MLB India's representatives discuss ‘holiday-like’ cheer around baseball’s return, talk about league’s roadmap in country

Amit Banerjee
·7-min read

Major League Baseball (MLB) sprung back to life on Thursday with defending champions Washington Nationals taking on, and ultimately losing to, the New York Yankees in the first game since the COVID-19 shutdown.

It marked the return of live sporting events to a country that's currently the worst affected by the coronavirus pandemic with their caseload going past four million and showing no sign of slowing down.

As Americans continue to grapple with the uncertainties of the novel disease that still doesn't have a cure, MLB officials believe baseball's return to the 'diamond' will help bring a smile back on the faces of sports fans.

For some, including MLB's representatives in India - David Palese and Ryo Takahashi - there are a few things more exciting than the league's resumption, which has brought a "holiday-like" cheer in their lives.

Palese, a baseball coach who currently serves as the Head of baseball development for MLB India, spoke of how he and other league officials in India will have to change their daily schedule to be able to catch the live action early morning on Indian standard time.

"We were all up, we were all up this morning at 4 am watching the Yankees and the Nationals.

"And some of the things that we've been talking about for months, we got to see. So it was really cool, was very holiday-like, was very special for us. Sounds crazy, but our life is going to change now for the next three months, because all of our schedules are going to change," Palese told Firstpost alongside Takahashi in an interaction on Friday.

MLB is the first of America's 'Big Four' leagues to return to action after the coronavirus shutdown, with the National Basketball Association (NBA) and National Hockey League (NHL) set to resume their seasons on 30 July and 1 August respectively. The National Football League's (NFL) 2020 season is slated to begin on 13 September.

Among the changes introduced in its post-COVID return is the complete absence of fans from the venues, with the league opting to introduce 'virtual fans' €" CGI versions of the people who would be filling the seats during normal times, along with fake crowd noise that has also been used in European football leagues, and in cricket in the ongoing England vs West Indies Test series.

Commenting on the changes that were forced on the sport by current circumstances, Takahashi, General Manager, MLB India, said the league had to adjust to the new reality, and that bringing the sport back to the television screens is what ultimately matters.

"Obviously it's very different. It's different for the players, it's different for us watching on TV, it's definitely different for the people working behind the scenes as well. But I think the bottomline is they love the game. People that watch the game love the game."

"As long as the product on the field is there, and it's happening. I mean sure there's mixed reviews; it could be awkward sometimes. But I think it's the best we can do and I'm enjoying the difference, I'm experiencing a new thing," said Takahashi, who added that the league was taking all necessary precautions to prevent players and officials from getting infected.

The MLB also completes a year of its operations in India, having launched its sixth international office in the country last year. In a nation where cricket rules the roost, and other sports are more often than not given stepchild-like treatment, baseball is still in its infancy. However, both Palese and Takahashi believe India has what it takes for it to produce successful baseball players in the future.

Takahashi added that the decision to take the league to India wasn't one that was made overnight, and that it was always part of MLB's plans.

"It's not something we came up with recently. Definitely it was always a target market. With India being a bat-and-ball sport in cricket, the passion for sports, all of that combined kind of convinced us that India is one of our main targets in the world right now.

"Obviously the throwing motion, the hand-eye coordination is natural to them. Every now and then we'll find a kid that can just zip it and throw right across the diamond, and it's been amazing. Just the enthusiasm of these kids wanting to learn a new sport and try something new has been very promising for us and has been very exciting.

"The reactions have been great. Our journey has been stalled, but so far very good," said Takahashi, with MLB's India activities also coming to a halt since March due to the spread of COVID cases.

One of the league's core programmes in India is the MLB 'First Pitch' programme, in which it tied up with India On Track €" who also happen to be India partners of international leagues such as the NBA, LaLiga €" to help MLB spread the sport at the grassroots level. The league has since been involved with 320 schools in Delhi, Mumbai and Bengaluru.

"The MLB 'First Pitch' programme is designed to increase participation. Basically just give more opportunities for kids to play the sport. Partnering with India On Track, they've helped us get into many schools. To be specific, we were in 320 schools last year starting June of 2019 up until end of March when we got shut down with COVID in Delhi, Mumbai and Bangalore.

"In terms of our journey, both Dave and I visited two or three times last year, meeting with our partners, talking to broadcast partners, partners like India On Track, but we've been very fortunate, all of our partners have been very great for us, they've been very helpful in getting us settled in obviously," said Takahashi.

Cricket, a sport that bears a lot of similarities to baseball, has played a vital role as far as the spread of the sport in India is concerned. In 2019, MLB had tied up with Indian Premier League's (IPL) Delhi Capitals franchise to help promote the game in the country. A lot of the grassroots work for the league's coaches in India involves explaining the differences between the two sports to young schoolchildren and sometimes allowing them to play a hybrid version of baseball in which elements of cricket are incorporated.

Is baseball still compared to its bat-and-ball cousin a year since the league's arrival in India?

"Well I think there will always be that comparison but what we're finding is that for new participants, they love the newness of it, they love the different game. They love that it's something different but yet easy for them to understand because they're already throwing, they're already catching and they're already swinging.

"So it creates this really kind of perfect storm and that you're not trying to teach everything from zero that I've experienced in other countries. So that makes it really unique, and like I said, it's a perfect storm where kids can do the different movements and skills, and it's not cricket, it's something different, so they get really excited.

"We love cricket, we love baseball. It's another bat-and-ball sport, just another opportunity. Our baseball coaches still love cricket, and we're just hoping that it just gives kids another opportunity, another sport, another choice," said Palese.

Also See: Paralympic gold medallist Alex Zanardi moved back into ICU after condition worsens

Tony Irish steps down as CEO of Professional Cricketers' Association citing personal reasons

American Olympic sprinter Deajah Stevens handed 18-month ban for missing dope tests

Read more on Sports by Firstpost.