Published: 06:00, 07 May 2021
Kent Mariners Baseball Club get their Single-A South East season under way next weekend. General manager Keiron Peskett, 41, who also plays as club catcher, talks about a club and a sport that is growing year on year.
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I have been involved with the club since 2004 and I was with the team for three years before moving from Kent up to Scotland, but continued helping the club out, running the website and things for several years, then I came back in 2016 and picked it back up again.
The Mariners hadn’t stopped while I was away and during that time they had progressed to the second tier of baseball in the country, for a brief period. There are four tiers, there is the National Baseball League, the highest level, then AAA, which is the next step down, then AA and then Single-A, the fourth tier. We are now at the fourth tier.
Baseball at that level is really enjoyable because there are lots of people coming into the sport and learning the game, it is a lot more relaxed. While people are still competitive and want to do their best, it is more relaxed, more fun, everyone is having a good time and that appeals.
We are in the Single-A South East Division, because of Covid the national governing body, the British Baseball Federation (BBF), tried to keep it all close. There are three other clubs, making up five teams, which we play.
There is a team in Tonbridge (the Bobcats and the Wildcats) a team in Hadlow (the Kent Buccaneers) and a team from East Sussex (South Coast Pirates and Seadogs). For the last two seasons with Covid those are the teams we have been isolated with, we would have normally played against teams outside of that, sides like the Essex Redbacks and a number of teams in that county, along with Hertfordshire and London.
A few years back the league structure was different, it was a bigger league table, we were playing as far as Oxford and Cambridge. Baseball is massive out in the south west, around Bristol and Bath. There are a cluster of teams in the Midlands and further North, then London, Essex and Kent.
HOME OF THE MARINERS
We play at Bull Pen Park in Aylesford, linked to the hosts the Aylesford Bulls Rugby Club, and are fortunate to have a permanent pitching mound, batting circle and backstop, a screen behind the batting circle, that has been developed over the years.
With the funding that is available through BaseballSoftballUK and Kent Sport and other streams there are opportunities to develop further, which we hope to take full advantage of.
On a nice sunny day it is a cracking place to be. The national facility at Farnham Park really sets the bar but these things can get expensive!
I had been into American Football since I was single-digit age and then played a baseball video game, from about the time when the internet could stream video, I could watch baseball games.
I wanted to try things out, which I see a lot with the new members, they want to try something out. I did a training session with a local American Football team and quickly realised I wasn’t made for it. I had an idea to see if there were any baseball teams and I found the Mariners.
Talking to our newest members, especially coming out of the lockdown, a lot of people have heard of it and just want to give it a go. It is hugely encouraging and we always welcome these guys who want to give it a go and it is the best way to find out. It is such an accessible sport, you really can just turn up with no experience and get stuck right in.
I gravitated to catching and I would say it is one of the most fun, hard working positions on the club.
You have to have a decent knowledge of the game overall, in some ways you are the captain of the field, you need to know the game, to be confident in what you are doing, not be afraid of a guy throwing a ball really quite hard at you. It is good fun though, you are involved throughout and it is hard work.
There are other specialisms like the pitcher, it is always a challenge developing pitching skills. If you have an inexperienced pitcher it can make the game quite difficult, if they are wild and can’t throw accurately, but it is a very pressurised position and I don’t envy those who do it. It is one of those thrilling positions where you are the centre of attention when you look at the diamond, you are right in the middle, the focus is on you and it takes a certain robustness to deal with that. Some guys get an absolute thrill out of it, they love it.
Batters do get hit, everyone gets hit at some point, it is pretty safe but it can be painful. We have just purchased a new pitching machine, it should transform our training sessions. The machine can go up to 90mph. At the very top level of baseball in the US pitchers throw regularly 90-plus mph and boy that is fast! It is all a matter of timing though and getting used to it.
When new players join the club, the coaches can very quickly see where a player is suited to play in the field, there are positions less pressured, more accessible, but if you can see someone has a strong arm, quick reflexes, soft hands, they can field balls really well.
There is the catcher and the pitcher and first base, the pressure positions, then the infield positions, quite skilled, you have to be confident and know what you are doing. Those balls come at you quick, you have to be on your toes. We have a 15-year-old at the club who plays at shortstop and that is one of the most pressured positions and he has got those youthful quick reflexes and that really helps, it is amazing how well he has come on.
Outfield are still skilled positions but slightly less pressured, a bit more forgiving for newer players coming into the squad.
The MLB London Series they had recently was quite a boon for baseball fans in the UK, when the Yankees and the Red Sox came to play at Wembley. That gave us a boost and it was unfortunate the Covid issues cancelled the latest games.
Everytime we have come out of lockdown we have had a real surge in new players, which is hugely encouraging to see. People are becoming aware of the sport and feeling they can come along and give it a go. It is growing every year.
When I first rejoined the club in 2016, for a year or so after, we were just keeping things ticking over. We had a fresh approach to actively grow the club and we have had year on year growth. This year we are on course for a 50% increase in membership and that is not trying especially hard to recruit. You can end up with more players than teams available. You only really want 15-18 players on a game day and if you have 30-40 members it can be tricky.
Others have two teams and we are considering that ourselves but it is down to field availability. We do want to grow, we want more people to be involved, bring it on and we’ll adapt and do our best to accommodate everyone. We start at age 14 at the moment but there are youth baseball setups in Kent catering for six to 11 year-olds.
FRIENDS IN THE USA
Our marketing guy Scott Mackay has set up a promotional partnership with a team in the US, the Lake Erie Crushers, an independent professional baseball team based in Avon, Ohio. They are keen to grow the sport in the UK and we are going to take advantage in their help to grow our club and the sport.
The reaction to the partnership has been really encouraging. It has to be good for the game as well. The Crushers play in the Frontier League, a partner league of Major League Baseball (MLB) and they have a really beautiful 3,000-capacity stadium.
The Crushers are entering an exciting phase of their history with some gifted players in their ranks, and we are looking forward to following their journey during the 2021 season and beyond.
Similarly, we have ambitious plans moving into the coming season and we are so honoured to have the Crushers in our corner as we take to the diamond in 2021.
The Kent Mariners get their Single-A South East season up and running away to the Tonbridge Bobcats on Sunday, May 16 at Borley Field.