LEAVING Cardiff city centre along the Taff Trail takes you past the rising steel frames of the Sophia Gardens cricket ground before reaching open parkland that in the summer months is a hive of cricketing activity. 

Pontcanna Fields, in 1982 a venue for Pope John Paul II’s only visit to Wales, is the centre of the sporting community in the capital; a patchwork of football and rugby pitches in the winter and in the summer months a home to that most English of sports. 

But at the top corner of the park, just a mile and half upstream from the Principality Stadium, where teenagers drop feet first into the Taf from a 40-year-old suspension bridge built by Cardiff University engineering students, a small piece of Americana plays out. 

Cut into the green grass is a baseball diamond, one of the few US baseball fields in Wales. 

Though the city has for generations played its own form of baseball, a game developed in docklands of Cardiff, Newport and Liverpool, here the grass has been cut to the dirt to mark the bases and, in the centre of the diamond, the earth raised to build the pitcher’s mound.  

US baseball in Wales, clockwise Cardiff Merlins II manager Steve Smith shouts instructions, spare balls and the Merlins at bat.Looking north across Cardiff's Pontcanna Fields in the spring. Picture: Huw Evans Agency

Where as Welsh baseball players wear shorts and football style jerseys and swing a bat with a flat surface, these Welsh, American baseball players are dressed in long-stockings, button down shirts with a giant ‘Cardiff’ embroidered across the front, and of course, the famous baseball cap. Their bats are slimline and round and they catch the ball with a brown glove, that is almost a basket. 

Those are just some of the difference with Welsh baseball, which has its own set of rules, and you can read more about the sport and its revival in Cardiff, here

This diamond is the home of the Cardiff Merlins who run two adult sides in the South West and Wales Baseball League and are possibly the only team in the league that needs to distinguish itself as playing American baseball. 

The game known as America’s national pastime is almost an intrinsic part of the American way of life.  

Despite the perception of it being the most American of games it also has it roots in Britain and American sides stages exhibition games in Britain as long ago as 1874.

In 1938 Cardiff side Penylan faced the London Americans at Cardiff Arms Park with the game played one innings each under Welsh rules and three following American rules. 

But while baseball has been an Olympic sport and is just, if not more, popular in Latin America and Japan it probably has the lowest profile of any the traditional North American sport in Britain. While there are some 70 amateur American football teams in the UK, with almost as many university sides, and professional, televised ice hockey and basketball leagues, baseball is still seen as an American curiosity. 

Steve Smith, the manager of Cardiff Merlins II, and a native of Erie, Pennsylvania thinks the powers behind the US game have failed to promote it, while there may be a lack of curiosity from potential players. 

“American football has probably done a better job of marketing itself than Major League Baseball has but American football also, visually looks more different, to other sports you have here,” says Steve. 

US baseball in Wales, clockwise Cardiff Merlins II manager Steve Smith shouts instructions, spare balls and the Merlins at bat.Cardiff Merlins II manager Steve Williams.

“Rugby is the closest (to it) but it doesn’t look anything like it but while this is not the same sport, cricket probably scratches the same itch.” 

On converting cricketers to baseballers Steve says the main thing is to get them to turn from viewing the game “vertically” to “horizontally”. 

Steve, who has played baseball “since I was a kid”, came to the UK in 2001 and has played in British leagues in Manchester and Birmingham, before moving to Cardiff in 2016 to teach medical law and ethics at Cardiff University. 

He was keen to find out if the city also had a team, but was confused by his internet research: “I did a search for baseball in Wales and what I pulled up was a lot of things about Welsh baseball which I didn’t really understand, and it was not what I was looking for.” 

US baseball in Wales, clockwise Cardiff Merlins II manager Steve Smith shouts instructions, spare balls and the Merlins at bat.Cardiff's pitcher prepares to unwind a fast ball.

Another search in hope two years later led Steve to finding the Merlins who had formed to play friendlies in 2017 by a number of players from a wide area across south Wales who had been travelling to play for teams in Bristol. 

Now the Merlins who train indoors in Barry, from January onwards, and twice a week at their Pontcanna home during the summer, have a squad of between 40 and 50 players. 

None have played traditional Welsh baseball though most are aware of it, and their routes into the sport vary from the expected, watching on television with games broadcast most nights on dedicated sports channels, to the traditional. 

“I started throwing a baseball with a glove in the back garden with my dad,” recalls Tom Poole, from Pontypool who got his first glove while on a family holiday to Florida. 

While Tom had been a cricket fan he says he’s been confused by its various formats and tinkering with the game, the latest being The Hundred format, and now prefers the orthodoxy of baseball which hasn’t compromised its integrity. 

US baseball in Wales, clockwise Cardiff Merlins II manager Steve Smith shouts instructions, spare balls and the Merlins at bat.Clockwise, a Cardiff runner reaches home plate, a selection of baseball bats, a baseball, a Bournemouth Bears player at bat.

Cardiff also has a softball league, the less intensive version of the game favoured for small children and women in the United States which is also a source of potential players. 

For teammate Rhodri Cavell it was television coverage. He admits the game can be complex but during lockdown found the time to watch: “During lockdown it was the first sport back on TV and I thought I would try and get into it.” 

He then joined the Merlins early last year and is now in his second season playing the sport. 

Baseball has also helped 31-year-old Sam Smith and Brian Mellor, 52, form a friendship this summer as they’ve spent it watching both Merlins teams, having met as spectators. 

“As the Merlins have the two teams they are here most Sundays from April to August and if you live anywhere near Cardiff this is probably the only live American baseball you are going to see and it’s quite unusual to have such a nice pitch all cut and prepared by the council,” says Sam who adds the pitch was opened by local resident, and Senedd Member, the first minister Mark Drakeford. 

Sam and Brian watch the game, played during August’s heatwave, from a fishing tent Brian has bought online having got sunburn most Sundays. 

US baseball in Wales, clockwise Cardiff Merlins II manager Steve Smith shouts instructions, spare balls and the Merlins at bat.Sam Smith, left, and Brian Mellor watch the game from Brian's fishing tent.

Brian’s late father Desmond was a baseballer, of the traditional Welsh variety, but Brian thinks the American game is better. Of his father he says: “He would love it, he would be out there playing.” 

Brian’s main wish is to see more people at the games with attendances currently limited to Sam and Brian and an occasional handful of others and possibly some partners or parents of younger players. 

“It needs more followers,” says Brian: “When I first came down I contacted the team manager to ask if it would be okay. He said it’s open parkland, everybody can come and watch and they were so pleased to see me. The more support they can get the better it is for the sport.” 

Following such a niche sport means Brian and Sam are always keen to talk baseball, but the popularity of the famed New Yorks Yankees baseball caps with the interlocking N and Y logo means it can sometimes lead to confusion. 

US baseball in Wales, clockwise Cardiff Merlins II manager Steve Smith shouts instructions, spare balls and the Merlins at bat.Cardiff Merlins II celebrate their first victory.

“I saw this young lad with a Yankees cap and I said ‘are you into your baseball?’ and he didn’t have a clue he just said ‘nah bruv’, I’m just wearing it ‘cos I like it’. They are the franchise club, that’s what I don’t like about the Yankees,” explains Brian. 

Sam has had more luck, having have had “a good little chat” with someone recently after spotting they were wearing a Toronto Blue Jays cap: “Their son had married a woman from Canada, and lives in Toronto, and they had become baseball fans by default.” 

The pair are happy to discuss the tactics and complicated rules of the game with anyone needing an introduction. 

On the field the Merlins, who play two games back to back against the Bournemouth Bears, are facing a Great Britain international. 

Artie Herbert, who plays catcher (like a backstop in Welsh baseball or wicket keeper in cricket) is one of three women in the Bournemouth team and the previous week was playing for Great Britain in the Women's European Championships in France. 

“I think it’s probably quite unusual,” says Artie of her chosen sport which she has played for around 18 months: “The most comments I have when I tell people I play baseball is, ‘isn’t that just glorified rounders?’” 

US baseball in Wales, clockwise Cardiff Merlins II manager Steve Smith shouts instructions, spare balls and the Merlins at bat.Bournemouth Bears catcher Artie Herbert is a Great Britain women's international.

She fell into the sport by chance when a friend wanted to try it: “She said would you go with me, as she didn’t want to go on her own, so I went to a training session and it changed my life.” 

Though Artie is now an international aiming for the Olympics isn’t a possibility as at the games softball is the preferred format for women. 

Cheering on the Bears are Scott and Christine Donald whose student son Eddie is in the side and they travel from their home in Winchester, often collecting him from university in Reading, to travel to games in Cardiff, Weston-Super-Mare and Bristol. 

While they’ve been learning about American baseball they haven’t heard of Welsh baseball, though Christine makes the common mistake of thinking it sounds “a bit like rounders, which we used to play in school”. 

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At the conclusion of the second game Merlins II have recorded their first victory, a taste of real success for players who in most cases had only a few months ago discovered the sport while watching television or You Tube clips and wondering if just playing in an organised league was a possibility. 

Cardiff Merlins I will face the Bristol Bats in the South West and Wales Baseball League final at Pontcanna Fields, Cardiff on Sunday, August 21 with the first pitch at 2pm. 

Before the final the SWWBL ‘All Star Game’ featuring sides from the Wessex Division v the Severn Division will take place at the same venue, with first pitch at 11am. There is no admission charge. 

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