British Baseball Beat: NBL and the North

The 2013 British Baseball Federation Annual General Meeting is scheduled to take place at Birmingham City University this Saturday (26th).

This year’s collection of motions being put forward includes one from the Liverpool Trojans (M5 in the pack) that picks up on a matter that has become a growing talking point within British baseball.

Should the Northern section be represented in the National Baseball League Championship?

There was an intriguing conversation on Twitter about this very topic just before Christmas.

Representatives of the eight National Baseball League (NBL) teams met in London on 18 December to discuss plans for the top-tier of British baseball. A couple of days later, Herts Baseball Club floated the following idea to reigning AAA-North champions the Liverpool Trojans:

The idea of the AAA-North champions potentially qualifying for an NBL Wild Card playoff spot was thrown out there to be discussed. The Twitter conversation branched out into wider potential scenarios to consider for the future, including looking at whether the North is ready to step up to the NBL level again in the regular season.

Herts suggested that Liverpool put forward the suggestion to the BBF and hence we have the motion on the agenda for this Saturday’s meeting.

The top-tier of British Baseball has been contested solely by Southern teams for the past four years and that has made sense considering the depth of teams involved.

The 2008 National League Northern section consisted of three teams. The Trojans sadly had to withdraw part of the way through the season and that left the two remaining teams, the Manchester Eagles and Menwith Hill Patriots, in guaranteed National League playoff spots. Both were beaten relatively comfortably by southern counterparts in the semi-finals, the Eagles falling 10-3 to the Richmond Flames and the Patriots suffering a 15-1 loss to the eventual champions, the London Mets.

However it’s important for the growth of the game that there isn’t a glass ceiling based on geography.  Not only should the door be open to Northern and Midlands teams potentially to compete at the NBL level, it should be a key part of the British Baseball Federation’s medium term planning to try to facilitate this.  That’s much easier said than done, of course, but that should be the ambition.

A true ‘national’ league championship should reflect its title.

There’s no doubt that it’s the performances of the Liverpool Trojans over the past couple of seasons that have pushed the issue up the agenda again. They went through the 2011 season unbeaten and have compiled a 48-2 win-loss record over the past two seasons combined. Who wouldn’t want to see the class of the North testing themselves against the best that the South has to offer?

That brings us back to the question of how this may be achieved.

Simply moving the Trojans – or any other Northern/Midlands team – into the NBL probably wouldn’t be a realistic option due to the travel implications.

We all know that in an amateur sport the location of teams – and therefore the investment in time and cost that those involved have to commit to over the course of a season – is a non-trivial factor in scheduling.  The last thing we would want is for travel implications to have a greater impact, either in significantly reducing the number of games being played or, at the extreme end, forcing some players away from the game altogether.

The next option to consider would be a return to an NBL containing more than one geographic division.  That leads to the question posed by Herts as to the feasibility of the AAA-North becoming an NBL division, and perhaps there being a Midlands equivalent in the future too.

The prospect is unquestionably an exciting one, but I would hold on dearly to the concept that the classification of the ‘top-tier’ should mean something.

Whatever the sport, the top league is always the flag-bearer that leads the way in selling the game. Extending the NBL should be a decision based on the quality of the teams rather than a simple rebranding exercise.

The quality will always vary throughout any given league and indeed a team’s fortunes can ebb and flow from year to year due to key players coming or going.  At some point you need to take the plunge, even if that means a couple of teams currently not quite being up to scratch. I don’t get to take in any Northern baseball so others will be in a far better position to make a fully considered judgement than me, but the Trojans’ dominance over the past two seasons suggests that they are a fair way ahead of their competitors and that giving the North NBL classification would not yet be merited.

Indeed, the Trojans’ NBL Wild Card spot motion perhaps reflects this point and appears to be the most sensible option to consider. It would be following the precedent of AA Midlands and North teams being able to participate in the A postseason so would not be out of kilter with the rest of the postseason structure.

I’m not a big fan of teams playing postseason games at a different level to which they competed during the regular season. When a team wins a championship, you want the classification of being the best to really mean something. Let’s take the example of the AAA-North champions moving on to the NBL Wild Card this season. The team that goes on to win the AAA National Baseball Championship would have fully earned their right to be there and could be proud of winning the important postseason games to claim the prize. Yet there would still be a lingering question mark as to whether they were truly the best AAA team that season.

Maybe this matters much more to a fan with a keen interest in the history of the game and isn’t a major issue for the players involved. Fiddling with the competition levels isn’t ideal, but the current British baseball landscape doesn’t contain a nice even balance of teams of the same standard and therefore a bit of a fiddle may be the most pragmatic way to account for this, creating the most diverse, competitive, enjoyable and exciting postseason possible right now.

It will be interesting to see how the Trojans’ motion is received on Saturday and whether the 2013 National Baseball Champion will merit the ‘national’ classification just that little bit more.

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2 Responses to British Baseball Beat: NBL and the North

  1. Michael Jones January 23, 2013 at 6:06 pm #

    Great post, and awesome to see this back to action here ahead of the AGM.

    I’d be interested in seeing the top-placed team in AAA North having the chance to compete at the NBL finals, and similarly the top-placed AA Midlands side having a shot at the AAA championship.

    Similarly, expansion into the South West could produce a further pool of teams eligible for competition in the NBCs.

    Lots of work could be done on this, but ideally it’ll get sorted soon and we’ll also have the schedule and the playoff format sooner this year, so we can start planning now for the NBCs.

    Mike

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