Alan Smith has been General Manager of the Great Britain Seniors since 2004. As a player, he enjoyed success for a number of top-tier teams in the London area, particularly on the mound, over a span of more than two decades.
Thank you to Matt for helping with the questions and to Alan for kindly taking time out of his busy GB schedule to talk to BaseballGB.
When and how did you first become interested in baseball?
In 1979 I watched the last Golders Green Sox practice prior to their National Championship Final with Hull and was invited to try my hand. Having previously played cricket I had a decent arm and reasonable hand/eye coordination so I could throw and hit, although I did find catching with a mitt a little challenging. The next day I watched the final in Nottingham and found that the game had all the aspects of cricket that I most enjoyed but without the long periods of relative inactivity – I was hooked!
For how many years did you play and which teams did you represent?
Initially as a founder member of the London Warriors, a new team formed by a number of players from the Green Sox and some players new to the league (1980-1985), later with the Cobham Yankees (1986-1988), the Sutton Braves (1989-1990), the London Athletics (1991) and finally the reformed Warriors (1992-2005). I also played for the Warriors in the Scottish Amicable semi-pro league (1987-1989).
Can you tell us a bit about your playing career? Do any highlights or memorable moments stand out?
Naturally, as a complete rookie I had to fight hard for playing time on the Warriors, especially as the ex-Sox players were almost all seasoned Americans. I began in the outfield and then switched between first base and centrefield for a number of seasons before taking the mound in 1989. I pitched for the following 13 seasons, racking up more than 700 innings over that period.
I am proud to have been a part of the London Warriors and of our Southern league record of 15 wins and 2 second places over 20 seasons. In turn, I’m disappointed that we fared less well in the National Championships where we reached the semi-finals on 16 occasions but only managed 10 finals and 6 National titles. On a separate note, I’m particularly proud that the Warriors earned the respect of other teams with our reputation for playing baseball with the right attitude and, win or lose, always acting with class.
Other playing highlights include my 3 seasons with the Cobham Yankees, when we won back-to-back-to-back Southern League and National titles, conceding only 6 runs over the 3 Championship games and, of course, my selection to represent GB as a relief pitcher at the European Championships in Rome in 1991.
Following the demise of the Warriors and my retirement from playing I was honoured to be offered the position of General Manager of the GB Senior team. Working closely with GB Head Coach Stephan Rapaglia we have, over the past 5 seasons, created a stable and fully-equipped GB Programme and built a close-knit senior squad. As a result, GB has improved its standing in international baseball year on year, culminating in the silver medal at the 2007 European Championships in Barcelona and a place in the 2009 World Cup – a credit to everyone involved in the GB Programme.
How has the standard of the domestic competition changed over the years?
It seems that over the past 28 seasons the quality of the leagues has waxed and waned. The standard was strong through the 80s but the introduction of strict nationality rules in 1989 caused some teams (most notably the Cobham Yankees) to fold, and the strongest teams to break away to play in an independent league. While the quality in that league remained quite high, the level of competition in the BBF leagues was significantly reduced.
With the relaxation of the nationality rules in the early 90s the BBF leagues were strengthened by the return of the renegade teams. Then, in the early 2000s, the availability of Awards For All grants enabled a number of clubs to import high-quality foreign players to take the top league to its most competitive level ever. However, this proved to be a mixed blessing as although it provided the higher level of competition necessary to allow home-grown players to reach their full potential it also reduced the opportunity for less experienced players to make the teams.
You helped to develop the baseball diamonds at Finsbury Park. Was it difficult to get support to put these facilities in place? Are there any lessons that you can pass on to other people in Britain considering an attempt to introduce baseball facilities to a new area?
The main challenges are (a) to persuade the owners of the land, usually the local council, to allow the construction of a diamond, particularly the building of a backstop and the cutting-out of the bases and mound, (b) to secure the funding and labour necessary to do all the initial work, and (c) to maintain the mound and cut outs by keeping them topped-up with dirt and clear of weeds.
Apart from obtaining the necessary permissions and funding the most important considerations are (a) to plan the entire playing area before starting any work, (b) to ensure that the right grade of dirt is used for the cut outs and mound, and (c) when completed, to adhere to a strict maintenance schedule for the entire field to avoid it falling into disrepair.
You dedicate a fair amount of time to coaching youngsters. How much interest is there in the game in your locality? What is the most rewarding part of coaching youngsters?
The facility at Finsbury Park serves 3 separate London boroughs and so has a large catchment area where there are many schools and children. The excellent outreach work done in these schools by the London Mets staff has always generated huge amounts of interest in baseball (and softball) and continues to produce a thriving youth programme. The reward in coaching these youngsters is to watch them enjoying learning the game and especially to work with those kids who exhibit talent and are willing to listen and work hard to improve their skills and fulfil their potential.
You have been the general manager of the Great Britain national team since the spring of 2004. What exactly does your job entail?
The main elements of the job are to:
- work with Head Coach Stephan Rapaglia to plan each season’s schedule
- seek grants and/or sponsorship to secure the funding necessary to realise that schedule
- ensure that the programme has uniforms and sufficient equipment to fulfil that schedule
- make all necessary arrangements for travel, accommodation and subsistence for each event we stage or attend
- liaise with all members of the staff and squad to ensure everyone knows what is planned and what is required of them
- liaise with the other organisations involved in each season’s events to ensure everything goes as planned
- liaise with the BBF and BSUK to ensure that we work efficiently together
- welcome ex-juniors into the senior squad and to seek new players who can help the team
and, finally, to deal with all challenges as and when they arise to ensure the continued improvement of the GB Programme.
2009 should be an exciting year for British baseball thanks to the senior team’s involvement in the Baseball World Cup. What will be the main challenges for you as GM, both in the lead-up to the event and while it is taking place?
Yes, our involvement in the World Cup is making 2009 a very exciting year for GB baseball and is providing many challenges.
The biggest single challenge is to secure sufficient funding to cover the costs of staging the training and evaluation events necessary to prepare the squad during the summer and to fund the travel associated with taking a competitive squad to and from the World Cup itself. However, the IBAF decision to stage the opening rounds in 7 different European countries and the latter rounds in Holland and Italy has increased that travel requirement. This geographic spread, coupled with the fact that some teams will leave the competition after each round, has made planning our travel particularly complicated and potentially very expensive.
In addition, as our opening round games will be played in Moscow, I will have to obtain visas for each member of our squad. This is likely to be a time-consuming process and one which could further complicate our travel arrangements.
During the World Cup, as with every event we attend, my main task is to ensure that everything runs smoothly so the staff and players can concentrate fully on the competition without unnecessary distraction. I can best achieve this by planning everything possible prior to the event and, once there, communicating each day’s routine to all members of the party so everyone is aware of their daily schedule and, finally, dealing with any problems that do arise quickly and efficiently.
The final BaseballGB Q&A in the current series will be published soon.