How many sporting events are so significant that you would compare them to the birth of a child?
Great Britain’s historic debut at the World Baseball Classic (WBC) is one, according to manager Drew Spencer.
GB’s first match pits them against the might of the USA in the early hours of Sunday (02:00 GMT) in Phoenix.
“I don’t think I have ever been so excited,” Spencer said. “There have been some big moments in my life – my wedding, graduation, the birth of my son – but it’s pretty hard to top the feeling of what we’re getting to do.”
The WBC’s fifth edition is being hosted by the USA, Japan and Taiwan, with the action at what is essentially baseball’s World Cup already under way and culminating with the final in Miami on 21 March.
Who are the players representing GB?
This is the biggest financial opportunity in British baseball history, with qualification for the tournament worth six times the annual income of the GB governing body.
As such, Britain have taken full advantage of a rule permitting them to select any player eligible for UK citizenship and the 30-man roster is a mix of global players with British or Caribbean ancestry and a sprinkling of UK-born talent who have emigrated.
Catcher Harry Ford of the Seattle Mariners is one of Major League Baseball’s brightest prospects and hit three home runs to help GB qualify for the WBC, while Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Trayce Thompson and Washington Nationals infielder Lucius Fox provide big-league experience and London-born Matt Koperniak of the St Louis Cardinals – who face the Chicago Cubs in London in June, which you can watch live on the BBC – played a big role in qualification.
The plan is to use the funds to boost the domestic game in the UK, which was hit hard when major UK sporting bodies withdrew funding from the sport when the International Olympic Committee removed it from the Olympic Games before London 2012.
“Our goal was to put together the most competitive team we could find, because the spoils go right back here to the grass roots,” Spencer said.
“From a coaching and competition perspective it gave us the opportunity to go out and find the best players we can. It’s exciting.”
From coaching kids in a London park to the world stage
On Saturday, US-born Spencer will stand in the dugout of the cavernous 48,000-capacity Chase Field in Phoenix, plotting how to overcome one of the best baseball line-ups ever assembled.
It is a far cry from his first coaching experience at Wormwood Scrubs Park in west London 15 years ago when a homesick Spencer took his five-year-old son to London Sports for his first tee-ball session.
“I’d brought a camping chair, a newspaper and a flask of coffee,” he said. “I thought it was going to be my time off, but someone at the club said ‘if anybody has any experience with baseball, I could really use some help’.”
Spencer was a four-time All-Ivy League selection after a stellar college career at Dartmouth, graduating with his name on 11 school records in offensive categories.
“I put my hand up,” he said. “I ended up being a coach on the day we arrived. After two weeks I realised I really liked it.”
While at Dartmouth, Spencer used to measure himself against the star player of their rivals, the University of Pennsylvania.
Mark DeRosa went on to play in more than 1,200 MLB games and hit 100 home runs in a 16-year professional career.
“His is a name I have marked many times as the person I wanted to be better than on any given day,” Spencer said.
“Nothing against him, it’s just the competitor in me thinking if I can do as well as him then I’ll be noticed as well.”
Spencer now has another chance to be noticed – DeRosa is manager of Team USA.
What are GB’s chances?
Professional baseball was played in 231 different stadiums across America last summer – one stadium for every 11 players in the UK amateur game.
There are 21 MLB All-Stars and three former most valuable players (MVPs) on the USA roster alone, and they and Mexico are hot favourites to take the two quarter-final spots from Pool C ahead of GB, Canada and Colombia.
One win could make a huge difference, though, as fourth place would secure automatic qualification for the next WBC in 2026.
Spencer – who oversees the GB Baseball programme alongside working at a London creative agency – said: “We need to do what got us here and not worry about who is in the other dugout.
“No matter what happens, though, we have already won. The victory was getting there and what it means for British baseball.
“There is absolutely no trepidation. Nobody in the baseball community expects much of us.
“We got here by being underestimated by people. We are being underestimated again now and that’s exactly the position this team likes to be in.”
Can we say ‘it’s coming home’?
Yes! While baseball is part of the fabric of US society and fondly known as ‘America’s pastime’, the sport’s roots seemingly trace back to England in 1749.
Spencer – who swapped California for London 18 years ago – admitted that revelation is tough for some of his compatriots to accept.
“It’s fun, it does enrage some people, it is poking the bear a bit, but that historical record exists and, unfortunately for the US, it shows up before America was even a thing,” he said.
“It’s hard to deny.”
Britain has another record at the expense of the Americans. In 1938 GB beat the USA to be crowned the first champions of what later became the Baseball World Cup.
Will there be another claim to fame this weekend?
Fixtures (all times UK)
GB v USA – Sunday, 12 March (02:00 GMT)
GB v Canada – Sunday, 12 March (19:00 GMT)
GB v Colombia – Monday, 13 March (19:00 GMT)
GB v Mexico – Wednesday, 15 March (02:00 GMT)