Tonbridge Baseball: The Next Generation

On Saturday 12 September 2015, Tonbridge Baseball Club claimed the title of BBF Single-A National Champions, sweeping aside the Herts Hawks 14-0 in their semi-final before winning the final 10-0 against the Guildford Mavericks.
That’s right — no runs conceded across two games at the Single-A level.
What’s more extraordinary is that less than 10 years ago baseball almost disappeared in Tonbridge, once a historic hotbed of young baseball talent. Having moved back to Tonbridge, I spent this last summer attending practice and hanging out with the team. What I learned is that the men and women at Tonbridge may just have cracked the conundrum of how to balance performance with club sustainability.

Tonbridge celebrate becoming BBF Single-A National Champions 2015

Just nine years ago, Tonbridge was a baseball club struggling to keep its head above water, with only a handful of regular team members. Over this summer, I often heard tales of forfeits miraculously avoided by recruiting passing cyclists or reluctant family members on to the field come game day. You never knew on a Friday if a friendly game had been organised for the coming Sunday or not. Practice was not so much infield and outfield drills as three mates playing catch before going to the pub. This, of course, had not always been the case: Tonbridge has a rich baseball history featuring a youth structure responsible for producing many of this country’s finest domestic talent. And it was also the first club I joined when I moved to the UK in 1993.
Circa 2000, Tonbridge (then the Tonbridge Bobcats) had a reputation for producing talented young ball players. Many of the top national team players in the late 90s and early 2000s had, under the tutelage of Margaret Borley, gone on to play for Team GB and beyond. Margaret — or Mrs B, or, to use her full title, Margaret Borley MBE — was awarded the MBE in 2007, becoming the first baseball coach to receive the honour and she is also in the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown, NY, having signed the “Baseball Around the World”.
Following a family holiday to the USA in the 1980s, the Borleys decided to set up a baseball club in Tonbridge. Looking for a coach, Margaret’s sons convinced her to coach the team herself, given her extensive coaching experience in field hockey. Considering Margaret’s subsequent success, perhaps we should look to recruit more hockey coaches to baseball!

Margaret Borley receives her personalised jersey (2014)

The club evolved over time and eventually added a youth programme — a youth programme that produced talents such as Nic, Jon and Ben Carter (all three brothers have now won National Championships), Ed Jefferies, my brother George, myself (this feels weird) and Alex Malihoudis, who I believe is still the most talented position player to have been developed here in the UK.
It should be noted that in 2009, Great Britain Baseball played in the Baseball World Cup with a roster that both Alex and I were on. I’m pretty sure that Tonbridge was the only club to have produced two players who played for GB at the World Cup at the same time.
Tonbridge’s success in developing talent brought a lot of attention, including a short-lived farm system arrangement with the Brighton Buccaneers. In return for access to Tonbridge’s youth system (which had already been migrating to Brighton for the previous couple of years) came new uniforms, a new field and administrative support from the then powerhouse of British baseball. While the arrangement folded when the Bucs disappeared, the field is still in remarkable condition. It goes to show what can be achieved with a small amount of investment, a good maintenance plan and, crucially, educating the council’s ground staff. I would bet than Tonbridge have one of the nicest playing surfaces in Single-A, if not the very best, and I can attest to the hops being truer than on some of the fields in the National Baseball League.
During this period of transition Tonbridge found itself in awkward position. Many of the players it had developed were no longer local. Alex, Nic and I had all moved away to play baseball in California at one time or another, and with ambitions to play for Great Britain, we were either playing in the NBL or overseas. As Margaret aged, she wasn’t able to give the same amount of time to the youth programme, and without a successor, there was no new throughput of talent.

Tonbridge Bobcats youth baseball in the 1990s – that’s me playing catcher at the bottom left of the photo

This took us to the mid-to-late 2000s and Tonbridge was struggling as an adult club. Coach Craig Wiley, Steve Adams, Gareth Nutt, Scott Waterman, Terry and Ewen Martin formed the nucleus of a good team but just did not have enough experienced players at key positions to field a regular squad. Games were organised on an ad-hoc, friendly basis and there was minimal equipment and little money to buy new things – the team was at a crossroads. It was either find a new way to operate or put the club into the annals of British baseball history. During 2007 David Mote started playing for the team and the following year Tim Barretto joined. David also dragged Paul Wood, former cricket player, into the game. Paul didn’t have any prior experience of baseball other than a love for the game.
The club joined the BBF Single “A” league to get a scheduled of regular games for the coming season. They got a bank account, a website (www.tonbidgebasell.com), a £1,500 grant to buy new equipment (like an L-screen) and a set of hand-me-down jerseys courtesy of Tonbridge Angels football club.
At this point Craig had gone back to Australia; Steve, Scott and the Martins left the club for business or family reasons.
The core members then proceeded to keep the club going. Every successive AGM included the topic of whether the club should fold and each year the decision was taken to play for just one more year and see what would happen. Then, about two or three years ago, something changed. Through hard work, determination and some creative team management, the club started to grow.
A critical mass of regular players turning up for training was achieved, not least because of the addition of Howells/Miller(Philip, Louise and Josh) and Mote(Francis, Bob and Jack) family members.
In an effort to improve recruitment and raise the profile of the team once again in Tonbridge, the club took to social media. Twitter and Facebook were their weapons of choice and Tim Barretto strong-armed his family members to like the Facebook page to get over the critical 30-like threshold needed to register the domain facebook.com/tonbridgebaseball. A new website — and Margaret Borley back in the fold as the honorary President — put the club back on the map and a new crop of enthusiastic ballplayers from Tonbridge joined.
Some of the other people that I have had the pleasure of meeting and playing catch with over the summer include Shaun Drury, Matt Styles, Gen Edwards, Amanda Murphy (a diehard Twins fan from Minnesota), Tom Seeds, Marcus Sweeney-Bird, Andrew Mackay, Francis Mote and Chris Henderson. Not to mention Dicky Gofton and Ben Carter, who I played with in my days as a young Tonbridge Bobcat playing up with adult team (I’m sure they’ll appreciate my reference to the age gap).

But how to manage a new influx of club members and, crucially, sustain their interest?

Some creativity was needed in dealing with so many new members. Practices were regularly attended by 20-30 players, many of them new, and this during the typically dormant summer holiday period. When I first attended a Tonbridge practice back on a typically damp British evening in March of this year, I was pleasantly surprised by many things. The main one was that the coaches running the session had clearly recently completed a BSUK coaching course (I know because I checked) and were implementing many of the ‘How to’ coaching techniques that we use to teach coaches how to better interact with their players. But I was also thrilled by how welcome I was made to feel, and this extended to the pub after practice. And that is the beauty of Tonbridge Baseball — there is a seamless blend of enjoyable baseball experience and a fun social environment They play because it is fun – winning is not everything.
The social element includes a regular fixture — a post-practice dinner at the local pub, followed by a quiz. So regular is Tonbridge’s participation in the pub quiz that not only have the winnings turned into a fund-raiser for the club, but the staff regularly put baseball on the TV during the quiz. Who would have thought that baseball would be a part of the weekly sports coverage at a pub in Kent?
Social gatherings extend to the usual Awards Night and Christmas party, but social secretary Gen Edwards also organises a social event every six weeks that involves not only the team but also the extended network of significant others and friends. This creates a really open and friendly club environment that never feels like it is separate from the members’ family or home lives.
Finally, there is the challenge of playing time. When assessing how to best run the team for the 2015 season, the management team decided that rather than entering two teams into the BBF Single-A division they would run a two-squad rota system. Players were split evenly between a “Blue” and a “Red” team and they played one week on, one week off. This ensured that everyone got a fair balance of playing time, and such was the sense of unity in this group that even when it wasn’t their week to play, several members of the Blue or Red team came down to support their fellow club mates.
However the numbers problem did not go away. Thanks to a continued social media drive and a slot on BBC Radio Kent’s Breakfast Show, even more members joined the club. Practice attendance was so high in July and August that mid-week friendly games were played at the Deaconsfield diamond. Over the weekend of 20th/21st June, the team travelled to Belfast to take part in the annual Ulster Baseball Tournament and compete against teams from all over Ireland, Scotland and England. The tournament is organised by Jon Carter – another Tonbridge alumni.
So as the 2015 season draws to a close, and with Tonbridge’s first-ever National Championship under its belt, one must ask what is next?
Surprisingly (or not) — more player recruitment!
Tonbridge has aspirations to recruit even more people to play, with hopes that there could be a ‘Baseball Spring’ in Kent. There is enough interest to start a youth team, even if more coaches and volunteers will be needed to sustain enthusiasm. The club also hopes to expand the community outreach programme it ran at The Hayesbrook School, thanks to support from BSUK and the Sport England Satellite Club programme. There is talk of an alumni weekend in 2016, and I might even be given the opportunity to try out for the team as well.
It can sometimes be difficult to know what is around the corner and what the next season will bring, but if there is one thing for certain, it is that Tonbridge Baseball Club is well and truly back on the map.
In closing, I would like to thank all of the current members of Tonbridge Baseball Club who made me feel incredibly welcome throughout the 2015 season. Thanks to Dicky Gofton, Jon Carter and Ben Carter who made it possible for me, at the tender age of 14, to play adult baseball with Tonbridge. Alex Malihoudis and Nic Carter who took me under their respective wings and guided me from my time at Tonbridge through to Brighton and Team GB and even on to the USA, for it was Menlo College, where Alex had graduated in 2001, that I subsequently attended. Both Alex and Nic have been lifelong friends and mentors of mine and I continue to strive to play and coach baseball as each of them showed me.
Finally, I would of course like to thank Margaret Borley, for without her efforts to establish baseball in my home town, I may not have continued to play following my move to the UK aged nine. Tonbridge was less than five miles from my house, and without the easy access I may not have continued to play this great game.
So thank you, Tonbridge — and long live local baseball!