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MLB eyes European 'toehold' with Yankees-Red Sox in London

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Los Angeles (AFP)

Major League Baseball is sending its heaviest hitters to London this weekend, where commissioner Rob Manfred hopes the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees can give the game a "toehold" in Europe.

"I hope that the two games in London will be viewed as sort of a groundbreaking, artistic success," Manfred said at recent MLB owners' meetings.

"We're talking probably the greatest rivalry -- certainly in baseball, if not in sports -- for two games."

The Red Sox and Yankees, who will face off on Saturday and Sunday at London Stadium, have won 36 World Series between them.

Boston's status as reigning World Series champions lends an extra gloss to a trans-Atlantic trip that will showcase an American League rivalry that has developed over more than a century.

The Yankees, a brand known worldwide, own a record 27 World Series titles while the Red Sox -- who broke an 80-year title drought in 2004 -- claimed their ninth with a triumph over the Los Angeles Dodgers last season.

Manfred said the positive response to the teams' arrival in Britain was just what MLB was looking for as it seeks to follow the NBA and NFL in boosting its profile overseas.

"We sold like crazy right out of the gate in terms of tickets and sold the two games out in a very short period of time," he said.

"We're hoping it generates buzz around the game that will give us a toehold into a very important market in Europe."

The two Yankees-Red Sox games at the former Olympic stadium that is now home to Premier League side West Ham, will be the first regular-season MLB games in Europe.

The league is already planning the follow-up, with 2020 London games between the St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs announced this month.

While baseball historian David Block has unearthed evidence of a game played in Walton-on-Thames in 1749 -- more than a century decades before the "national pastime" emerged in the United States -- for MLB, this weekend's games are about the future.

"There is a significant economic opportunity in Europe," Manfred told The Boston Globe, noting that some 20 European players are under contract to major league organisations and that MLB actively promotes the game overseas.

- 'Not a vacation' -

Britain no longer has a professional baseball league, but the Netherlands and Italy do.

In the run-up to the Yankees-Red Sox games, MLB's Elite European Development Tournament will take place in the London area, with 90 teenagers from 13 European countries and the US Air Force base at Ramstein in Germany competing in a showcase for league scouts.

Play Ball Park set up adjacent to London Stadium will offer youth baseball and softball.

Baseball has long been a popular sport in parts of Asia, Latin America and the Caribbean.

More than a quarter of players listed on 2019 Opening Day 25-man rosters and inactive lists came from overseas, representing 20 different countries.

The Dominican Republic's 102 players marked the first time that any foreign country or territory exceeded 100. Venezuela had 68.

This year's MLB season opened with two games in Tokyo and there were regular-season games in Mexico in March, April and May.

Manfred told the Globe said he would like to take games to South Korea and, when suitable facilities can be worked out, to other countries in Europe.

For now, Manfred is counting on the Yankees and Red Sox to knock one out of the park for baseball.

There is plenty at stake, with the Red Sox eight games behind the division-leading Yankees as the long regular season approaches the halfway.

"It's not a vacation," Red Sox manager Alex Cora says. "We're chasing the Yankees right now and those two games are important."

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