Home British baseballProject COBB Countdown to SABR Day 2011: 1990s Cobbette – What connected the Enfield Spartans to Ball Four?

Countdown to SABR Day 2011: 1990s Cobbette – What connected the Enfield Spartans to Ball Four?

by Joe Gray

Cobbette-(128x128)This is post one in a ten-post countdown to SABR Day 2011. The series is going through the decades of the 20th Century, backwards from the 1990s. On SABR Day itself, there will be a special feature on the 1890s, which will celebrate the significant link between keeping score and baseball history. This article will be published at 05:00 British time in order to coincide with the start of the day in the time-zone of the Cleveland-based SABR office. To view all the Cobbettes published to date, click here.

1990s

The Enfield Spartans were one of the leading teams in British baseball during the closing years of the 20th Century, supplementing three straight official national titles between 1989 and 1991 with a championship win in a breakaway national league in 1994.  As was well known at the time but is less so now, the team had a fascinating link to Jim Bouton’s seminal baseball diary Ball Four (one of Matt Smith’s Essential Baseball Books). The association is described below.

In Ball Five, a 10-years-later epilogue, Bouton describes how he launched his big league comeback in the mid-1970s with the Portland Mavericks, an independent team that played in the Class A Northwest League:

“The Mavericks were the dirty dozen of baseball, a collection of players nobody else wanted, owned by actor Bing Russell […] In a league stocked with high-priced bonus babies, Mavericks players made only $300 per month and had to double as the ground crew. Revenge being a strong motivator, the Mavs had the best team in the league […] The afternoon before a game we’d drive through the streets of whatever town we were playing in and insult the citizens over a loudspeaker […] No insult was too outrageous. ‘Hey lady, that sure is an ugly baby you got there.’ And so on. Needless to say, that night the stands would be filled with hundreds of irate fans rooting passionately for our defeat.”

While with the Mavs, Bouton met a young southpaw named Rob Nelson (“Nellie” to his friends), who would become his business partner in the hugely successful Big League Chew venture. In fact, it was in the bullpen in Civic Stadium, Portland’s home ground, that the pair dreamed up the idea. (Bouton later described Big League Chew as “the only good idea to ever come out of a bullpen.”)

Fast forward two decades, and we find Nellie on the Enfield pitching staff in a renegade national league that was led by the Spartans and the London Warriors as a breakaway from the British Baseball Federation.

In the first two seasons of this independent league, the Warriors defeated the Spartans in the final, but in 1994 the two rivals met at the semi-finals stage. Nellie was brought in to relieve Enfield starter Iain Lanario in the sixth frame, with London holding a 5-2 lead. Nellie checked the Warriors’ run threat as Enfield’s offensive engine was revved up to seize a 6-5 lead in the eighth. A sacrifice bunt by Nellie in the top of the ninth cashed in Oscar Marcelino’s three-bagger to double the margin he had to work with in the bottom of the inning. The Warriors were able to bring the winning run to bat in the final frame, in the form of the power-hitter Oliver Heidecker. Facing men on first and third but with two outs already registered, Nellie bore down to retire the slugger on “a sharp breaking curveball [that] had him completely fooled for strike three and the end of the game,” in the words of a local scribe.

Enfield programme from 1995

In the final, Enfield faced the Waltham Forest Angels. This time, Nellie was brought in for Lanario in the third inning with their side trailing 5-3. The reliever had excelled in a similar situation against London in the semi-finals, but this time he was going to have to do it with the left side of his face swollen from a wasp sting. (The journalist covering the game was kind enough to resist a reference to Nellie the Elephant Man.) Overcoming the effects of the insect’s injection, Nellie shut down the Angels’ offence for the remainder of the contest, and the Spartans rallied for an 8-5 victory.

In the Spartans’ roster (pictured to the right) for the 1995 season, which was the team’s first year back playing under the British Baseball Federation’s jurisdiction, Nellie is listed along with his entrepreneurial team-mate from Portland. Unfortunately, the Ball Four author was never able to make the trip across the Atlantic.

If you have an interesting history snippet to share that has a link to Britain then please send a message to Joe Gray through the Get in contact page. To see all of the work of Project Cobb, which is a Chartered Community of SABR (the Society for American Baseball Research), click here.

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9 comments

Matt Smith November 20, 2010 - 9:04 am

Facinating stuff. This should be a great series. It’s a shame Bouton never played over here; that would have made for a few interesting stories, I’m sure!

One question on the roster: is Oscar Marcelino related to GB player Brad Marcelino or is that just a coincidence?

Reply
Joe Gray November 20, 2010 - 9:25 am

Yep, Oscar is Brad’s father. Oscar also competed for GB, playing in three European Championships, including two A-Pool events:
http://www.gbbsa.org.uk/biographies/Oscar%20Marcelino.pdf

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Matt Smith November 20, 2010 - 9:35 am

Thanks Joe

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Rob Nelson November 20, 2010 - 5:23 pm

The first year of the British National League was in 1991, and the Enfield Spartans defeated the London Warriors in a terrific best-of-three-games series. Eighteen-year-old Ashley Young – of Melbourne, Australia – pitched both games for the Warriors on the final Sunday, winning the noon game and then losing the afternoon game. That kid was some competitor.

I think the score of the final game was 4-1. I was lucky to be the winning pitcher. That was the only game of the Spartans season where the team fielded flawlessly – not one error. Just a remarkable weekend for a legendary team of wonderful guys.

Gary Bedingfield caught two games on the Saturday and two more on the next day. He was voted Spartans’ MVP in 1991. I think the vote was unanimous. (If it wasn’t, it should have been.)

Bouton wanted to pitch for Enfield in 1995, but business commitments kept him in the USA. It would have been great to see Great Britain’s best hitters try to swat one of Jim’s knucklers. My guess is that they would have struggled mightily. That pitch of his was unlike anything I’ve ever witnessed up close.

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Joe Gray November 21, 2010 - 2:23 pm

Thanks for this Rob. Very interesting indeed.

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Brad Marcelino January 4, 2011 - 6:00 am

This was a great team to be a bat boy and hang out in the dugout. A lot of great guys that I learned from and implemented in my game here in the US.

Also fun warming up/catching Nellie before the game. Nice article Joe!

GB Baseball for life,
Brad

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Joe Gray January 4, 2011 - 9:16 pm

Hi Brad,

Thanks for the comment.

Hope all is well with you,

Joe

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Sophie Isaac (nee McKinney) October 6, 2020 - 11:26 pm

Thanks Joe for the walk down Memory lane.
I was a regular spectator with a twist.

My father was a senior umpire & most of the practice & games I attended were mainly the London Warriors as they were based less than a mile from home & most if not all the away games I attended were Enfield Spartans games at their home ground.
This was between 1988 (I was 9) & 1996 (16-17).

Had the pleasure of meeting & becoming life long friends with Rob Nelson too.

Just wish I could locate more information regarding my late father.

He was integral to these games both in the “renegade” & league games.

If anyone, anywhere can help me out (& Joe I have a few times some years ago contacted you) i would be grateful.

Find me on twitter – @caldeeray
Or email me – sophieisaac@msn.com

Thanks ??

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Sophie Isaac (nee McKinney) October 7, 2020 - 6:28 am

Have since last post been able to confirm my late father’s known title…

Umpires Commissioner South- Mack McKinney

Hope this helps find anything by anyone, locate what’s available for me to archive for his grandchildren and future generations.

Many Thanks In Advance

Sophia ‘Sophie’ Isaac- nee McKinney

Reply

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