Maybe I should have waited a few weeks before committing to a new name for the column. I was after a title that would be linked to the National Baseball League (NBL), but with the top-tier status of the Croydon Pirates, and therefore Roundshaw Playing Fields, suddenly looking far from safe, the choice already looks unfortunate. (Even the name of my BaseballGB Head 2 Head fantasy league team [the Rio Crande Typos] is tied to the Pirates, albeit a little more cryptically.)
On the train down to the Pirates’ opening double-header against the Herts Falcons, I was reading The Long Season, Jim Brosnan’s seminal insider account of Major League Baseball. This seemed apt, as I was expecting the 2009 season to be a long one for a Croydon team that had lost the heart of its line-up after the end of the 2008 season, and had still not found pitching depth to come close to the 2006 league-besting one-two punch of Adam Lemke and Ben Percey. What I did not consider is that the loss of players has been so dramatic that the Pirates’ season might actually end up being very short.
The successful Pirates teams of recent years have been built around Australians, Americans, Canadians, South Africans, and other overseas players. The squad has featured some exceptionally talented players who have paid money to put on high-quality baseball entertainment for free on British soil. When you run a team of this make-up, you are aware that players may be around for only a couple of years, but as long as you don’t get too many players leaving at the same time you can keep the team healthy by topping up the squad over the winter. Of course, there is no protection against the bulk of your squad leaving at the end of a particular season. This is what happened to the Windsor Bears after the 2004 season.
For Croydon, the problem has not so much been one bad year, but instead a run of seasons in which the club has lost more decent players than it has been able to recruit. This leaves the Pirates with insufficient NBL-calibre players to compete at the moment. They survived week 1 because they were able to fill the roster with players from their AA-level team, who were not playing. But in week 2, the Pirates were forced to forfeit an NBL game for the first time since I became involved with the club in 2004. There are two possible scenarios that will take shape over the next few weeks: one, the Pirates are able to recruit a number of NBL-standard players in a hurry; two, the Pirates have to pull out of the 2009 NBL competition.
The results in the NBL so far suggest that no team is going to dominate the others, so with the first scenario it is possible (although not particularly probable) that the Pirates could still be contenders for the National Baseball Championship. At this stage, though, just completing the season would be an achievement.
I think everyone involved in the NBL will want clarity on Croydon’s top-tier status as soon as possible, so that the other teams can concentrate on what could quite easily turn out to be a classic battle for the National Baseball Championship. The Bracknell Blazers are one of those other teams, and their club philosophy – in stark contrast to that of the Pirates – is based on bringing young players through, even if it means suffering a string of losing seasons. With their two wins against the Richmond Flames on Sunday, there is optimism in the club that the philosophy is on the verge of paying off.