Back in the late 80s, when I was a sports crazed 17 year old kid growing up in former Yugoslavia, I knew the holder of every single track and field record in the world. I could recite top 10 NBA players in any statistically relevant category, as well as the winner of every single tennis tournament played, no matter how small. I would often engage in discussions whether Lemieux is having a better season than Gretzky. I won’t even mention how much useless soccer, water polo or handball information a seventeen year old brain can absorb.
Yet, I knew of only two baseball players, which was on average two more than anyone else around me. One was Joe Di Maggio, whose claim to fame was not his hitting streak nor his MVP titles, but the fact that he was once married to one Norma Jean. That’s it. If anybody knew of him, he was Mr. Marilyn Monroe, not someone who had a job or achievements of his own.
The other one found a way to my picture wall. I drove my parents crazy by clipping and gluing just about every sports picture published in the local papers to my wall. On one of my visits to the US Embassy library – that was back in the day where it was still located downtown Zagreb, and where anybody could come in and read American newspapers and magazines – the nice librarian pulled me to the side and gave me my very own issue of Sports Illustrated as they were shipped one too many by mistake. I raced home, scissors in one hand and soon the clippings of great Chicago #23 in the other. When I was done with the cutting, there were still a couple of pages of some guy named Hershiser, who just accomplished something. The picture was cool, so I said what a hell.
Few months later I was an exchange student in Syracuse, NY, welcomed by baseball crazed family split about 3:1 along Yankees/Mets line and watching, playing, discussing and dreaming baseball just about 24 hours a day. I got hooked, and when I returned to Europe a year later and when time for sports came again, I started discovering that marginal group of Europeans calling baseball a game of their own.
In the meantime I have played and coached more than 500 games in Croatia, Slovenia, Germany, France, Sweden, Czech Republic, Austria, Italy, Holland and Spain. I’ve played on gorgeous Olympic stadium in Barcelona, but also on the fields where half of the outfield was asphalt, or where a concrete Ping Pong table was in the middle of the (playable!) left field. I have played against Jason Grilli, but I have also played against players who didn’t know they can take their base after being hit by pitch. I have been told by a dearest old lady, whom I asked to retrieve my home run ball that rolled over the street, that we kids should learn playing without losing equipment. As a coach I more than once had to drive to my players homes or workplaces couple of hours before departing for an away game trying to convince their wives (harder) or employers (easier) to let them play that funny game yet again.
It is an environment where baseball is played for the love of the game, as most of the players don’t get paid and even have to bear the gasoline costs for away games. Players follow MLB and some of them save money for long time to make an overseas trip and actually see a game live. Few dream of actually making it in the bigs one day and even fewer try. Rick Vanden Hurk of Eindhoven, Netherlands, actually dreamt it and accomplished it, making him a first European born and raised player to have a shot at decent career in the majors.
But Dutch not only have best players, they are a guiding light for thousands and thousands of baseball enthusiasts all around Europe.It is a place where complete families, not just players and their friends or relatives will go out to watch a game. They keep organizing tournaments like Haarlemsee Honkballweek, regularly bringing Cuban and Japanese national team to European soil. Huston Street, Mark Teixeira, Mark Prior, Bobby Crosby all played there. They offer a touch of true baseball life without leaving Europe, an atmosphere comparable to some low Minors team. Crowds know their players and every now and then they will see a prospect go over the big sea and try his luck.
And every national baseball organization in Europe looks up to them and sees the next step. I doubt the time will ever come when baseball will be widespread in Europe. But, even if it doesn’t the enthusiasm created by their good showings on international events (not only WBC, but also World Cup, with two straight 4th place finishes including the win over Cuba in 2007) does European baseball good. Sure, the main reason for their success are players from Aruba and Curacao, but it is a complete team effort in development, coaching and more and more European born players in the mix.
Well done, Oranje.