Coming back swinging: Sheffield Bladerunners’ “one big family” reunion

Written by Mark Harrison

On a cold spring evening, as the sun began to dipped behind the bank at the end of a large playing field, people began to gather around a freshly-laid baseball diamond. They dropped off kit bags and picked up metal bats, battered leather gloves and worn-out baseballs. They smiled at each other, resisted the natural urge to hug one another – opting for fist-bumps and elbow bashes – happy to be reunited with the second family they hadn’t seen for months.

The Sheffield Bladerunners are Sheffield’s oldest and largest baseball team. Founded in the mid 1980s, the Bladerunners have an extensive history and hold their place as an enduring pillar in British baseball’s past, present and future. Like so many recreational sports teams in the country, they suffered heavily from the impact of COVID-19 over 2020. The British Baseball League matches they were scheduled to play were cancelled, and though they held the occasional inter-team match as restrictions loosened and tightened, numbers declined. Just as there was a feeling Baseball in Sheffield and the UK was really taking off, a huge roadblock slowed progress.

The first Sheffield Bladerunners team Credit: Sheffield Bladerunners

Now in spring 2021, just after the Major League Baseball season began in America ,the Bladerunners dusted off the gloves and cleats and looked forward to picking up momentum once again.

Buckets of balls were gradually emptied by various players for different things, infield drills, outfield drills, batting practice and pitchers getting their fastballs back up to speed. The bright-blue apparel associated with the Bladerunners since its inception remains proudly worn by current members – hats, t-shirts and full uniforms are all on show. Others wore gear from their favourite Major League team, with people representing teams across all parts of the US.

Why have so many people, from all across Yorkshire, assembled here to play a sport so overshadowed by the followings in football, rugby or cricket? The players reflected on what makes baseball so enjoyable to them:

Phil Baines, an outfielder and New York Mets fan, who has played for the Bladerunners since 2018, said: “I think it’s a sport that’s so inclusive for anyone to play. I used to play rugby at school but I’ve got bad knees now so I can’t do that anymore, so I play baseball.”

Tom Chappell, outfielder and Chicago Cubs fan, who joined in 2018, said he plays baseball because: “It is a great way to go outside, and get exercise with a bunch of friendly people.” When asked what he’s looking forward to the most for the 2021 season, Chappell cracked a smile and answered defiantly: “Winning.”

There is a very obvious desire to compete at the club. Senior players, who lead the different drills, are all pushing their understudies. In turn, they all push each other on and cheer when someone gets the swing just right and hits a bomb to deep left-field. The club is ambitious in its desire to compete with the other teams in the country. This year the Bladerunners will field four different teams, one British Baseball’s second-tier Northern AA division, and the other three in the Northern AAA division where they will play each other and teams from across the country. Away days will take the teams across the county; from Liverpool, Manchester, Hull, Cumbria, to Durham and Newcastle in search of a division title. The Bladerunners also hold an internal Bladerunners league where the different teams compete against each other for bragging rights and extra experience.

Credit: Mark Harrison

While the competitive nature of the team is always in full swing at their practices, there is an overwhelming familial feeling within this team. The moment you descend the steps down onto the field and walk over to the diamond, you are welcomed by smiling faces and real enthusiasm for a minority sport that everyone involved has a deep-seated passion for. The team has brought people together in so many different ways.

Martin Hingley, the Bladerunners’ Social Media Coordinator, who also plays and coaches the team, recounted a story of two players who had never met before, played together for five years and in the end one was best man at the other’s wedding.

Outfielder Tom Chappell said: “It definitely feels as though it is one big family. Anyone new that comes in just slots immediately in to the team. There is no pressure to succeed as long as we’re all having fun.”

Sean Briscoe, utility player and Buffalo Bisons fan, who has been playing since 2015, said: “I started playing baseball because of my brother. He’s a couple of years older than me and we weren’t seeing each other a lot on weekends. I started playing because of him, and I love it because of the comradery and the group spirit.”

When asked what he missed the most without baseball last year, Briscoe said: “The huddles, funnily enough, you don’t get those little laughs and jokes like you do in a normal huddle when you have to be two metres apart.”

Jackie Robinson was the first black player to play in MLB in 1947 Source: Wikipedia

The club train every Thursday evening, from 6pm to 8pm. Coincidentally, one of these practices fell on Jackie Robinson day in Major League Baseball. Honoured on April 15th, the day is a celebration of Jackie Robinson, the first African-American to play a game in the majors on the day in 1947. Robinson broke built-in racial boundaries in the sporting world and his story stands as inspiration for inclusivity in baseball and all sport.

On Jackie’s day, it was profoundly moving to see such a diverse cast of people training for the Bladerunners. Men and women, of different ages, races, backgrounds and beliefs were all welcome, and all contributed to the family atmosphere that makes this club stand out among the local sporting landscape.

The Sheffield Bladerunners train at Forge Valley School in Malin Bridge every Thursday. If you are interested in playing visit their website https://www.sheffieldbladerunners.co.uk/ to find out more about baseball in the UK and in Sheffield.

 

 

 

Written by Mark Harrison

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