Mets great Mike Piazza talks importance of spreading the word of baseball to London and beyond

LONDON — If you’re wondering why the Mets are playing in London this weekend, former franchise great Mike Piazza has the answer: To help grow the game in Europe.

And if you’re wondering why Major League Baseball is hoping to create new fans in Europe, Piazza has an answer for that question too.

“Europe is kind of a different approach than Latin America or Asia because those places have baseball,” Piazza told the New York Daily News on Friday at London Stadium. “As the world is shrinking, there’s a lot more media and streaming content internationally. I think it’s important because the game has to compete with other sports for the fan space and for the brand.”

Sports depend on continued growth and evolution for survival. Baseball might be considered America’s pastime but it trails behind the NFL and NBA in ratings. Fans get older and have less time to spend watching the team of their childhood. Bringing in new fans and new young players is part of the lifecycle of every sport, but as baseball lags behind the popularity of other sports, it becomes increasingly important.

Two of the most important aspects of growth are exposure and access. Thus, leagues like the NFL and MLB are taking their products overseas to expose them to new fans.

Piazza is helping to usher in a new generation of fans and players by working with youth programs in Italy. The Hall of Fame catcher puts on youth clinics to try to make the game more accessible to Italians and other Europeans.

So far, his efforts are paying off. Piazza, who managed the Italian team at the 2023 World Baseball Classic, estimates there are now “thousands” of kids in Italy playing baseball, and has helped a few get on college teams in the U.S.

A few might not be many, but it’s a start.

“We have a game that anybody can play,” he said. “There is a lot of emphasis now on organized baseball, but that doesn’t mean you can’t just have a catch or have a small pickup game. So just making it sort of realistic and approachable. And I see it.”

In the U.S., kids start playing sports in organized leagues and continue through high school and college. Most of Europe is dominated by the club sports system, with a major team owning several smaller youth clubs in the area. It would be like if the Mets fielded a Little League team and developed players from the New York area instead of drafting them out of high school or college.

But Piazza doesn’t see the club system as the biggest challenge — it’s the amount of games played.

“Baseball is a sport unlike any other because you have to play a lot,” Piazza said. “American football, you play once a week. Soccer, obviously, you play once a week. Basketball, maybe two or three times a week. So there’s more flexibility in their schedules to come here and do events whereas baseball, it’s more difficult. So we have challenges that the other sports don’t have.”

But Piazza sees an advantage with baseball in that it’s the only sport that isn’t controlled by a clock. Even with the introduction of a pitch clock, the game isn’t determined by seconds ticking down on a clock, it’s determined by getting 27 outs.

“It’s a game that has a pace,” Piazza said. “We’re always so worried about time and lack thereof, but this is a game I equate to like a Sunday afternoon picnic. You know, you don’t really watch your watch and go, ‘Hey, you better get the sandwiches out,’ or ‘Oh, we’ve got to go home.’ No, you just enjoy the game. The game unfolds and it’s a story.”

Hundreds of thousands will see the two games in London this week in person. Many are already fans who are so deeply invested that they’re willing to spend thousands of dollars to watch their favorite teams play in another country. But some will attend not knowing much about the sport, and some might even stumble into one of the MLB-sponsored events around the city. Piazza and MLB hope this weekend will make baseball feel a little less foreign to foreign sports fans.

“You’re never going to have monstrous growth in a year or two,” Piazza said. “But stuff like this is something that’s really helping and you can see by the response.”