of the same club — headlined by the Mets. The London Mets Baseball & Softball Club is the largest in the U.K. and the Mets have won the NBL title for seven years running.

The Capitals were dominating a lower division, so they moved up, and they've been giving the Mets a good run. Good enough to get to the finals, anyway, where they've lost to the Mets the past five years.

“It’s more like a big brother, little brother situation in a sense,” Mets coach Derrick Cook explained at a recent game in Enfield, just north of London. “It’s like, 'Hey, the big brother is good at everything and the little brother is always trying to beat the big brother.”

It's as if the Mets are the New York Yankees, and the Capitals are, well, the Mets.

The New York version of the Mets are in town this weekend for a two-game series against the Philadelphia Phillies.

Soccer is the dominant sport here, with the current focus on England's chances in the upcoming European Championship. There are also eyeballs on the cricket T20 World Cup.

Indeed, the Finsbury Park baseball diamond had been used for cricket until being abandoned because it was too easily waterlogged. Players unwind and install the outfield fence — a flimsy plastic piece anchored by stakes — before each game, and the leftover cricket pavilion has become handy as a baseball clubhouse with moss on the roof and Mets' trophies inside.

The club rents the facilities from the city. It's a short walk from the Manor House tube station to the gap in the wooden fence that separates the field from a busy street. They still use equipment the Yankees donated in 2019 during MLB's debut in Europe — baseball's are in sparse supply in the U.K., so the Mets keep their gameday stockpile under lock and key.

Cook, a Chicago native and IT network engineer, played college baseball and — this comes up a lot — did a Google search when he moved to London in 2009 and found the Mets.

The Mets attract some of the best players. Many are in their 20s and 30s. A handful of youngsters have come through the system and played some U.S. college ball. London native Freddy Mosier has pitched for the Mets, Britain's national team and Middlebury College in Vermont. Rose Bhanji is also on the Mets roster and other women play on the club's lower-tier men's teams as well as a women's team — and several also play for Britain's national women's team.

The league is amateur but the Mets have in the past used “import” players — not paid to play exactly, but rather to work as a coach, help with groundskeeping and promote the game in schools.

There's no import this year because the visa prices have increased, but any new player is still free to join a team.

Geremias Valencia, who had been in the Los Angeles Dodgers system, was so new to the Mets last month that after hitting a home run in his first game, a teammate was overheard asking "what's his name?" while the Panamanian outfielder was rounding the bases.

Hashiguchi, the Capitals' ace, said he sees different Mets' lineups all the time for their 7-inning affairs.

“They say like ‘oh, he’s from Germany but just temporary,’ or ‘he’s from US college but just temporary.’ So a lot of good players there, but always changing,” the 33-year-old Japanese right-hander said.

Hashiguchi moved to London a few years ago with his wife, who is British.

“I want to beat the champion to be a champion,” said Hashiguchi, a physiotherapist who now trains on his own because he has two young children. “So I joined the Capitals because it’s more challenging for my baseball career.”

Hashiguchi took the loss against the Mets in 2021's single-game final when Rich Minford hit a homer to the New River — a man-made canal built in 1613 to route freshwater to Londoners — beyond center field.

A year later, Hashiguchi threw 148 pitches in a semifinal victory. The bad news for the Capitals? The final was the next day. Then last season, the final switched to a three-game series. Hashiguchi won Game 1, but the Mets cruised in the doubleheader a day later.

Hashiguchi, who has also played in Australia, throws breaking balls for strikes and has an 86 mph fastball. On Sunday at Finsbury Park, he made quick work of Bristol-based Vetra BC's lineup — a mix of Lithuanian and Latin American expats. Wives, girlfriends, babies and dogs attended, and a foul ball landed by the pickup soccer game nearby.

The Capitals aren't the only threat to the crown. The Essex Arrows are currently in first place in the six-team NBL, and the Sheffield Bruins swept the Mets in a recent doubleheader.

“As the standard of the NBL rises, our players are more prepared to go over and face the better teams in Europe,” said Joe O’Connell, the Mets' commissioner of adult teams.

The Mets are competing this week in the third-tier European Federation Cup in Zurich, Switzerland.

Cook, the Mets coach, says rivalries aside, it's a close-knit league where players drive long distances and line fields for the joy of the game.

“The dedication across the league is there. Guys are playing because they really just enjoy playing, they love this game.”

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