Best known in Britain for his role as co-host of Baseball on Five, Josh has also represented Great Britain in five European Championships, led the London Mets to two domestic titles, and published a pair of books covering baseball history in Britain and the rest of Europe.
Thanks must go to Matt for posing the questions and to Josh for sharing his thoughts.
Josh, tell us about where you grew up and how your love of baseball developed.
I was born in London but grew up in Los Angeles. I didn’t come from a particularly sporting family, but I had a friend who was playing baseball when I was seven so I asked if I could play with him. I loved it from the start — though it did take me a while to get competent. As I didn’t have the genetic disposition to be a great baseball player, I was always an overachiever. I played catcher starting at a young age (my first season behind the dish was when I was 8-years-old). It was a position that suited my temperament and approach perfectly. I do believe it’s a position where if you work hard and give some thought to the game, you can always find a spot. I was named MVP on a handful of teams growing up, but I was never the best player on the team.
You played for a Division I college team for four years and then played professionally in an independent league. What were the highlights of that period for you?
Frankly, making a Division I team was a big highlight. My success at the high school level probably made me a better fit with an NCAA Division III program, but I was accepted to Northwestern University, which is an excellent school (particularly for journalism, which was the subject I studied). The coach at Northwestern took me on as a “recruited walk-on,” which meant I wasn’t going to get a scholarship, but I’d have a good shot at making the team. I was never a star in college and was never the number one catcher on our team. In fact, I backed up four different guys who got drafted. Yet, I played a decent amount and went four years without a passed ball (a stat I’m very proud of) and finished my college career with a .297 average.
My indy ball career was pretty short. I got signed by the Zanesville Greys of the Frontier League in an open tryout. Alas, they also signed two other really talented catchers. Our starter ended up playing a number of years in the White Sox organization after his season in Zanesville. Anyway, I ended up getting released right around the All Star break. I do take pride in the fact that considering my merely serviceable skills, I got paid to play in the US and take solace in the fact that if I was going to be released at least it was by the team that ended up winning the league championship. Years later, I’d play as a paid “professional” in Sweden and that was a wonderful experience. We had a great team, which included a GB teammate Alex Smith, and I was fortunate to have a great season.
How did you find your way into British baseball and the Great Britain national team? What was the standard of play like at first and did it surprise you?
I ended in Zanesville mid-summer in 1993 and thought that I was going to hang up my spikes (in other words, stop playing). But in 1994, I moved to Washington DC where I did a writing stint at the Wall Street Journal and then moved on to a US news magazine called U.S. News & World Report. I didn’t know a ton of people in Washington so I figured playing in an amateur adult baseball league would be a good way to meet folks. In early 1996, I came across a website for the BBF (kudos to then BBF-vice president Kevin Macadam for being an early Internet adopter). I explained that I had a British passport and he asked if I’d be interested in playing for GB in the European “B-pool” Championships that summer. I said absolutely.
I was really the first non-domestic player to come over and play for GB during this modern period. Another American with a UK passport named Peter Arthur also played on that 1996 team, but he had come over earlier in the summer. I played in one pre-tournament event and then the Euros. It was truly a British team at that point and the guys — every one of them — were absolutely wonderful. There was a true team chemistry. As for the talent level, at that point, the top of the “B pool” was pretty similar to my adult league back home. The bottom part of the “B pool” was a lot weaker.
How has British baseball, both the national team and the domestic league, developed since you first became involved?
Today, the national team is completely different. In 1996, we won the gold medal at the European “B pool” event and earned promotion into Europe’s top level. The skill at that tier was substantially higher (I didn’t play in 1997 due to work commitments but came back in 1999 — the first year that the tournament was wood bat only). With the increasing level of competition, more effort was made to recruit dual nationality players. Great Britain was not alone in these efforts. Of course, this did raise the talent level. Don’t get me wrong: There were a number of talented “born and bred” British players on that 1996 team. Still, it’s just hard to compete with those British passport holders who have played so much more in the US, Canada, Australia, etc… As for the domestic-based British players, I believe that by the time I retired, every single one of them — Gavin Marshall, Nick Carter, Alex Malihoudis, David Donaldson, Ben Gogan, Liam Carroll, Stephen Brown — had spent time in either NCAA or junior college programmes in the U.S. It is just the reality of the level of competition. As for the foreign-based recruits, they improved every two-year cycle, of course, culminating with the addition of Brant Ust and Mike Nickeas at the 2007 Euros. Personally, I played in five Euros (1996, 1999, 2001, 2003 and 2005). At each event, the overall talent in Europe has improved.
As for the domestic league, my personal experience is a bit more limited. I’ve really only played three full seasons (2002, 2007 and 2008) and parts of two other campaigns (2004 and 2006). Of those years, I believe that 2002 had the most depth in terms of the greatest number of competitive teams.
Your excellent book “British Baseball and the West Ham Club” seemed to show that the history of baseball in Britain has been one of moments of optimism that have never really led to sustained periods of success. While it’s unlikely that baseball would ever become a major sport in this country to rival the traditional British sports, what could be achieved here and what would it take to make it happen?
First and foremost, I believe that there needs to be better infrastructure. I’ve had the opportunity to play in a number of European countries and considering we’re in the top tier of the European Championships, it’s amazing how badly our facilities lag compared to such places as Germany, Czech Republic and Sweden (let alone Europe’s two baseball powerhouses, the Netherlands and Italy). Obviously, a benefactor like Sir John Moores, who set up professional leagues in the 1930s, would be a great help with this problem. In addition, national recognition would require a shift in general cultural perceptions about the sport in the UK. There is still too much “isn’t baseball just rounders?” attitude.
As for what could be achieved, it’s hard to say. Certainly with the right backing and facilities, we could have a vastly improved (possibly semi-professional) domestic league. I think one of the problems in the past with professional efforts is that games were always shoe-horned into non-baseball environments (in the 1930, for example, most professional league games were played at greyhound racing stadiums). Put the sport in a decent baseball-specific facility and I believe people will take to it far more greatly.
The 2008 British season ended on a positive note with the Marcus Trescothick benefit game that generated a decent crowd and a bit of coverage in the press. What were your thoughts on the event and do you think there could be other opportunities for the two sports to work together?
I absolutely loved that event and I love that those who came out to watch the game stayed to the bitter end. This was particularly impressive considering that the weather was frigid and the score very lopsided. I’ve heard some rumblings that other cricket players liked the idea so much that they’re considering doing it as part of their benefit years. I truly hope that’s the case because it does bring attention to baseball. Partnerships between established sports in this country and baseball can only help baseball’s status. There have been efforts with rugby clubs and, historically, football clubs (like Arsenal and Tottenham, among many others) did play baseball. Alas, with all the money tied up in football today, I’m very doubtful that such partnerships will re-emerge in the modern era.
Your most recent book charts the rich history of baseball in Europe, something which most Brits are completely unaware of. As a British baseball fan, I feel the sport could do a lot more to make people aware of the fact that it isn’t just a game played by Americans. Do you agree, or do you feel that many Brits simply have a preconception of the game which is unlikely to be changed?
I absolutely agree. Britain’s baseball history is rich, but frankly, many who play baseball in this country aren’t even aware of it. Getting those who love the game here to know the history would be at least a start toward getting better recognition of its roots in this country. I know that the MCC is planning an exhibit on the history of baseball in the UK (I believe for 2009). That sort of thing should help. That said, I do believe that it’s hard to change the “rounders” perception of baseball. In the past, I believe there was a protectionist approach to indigenous sport in this country — if something wasn’t football, rugby or cricket, then forget about it. I’d like to believe that’s changing, but with so many other distractions it’s hard. Worldwide, baseball is competing in a sports landscape that is very crowded. A lot of thought must be given to how to sell it not only to the British but also so many other locales around the world.
Most British baseball fans know you from your role as co-presenter on Five’s brilliant MLB coverage. Can you give us a summary of what a typical show involves for you?
I will spend a good part of my week trying to remain on top of everything that’s going on at the Major League level. I probably read stories off a half-dozen websites a day. I also try to keep a bit of an eye on the minor leagues. When we have a show, I’ll go into the studio early and do extra research on the game we’re doing. The show itself is basically unscripted (other than our scene set) so once the game begins every show is different. It helps that my co-presenter Jonny Gould and I are really good friends and really enjoy hanging out. I hope that shows. My goal is generally two-part: I want to contribute to the irreverent nature of the show and I also want to give the best analysis I can. Thus, I’m always trying to balance those two directives I set for myself. I started doing the show in 2002 and it’s so impressive how the savvy of our audience grows every year. I’m certainly fallible and I love it when a viewer sets me straight! The bottom line: I love doing the show and really enjoy all the people I work with on it.
2009 promises to be a big year for baseball. Great Britain will be involved in the World Cup and will face the might of Japan in their preliminary group. You’ve played in European Championships for Britain. How excited do you think the players will be at the prospect of testing themselves against one of the biggest baseball nations? Can the team make it through to the second round?
I think it’s absolutely wonderful that GB is going to get an opportunity to play Japan (among others) and I think there’s a very good chance that they will progress to the second round. The big X-factor, of course, is funding. As baseball is not currently an Olympic sport, the funding for the national team is limited. With the current economic crisis, it’s even more difficult to get the necessary sponsorship money to properly prepare (and make sure all the best eligible players can come over). This will probably be the biggest hurdle that GB will face. If they can get all the support necessary I’m certain that GB’s head coach Stephan Rapaglia will have the team ready.
Not long after the World Cup finishes, the International Olympic Committee will make a decision on which two sports will be added to the 2016 program. Realistically, what hope does baseball have of being re-elected? If baseball does miss out, what does the future hold for the sport in this country?
If either Tokyo or Chicago win the right to host the 2016 Olympics (they are two of the finalists), I think baseball’s and softball’s chances of returning for those games are very good. Those cities have the infrastructure and the cultural ties to the sports to make a strong case for baseball’s reinstatement. As for baseball’s future in this country if Olympic status is not reinstated, you must remember that the sport was here long before baseball was part of the Olympic programme. Still, the loss of financial support from being dropped from the Olympics is substantial. One can only hope that if baseball and softball are not re-admitted, there will be another source of support to come along.
You were involved in setting up the London Mets senior team and the first two years have been extremely successful on the field. What have been the main challenges faced in setting up a new team and what advice could you give to other people who might be considering setting up a baseball club in the UK?
I take great pride in the success of the Mets as it was my first coaching/general managing experience (along with playing, it was quite exhausting!). But even before we started setting up the senior team, we had a lot going for us: the club already had an award-winning youth programme; we had a well-established diamond; and we were based in central London, which is the best place to recruit. From a recruitment standpoint our timing was also helped by the fact that one of the country’s top teams, the Brighton Buccaneers, ceased operation the year before we started. In other words, we had a perfect storm of elements to help us get up and running immediately and, fortunately, win national championships in each of our first two seasons.
Those elements aside, I think the most important thing when starting a new team is enthusiasm from the organisers. To run a team you have to absolutely enjoy every aspect of the sport — from playing and coaching to recruiting and fundraising. If you want to set up a successful club, you need to do all of those things. Obviously, working with local authorities to get space for a diamond is essential and, if you don’t have a lot of playing experience, finding somebody who really knows the game will help speed the player development process. Historically, one problem that has plagued British baseball is that a team will be run successfully by a single person who does everything. Then, when his (or her) energies are totally sapped (or the person is pulled away by other commitments) the team quickly falls apart. It is important that those starting a club always keep an eye on new members who can take major roles in administrating the club. This season I’ll be stepping away from the Mets and I’m lucky that I will be handing off my role to a really great guy named Alex Pike. Every team needs an “Alex Pike” waiting in the wings!
In 3 weeks’ time, BaseballGB will publish the fourth in a series of Q&As with Great Britain team members.