In England, baseball has no fans and no strikes


CRAWLEY, England -- This is a field of modest dreams, of countless errors, passed balls, wild pitches and stolen bases, and batting averages high enough to enshrine a player in the supernatural hall of fame.

There's no salary cap in "big time" British baseball. There are no salaries, owners or fans for that matter.

To hear the ping of a baseball on a metal bat and chase a nubbed grounder over the freshly cut grass of a baseball-cricket-soccer field costs a player in Britain's Premier League more than $350 a year.

The only reason British ballplayers would strike is for a longer summer, or if the 100-year-old British Baseball Federation decreed there could be no beer after the games.

"Miller time!" shouted a player for the Hemel Hempstead Red Sox, obviously still focused although his team lost 13-7 to the visiting Kreauzau Red Lions of Cologne, Germany, during a recent four-team weekend tournament.

These Europeans talk like ballplayers, some of the time. So what if they slip up occasionally and call a game a "match" and ask how many "points" they have scored?

The other German team in the tournament, the Aplerbeck Wanderers of Dortmund, pitched their own tents on the field and stayed in them during a long weekend of baseball fun. They, too, pay to play back home, and the trip to England cost 26 players and hangers-on $180 each. But don't forget, they point out as if they got the deal of a career, that includes the beer.

"It's my dream to go to the United States to see a major league game," said Nils Eichwald, 21, a catcher for the Wanderers who wore the tools of ignorance with pride because he didn't know their name.

"Yes, we play for fun and for beer," said Wanderers pitcher Thomas Haxter, 24, who practices his follow-through on the mound and off.

British baseball is like sandlot softball with a smaller ball that hurts when you catch it and when it catches you. Age is no limit, and neither is skill. Only a lack of enthusiasm can hold a player back.

It's so much fun, and so serious, players refuse to miss a game. The pitcher for the Hemel Hempstead Red Sox threw strikes and wild pitches equally well with a broken wrist on his glove hand.

The worst-kept secrets are the American, Latin American and Japanese players. Each team is allowed four foreigners, and the Americans stand out even if they were cut from their Little League team in 1955. They know the lingo, and if they can move at all, they can still waddle like a ballplayer.

"I'm 46 years old, and I can play in the Premier League. That says something about the level of play," said Dave Kolstoe, who trundles around second base for the Crawley Comets.

A lawyer born in Grand Forks, N.D., Mr. Kolstoe doesn't have to worry about hitting a curve. There aren't many in this league. And he isn't ready to retire. "I'm a little over the hill," he says with happy understatement, "but in this league it doesn't matter."

In this league, Mr. Kolstoe is a kid. Les Wiley is the Comets' 61-year-old first baseman and still a threat to get on by a walk, error or beanball. And he's two years younger than the team's oldest player. When Mr. Kolstoe fears the fast pace, he can always zip over to the London Old Timers' League.

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