Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Checked Swings - an interview with Thomas Ogilvie

As I’ve done my best to point out, Baseball is a popular game all over the world, and becoming more so in Europe. The game her doesn’t have marquee names, big television exposure, or million-dollar contracts, but it does have a hardcore group of knowledgeable fans that love the game. Spreading throughout the island, the game is growing rapidly in the United Kingdom. Thee are several leagues, youth programs, and a national team that qualified for the 2008 Olympics.

One of those fans is Thomas Ogilvie, from Scotland. He’s a dedicated baseball follower who blogs about his favorite team at Checked Swings. You might think the Yankees, originally known as the Highlanders, would be his team of choice, but Thomas has wisely chosen the Mets instead. Showing us that baseball truly is an international game, Thomas brings us his perspective of the Mets, and baseball in general.

He has kindly agreed to answer some questions for us.

Tell us a little about yourself?

As you said, I'm from Scotland, and I currently live in the Scottish Borders, about an hour south of the capital Edinburgh, where I went to university. I work in a bookshop, and have frequent arguments about how many baseball books we should stock in our sports section (the total still stands at zero, for now.)

Which team is your favorite team, and player?

The New York Mets, for my sins. Player-wise, I admire Tim Lincecum for his unconventional image, pitching style and attitude, which he gets away with thanks to his incredible ability.

What is your all-time team?

How can I answer that? I can't even begin to choose!

What is your first baseball memory?

Realistically, watching the Yankees get swept by the Red Sox in the 2004 NLCS. Before then it was just another sport. After the drama of that series, I was sucked in.

What is your favorite baseball memory?

I'm torn between two:

Watching the last couple of innings of Mark Buerhle's perfecto last year, and specifically Dewayne Wise's juggling catch in the bottom of the ninth.

The other is watching the World Series in 2008 on TV whilst in the States. Watching baseball on the UK can sometimes be a lonely experience - but watching it in a bar in the States is quite the opposite. The highlight was in Game 5 in the sixth inning when BJ Upton stole 2nd then scored on a sodden field in a game that was obviously going to be stopped after that inning. We didn't know the World Series wouldn't be won on a rain-shortened game so we thought it was do-or-die time for the Rays. Supporting the Rays over the Mets' division rivals, I was deliriously happy to see them survive to fight on, even if they couldn't quite get the job done two days later.

What is your heartbreaking baseball memory?

Being a Mets fan, there's a lot to choose from! Last day of the season in '07, last day of the season in '08, last half of the season in '09...

Luis Castillo's dropped popup against the Yankees last year was pretty traumatic. It drove home how the Mets lacked 'hustle' and epitomized all that was (still is?) wrong with the Mets.

How do you satisfy your baseball craving living in central Scotland?

Without the Internet, I simply couldn't follow baseball. With no terrestrial TV coverage of MLB and no publicity for the local teams, it's hard for new or curious fans to access the sport. It takes a certain amount of dedication to enjoy baseball, either watching or playing.

The Scottish National League, a three-team amateur league unaffiliated with the BBF, satisfies the playing itch. There are two teams in Edinburgh and one in northerly Aberdeen. There's a team in Glasgow, but they play in the BBF league 'AAA North'. It's quite exciting to be involved in Scottish baseball in this fluid time. In five years time there could be a fully fledged Scottish league with teams in Dundee, Stirling, perhaps even the Scottish Borders. Or there could be just Edinburgh and Glasgow both playing in the North of England. My hope is for the former.

Your all-time Mets team?

C: Mike Piazza
1B: Keith Hernandez
2B: Edgardo Alfonzo
3B: Howard Johnson
SS: Jose Reyes
OF: Cleon Jones
OF: Darryl Strawberry
OF: Carlos Beltran
SP: Tom Seaver
CP: John Franco

What is your baseball background?

I remember when I was young and at school, the boys played cricket during the summer. For some reason the sport never held my interest and I would find my gaze wandering to the next pitch over where the girls would be playing rounders. Never allowed to play it, imagine my surprise when I later discovered that the game (I know, it's not the same, but I was young and that didn't matter) was played throughout the USA and by grown men. I can't say I was instantly hooked, but the seeds of my love of baseball were certainly sown on that cricket field all those years ago.

How does someone from Scotland become a baseball fan?

By befriending Americans! That's certainly the route I took, but there are others. Coming home late from the pub and switching on Channel 5 to find baseball on the TV was, until last season, a legitimate option. With that coverage gone the only way someone totally unfamiliar with the sport will see it played is walking past a game in a park and having their curiosity piqued, or visiting a ballpark on a visit to the States.

As someone living in the U.K., occasionally I hear the snide remarks about baseball. Mostly from those who have no experience with the game. How do you deflect the criticism of being a baseball fan?

You need to be a good salesman. I often explain how much baseball jargon is in common usage, even in the UK - "Step up to the plate", "out of left field", "Strike three and you're out." People already have a concept of the game, but often it's been twisted by unfamiliarity. People seem to think that Americans must be wimps with their pads in American Football and big gloves in baseball. Once you explain how hard baseball can be, how even in the top flight, hitting safely three times every ten at-bats is considered very impressive, they begin to see that it isn't just rounders.

Have you won over many converts?

My brother and sister are hooked. My brother follows the Cardinals because they were champions when he started following baseball and also because they have a player whose name is 'poo-holes' (hey, he was ten.) My sister likes the Orioles because they have a bird on their hat (she's an avid ornithologist).

I have a friend who's an avid cricket player. I started throwing a baseball around with him and he refused a glove, saying he'd be better without it. He was fine until I started hitting balls to him. One sharp liner was enough to convince him of the need for a glove. He's since got his own glove and is beginning to follow MLB. I count that as a 'notch on my bat'.

How, or more importantly, why, did you become a Mets fan?

Why oh why would I be a Mets fan? I ask myself the same question all too often. My flatmate is a Yankees fan, and initially I wanted to support them (I suppose I still do, as my AL team.) In the UK, Yankees caps are ubiquitous with baseball caps, so wearing one seemed boring. Also, the Yankees' appeal suffered from having the highest payroll - when they win, it's easy to claim they just bought the World Series rings. I still felt I should support New York, since that's the only place in the US I've been, which left only the Mets. They were helped by exposure on Seinfeld: "He's Keith Hernandez. The guys a baseball player Jerry, Baseball! He was in game SIX - two runs down two outs facing elimination!"

What are the Mets chances this year?

With luck they get third in NL East. The idea that they'll get anywhere with the starting pitching they've got is a joke. It's a shame, because there's the core of a great team there but they didn't build on it. Citi Field is a pitchers ballpark, so why the only big name purchase over the offseason was Jason Bay is beyond me.

Have you attended any games in person?

Only one, in Japan of all places. The Yomiuri Giants and the Yakult Swallows, both of Tokyo, were playing in the Tokyo Dome in May 2005. I went with friends and we watched the Giants shut the Swallows out 8-0. The highlight was back-to-back home runs. There's a photo of it here:

Every time I visit the States it's the off-season!

Why did you start writing a blog about baseball?

I kept discovering things I didn't know about baseball, like 'what's a balk' and 'how do you check a swing?' The sort of questions that people who've grown up with the game probably don't think to ask, but to me were fascinating. I felt I needed a place to talk about these things. The final impetus was the World Baseball Classic last year, which I found myself defending on a number of different baseball blogs. I started Checked Swing as a place to gather those arguments.

What do you hope to get out of it?

I blog for my own sake primarily. I find it fun, and while I continue to do so, I'll keep it up. It'd be nice to have a few more readers, but I still think of it as a 'new blog' so it doesn't bother me unduly.

Bobby Thomson is probably the most well known Scottish player in major league history. Which other players are you aware of with ties to Scotland?

I know there's only been eight in the major leagues. Jim McCormick was the most successful of the rest, pitching for a succession of teams between 1879 and 1887, helping the Chicago White Stockings win the NL pennant in 1885 and 86. He's 11th on the all-time complete games list, which will never be beaten. His page on wikipedia is here:

Contemporarily, I know that David Davidson is the most successful Scot, playing professionally in Sweden and Australia -

It is my hardcore belief that FIFA is the organization most responsible for keeping baseball out of the Olympics. Your thoughts?

I don't really know about FIFA's involvement. I thought it was a bit of a bum deal, given that baseball isn't simply a sport for Americans. The rules governing amateurs in the Olympics meant that teams from all over the world had a real chance to make an impact in the Olympics, but there's no point in looking back. I think it's important to support the WBC and look at ways it can be integrated better with the MLB season.

The British National Team qualified for the 2008 Olympics, but couldn't participate because the British Olympic Committee wouldn’t pony up £25,000 for expense, while other lesser sports were funded. Fair or foul?

Major foul. Nobody expects huge funding for baseball in the UK, but for the British Olympic Committee to ignore the success of the British team was very disappointing. Perhaps they thought that it would be money wasted, what with baseball out for 2012; perhaps they were beginning to cut costs because of London 2012. At the very least, letting British baseballers have a swansong in Beijing would have been decent.

Should Great Britain be a participant in the next World Baseball Classic?

The best way to accommodate GB would be to expand the pool beyond the current sixteen teams, or have feeder tournaments for Europe to give Britain a chance to qualify.

If yes, whom would they replace?

If anyone, South Africa seemed the weakest team at the 2009 WBC, but having teams from Africa seems better than another European team. Perhaps expanding it to 20 teams and including Nicaragua, Thailand, Spain and Great Britain. Or Germany, or the Philippines... where do you draw the line? Happily, the Wikipedia page on the WBC seems to suggest an increase to 24 teams could be on the cards for 2013.

I have dreams of a European Baseball League. Fantasy, or something we might see one day?

I'd love to see it happen. The logistical details might prove troublesome, but the real challenge would be getting funding. I think MLB needs to do more to help the talent pool in Europe, and contributing to the funding of a European League would be a good start. It would give a good national element to rooting for teams as well. Within ten years? That sounds doable.

Commissioner for a day?

Increase international funding would be top of the agenda. Second would be selfishly pushing forward the starts of some evening games to 6.30pm or 6.00pm. I know that messes with people coming from work, but British fans are sick of games starting after midnight! Selig seems to want to eliminate timewasting, so I'll let him deal with that. I'd count that a good day's work.

Anything else you would like to say, about baseball, or any other subject?

Only to thank you for choosing to interview me. It's always a pleasure to talk baseball, and I'm happy to be given the chance to do so with you.

Thomas thanks for taking the time to do this. Very much appreciated, and best of luck in the future.

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