Liam Carroll is manager of the Salem Red Sox. Courtesy of the team.
Liam Carroll is manager of the Salem Red Sox. Photo courtesy of the team.

Liam Carroll’s journey in the world of baseball began when he tried out for Great Britain’s 15-Under national team in 1996 as a 13-year-old infielder.

Head up, glove down, he was in position to field the first ground ball bouncing his way.

It went right between his legs.

Maybe a different kid’s baseball career would have ended in that tryout in a suburb south of London where a grounder went through the wickets.

Instead, Carroll’s first failure only lit the match.

Three decades later, the native Englishman is feeding the fire on foreign soil.

Now 41, Carroll is the manager of the Salem Red Sox, the Low-A Carolina League affiliate of one of the most storied franchises in all of sports — the Boston Red Sox.  His job is to assist young aspiring professional baseball players in the first steps of their fledgling careers.

And what do you suppose he is doing with that fungo bat in his hands on a sunny day in Salem?

Hitting ground balls, of course.

* * *

An interview with Liam Carroll.

The Red Sox might have roped Carroll in to manage its farm team in Virginia, but the London-born manager is no Ted Lasso.

While the character on the same-named Apple TV show is a fictional American football coach suddenly placed in charge of an English soccer team, Carroll arrived in Salem in early April after already serving as the general manager for Great Britain’s club in the World Baseball Classic in March.

His arc across the Atlantic also really began on this side of the pond.

Carroll’s father, Patrick, was born in Chicago and grew up in Brooklyn as a Dodgers fan, idolizing Jackie Robinson and playing basketball against the likes of Connie Hawkins and Lew Alcindor, now known as Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

The elder Carroll moved to Dublin, then to London, where he eventually married a schoolteacher and stayed in the U.K. When Carroll was a young lad in England, he and his father listened to the 1986 World Series between the Red Sox and New York Mets on Armed Forces Radio.

Who knows where dreams begin?

“I got to learn about baseball history from a young age,” he said. “You learn very quickly [Boston] is no ordinary club. This is one of the biggest of all time. To have an opportunity in professional baseball for anybody in any role, it’s extraordinary, but to have that role with the Boston Red Sox is truly extraordinary.”

However, the sport of baseball was a foreign concept to Carroll’s peers who spent their afternoons on the soccer pitch or the cricket field.

“I did play those other sports,” he said. “In the town we lived in, there was no baseball. There was no baseball in the school. There was no baseball in the town. My dad started a slowpitch [softball] team that turned into a baseball team.

“I would bring gloves in and play catch. Kids would say, ‘Why don’t you just use your hands like cricketers do?'”

But Carroll was grounded in baseball and American culture, unlike many of his friends.

His paternal grandfather was an editor for Sports Illustrated, which debuted in 1954 with a picture of Milwaukee Braves star Eddie Matthews on the cover. One of his early possessions was the audio version of Henry “Hank” Aaron’s autobiography, “I Had a Hammer.”

“When you grow up in a country where baseball is not everywhere, when you find something that’s kind of baseball-specific, you latch onto it and it becomes gold,” Carroll said. “Occasionally there would be a TV show that would have some baseball stuff and we’d watch the VHS [tapes] over and over and over again.” 

Baseball history in the United Kingdom dates back to the 1800s, and Great Britain won the 1938 Baseball World Cup, defeating the United States 4-1 in a five-game amateur series.

However, the growth of the game often compared to a British version called “rounders” has been slow Carroll’s homeland.

“There’s a few thousand players total,” he said. “The typical British baseball facility is the corner of the soccer fields. You’ve got a backstop, no other fencing … and dirt cutouts around the bases.

“There’s a purpose-built facility near London that’s got two baseball fields, and three softball or youth baseball fields. It’s right near Heathrow [Airport]. So if you ever fly into London, look out the window, you’ll see the national training center. It’s probably the only baseball field that you can tell is a baseball field from the sky.”

Carroll has played for, coached or managed British Junior National and British Senior National baseball teams since 1998 in more than a dozen countries from Austria to Cuba.

After first attending San Joaquin Delta College in Stockton, California, he transferred to nearby Porterville Junior College, where he played baseball for two seasons.

He eventually became an assistant coach at the University of Nevada Las Vegas in 2005, returning to Las Vegas in 2008 for a two-year stint as UNLV’s director of baseball operations.

In 2016, Carroll managed Great Britain’s team in the WBC Qualifying Tournament as the squad finished one victory from making the World Championship. The event was played in Brooklyn, just a long home run from where his father saw Jackie Robinson wear the famed jersey No. 42 for the Dodgers.

Now Carroll dons No. 40 for the Salem Red Sox. 

“My father says that I grew up in the faith,” he said. “And now I’m a man of the cloth.”

* * *

Liam Carroll of the Salem Red Sox. Courtesy of the team.
Liam Carroll of the Salem Red Sox (in red, by the railing) watches the team from the dugout. Photo courtesy of the team.

Great Britain’s appearance in the World Baseball Classic in March hardly was a uniform showing.

The cash-strapped British team showed up in jerseys that were less than stylish, with lettering in a plain, black font that one internet comedian said looked as if it had been “designed on Microsoft Word.”

Even worse, when pitcher Ian Gibaut was warming up on the mound, the first “T” in “GREAT BRITAIN” that was stitched across his chest fell off his jersey. (See video.)

However, Gibaut and his teammates had the last laugh.

Great Britain went 1-3 in its five-team pool with losses to the United States (6-2), Canada (18-8) and Mexico (2-1), but a 7-5 victory over Colombia closed out by Gibaut not only was the U.K.’s first win in WBC history, it automatically qualified the team for the next WBC in 2026.

The victory earned the team $300,000 in prize money, with half going to the players and half earmarked for the British Federation, which sent an all-volunteer staff of coaches and support personnel to Arizona.

Suddenly, the Brits had a refreshing spot of “T.”

“The accomplishment was massive for our federation,” Carroll said. “It was great on so many levels, the exposure, the prize money that comes with it. The federation’s budget is about $25,000 for the national team to run 12-U, 15-U, 23-U, the women’s national team, the men’s national team.

“Because we won that game against Colombia, we put ourselves in a position where we do not have to qualify again. That’s more guaranteed money.” 

Thanks to the WBC’s liberal eligibility rules, Great Britain’s roster included two Major Leaguers: Washington Nationals infielder Lucius Fox and Los Angeles Dodgers outfielder Trayce Thompson, whose first-inning home run gave his team a brief 1-0 lead over the U.S.A.

Thompson was eligible as a “legacy” player because his father, former NBA star Mychal Thompson, is a native of the Bahamas, a former crown colony of England. Fox was born in the Bahamas.

Great Britain remains miles behind other countries in producing and developing its own players. There has been just one native British player in professional baseball, former Frontier Leaguer Gavin Marshall, whom Carroll calls one of his “heroes.”

Carroll is hopeful that MLB’s decision to play regular-season games in London — the Red Sox and Yankees in 2019 and the Cubs and Cardinals last month — will help Great Britain close the gap with the rest of the world.

“We’re a ways off,” Carroll admitted. “We don’t have enough kids playing baseball. We need to change that to have any success in the long term. We have to leverage this. Sooner or later it’s going to be harder to find that British-eligible player.

“Hopefully one day instead of seeing a player in the WBC that’s [only] got a connection to Great Britain, the family heritage piece, it’s more like the Czech Republic, who qualified and went out to Asia for their group with a team of fully homegrown players.”

Great Britain’s team was managed by former Dartmouth College pitcher Drew Spencer. Carroll was the general manager, a lofty sounding title on the surface but not really akin to Boston GM Brian O’Halloran’s job description.

“We didn’t have to wash uniforms at the WBC, but we did that at other tournaments,” Carroll said. “At the end of the day, I would have paid my way to clean people’s shoes.”

Carroll has been part of the fabric of British baseball for nearly 30 years. Few can appreciate the significance of the scope of the struggle on the diamond.

“Our people that have just been grinding for decades,” he said. “We’re doing this for the future generations and the generations that have come before.

“For me personally, unless there are people before me that have played for Great Britain and coached for Great Britain, I’m not standing here as the manager of the Salem Red Sox.”

* * *

Liam Carroll delivers the line-up card before a game. Courtesy of the Salem Red Sox.
Liam Carroll delivers the lineup card before a game. Photo courtesy of the Salem Red Sox.

The Red Sox have implemented a system-wide program for their minor-league affiliates that Carroll calls the “Highway to Fenway.”

It starts at the rookie level in the Florida Complex League, and runs through Salem (Low-A), Greenville, South Carolina (High-A), Portland, Maine (Class AA) and Worcester, Massachusetts (Class AAA) before reaching Boston.

In Salem, Carroll is just one part of the blueprint.

During a Red Sox game at Salem Memorial Ballpark, fans might see Carroll carry the lineup card to home plate before a game. They might see him in the left corner of the third-base dugout. They might see him make a pitching change on the mound.

What is unseen is the work during the rest of a normal day for Salem, which has six games per week with Monday as the off day.

First pitch at 7:05 p.m. means players report to the stadium at 11:45 a.m. The players check in with an athletic trainer. They lift weights every day. The hit the field for individualized drills. They take cuts in the batting cage with their advanced metrics for each swing displayed on the ballpark’s scoreboard. They meet with their position coaches to go over scouting reports.

“It’s an incredible job, but it is a job,” Carroll said. “It’s not just the two or three hours that’s the fun part. You have to be there all day.”

Like a college football coach, Carroll is aided by a large staff.

“I have five coaches, a strength and conditioning coach, an assistant strength and conditioning coach, an athletic trainer, an assistant athletic trainer, two video interns and a nutritionist,” he said. “All putting the athlete, the ballplayer, in the center of their lives.”

Carroll sets the daily schedule. He coaches the coaches. During games, Salem’s lineup likely is dictated by his higher-ups. The players represent a huge investment.

Boston selected shortstop Marcelo Mayer as the fourth overall pick in the 2021 MLB amateur draft, signing the California high school shortstop for a $6.64 million bonus. Mayer began the 2022 season in Salem, was promoted to Greenville at midseason and is now at the Double-A level in Portland.

Producing players who can become Major Leaguers is the goal. Winning games? Not so much.

Current MLB players who passed through Salem include Mookie Betts, Rafael Devers, Xander Bogaerts, Andrew Benintendi, Yoan Moncada and Anthony Rizzo.

“We’ll get guidelines for where a player needs to play,” Carroll said. “They’ll play a certain number of games each week, a certain number of games at various positions.

“It’s more about the players than the team, which is a fascinating dynamic. Everybody is going to get developed. Everybody has an individual development plan. Ultimately we’re going to develop players we think can move up.”

The Red Sox already have promoted 2022 second-round pick Roman Anthony to Greenville. Shortstop Cutter Coffey, picked 38 spots higher than Anthony as the No. 2 selection in the second round worth a $1.847 million signing bonus, is in Salem hoping Carroll can help him advance up the ladder.

The 19-year-old Coffey was interested to learn that Carroll played college baseball near his hometown of Bakersfield, California.

“It was surprising to hear that he’s been around where I’m from,” Coffey said. “I don’t think I’ve even met anybody [else] from England. It’s always good to meet people from different places. He’s a great guy. He’s handled the team really well. He makes our guys better every day.”

Tazewell native Chase Illig is in his first year with the Red Sox after reaching the Triple-A level in the Yankees’ system. Illig said Carroll’s skills fit the Boston template.

“One of the things all the managers across the [organization] were tasked with was seeing yourself as the coordinator,” Illig said. “He’s done a very good job of making sure the puzzle pieces are fitting together as far as the schedule. Once he’s on the field, he’s done a good job making himself available when needed.

“He brings a lot of different ideas than what I’ve been used to in the past in professional baseball.”

Carroll imparts a motto to all his young players:

“Care about it, own it, trust it.”

When the team assembled in Florida before heading to Salem for the Carolina League opener, current and former Red Sox stars such as Luis Tiant, Jason Varitek and Kenley Jansen were available for insight.

Carroll initially wondered just how much trust his players had in the rookie manager from England.

“I joined the Boston Red Sox on the 27th of December,” he said. “I moved from London on the 18th of February. I did not play professional baseball. I let a ground ball through my legs. Why should they listen to me?”

* * *

Liam Carroll in the dugout. Courtesy of the Salem Red Sox.
Liam Carroll in the dugout. Photo courtesy of the Salem Red Sox.

Carroll’s British accent is easy to detect, but it is not thick.

“My accent is a little bit all over the place,” he said. “I’ve been called Canadian. I was told once, ‘You sound like you’re from right in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean.'”

Salem broke camp in April with a diverse roster featuring international players from the Dominican Republic, Venezuela and Canada.

Carroll felt right at home.

“I’m so happy to see the diversity in this organization in the type of player, where people are from,” he said. “I’ve been so fortunate in my background to experience baseball in dozens of countries. I’ve learned different lessons.”

Salem takes a 38-43 overall record, 8-10 in the second half of the Carolina League season, into Thursday’s night’s home game against the Down East Wood Ducks. The Red Sox were off from July 8 until July 14, giving Carroll’s wife an opportunity to travel from England and spend some time in Virginia.

The Carolina League season will end in less than two months, leaving Carroll to wonder about his immediate and long-range future. The last three Salem managers have spent two seasons apiece on the job.

Luke Montz, who managed Salem in 2021 and 2022, is the manager of San Diego’s Double-A team in San Antonio.

Where will he be in 2024?

“It’s hard to tell,” he said. “Understanding coming in that it’s a business, and oftentimes not a pretty one. I shouldn’t get too attached, given the nature of the industry.”

A child in England listening to a World Series on Armed Forces Radio.

A teen who refused to let a ground ball that went through his legs keep him off the field.

A man who washed baseball uniforms as an unpaid volunteer to help lift the sport of baseball in his country.

So, Liam Carroll, just what is your goal?

“Still kind of figuring that out,” he said. “Of course, the Big League dream is alive again. That would be phenomenal. Would it be managing? Maybe. Would it be something else?

“I think everybody needs to decide whether they want to be the guy, or the guy the guy counts on. Parts of the bench coach role are very interesting to me. Scheduling is very interesting to me. There even exists a Major League field coordinator position now.

“Would it be cool to stay involved with such a storied organization? Yeah, that would be pretty cool. The concept of being with one club and then another, this is kind of foreign to me.”

Robert Anderson worked for 44 years in Virginia as a sports writer, most recently as the high school...