Prague Baseball Week
Tournament attracts an international roster
Posted: June 29, 2011
In a country where hockey is king, soccer is queen and every other sport fights for a seat at the table, it's hard to imagine something called Prague Baseball Week ever really taking off.
But 30 years after its inception, the five-day event has become one of the biggest baseball tournaments in Europe, attracting teams from all over the Continent, as well as the United States.
For as long as I can remember, I've been a baseball fanatic, the kind of fan who reads books on the game in the dead of winter to get ready for spring training. I pay attention to stats - even the really nerdy ones. I've watched professional games in more than 20 different stadiums. I consider myself a student of the game.
But until Prague Baseball Week, I'd never seen a Lithuanian swing a bat or an Austrian warming up in a bullpen. I'd never watched a Pole slide into second base or a Slovak catcher flip his mask off to catch a foul ball.
Now that I've seen all of these things, I can say the following with absolute conviction: These guys can really play.
"Most of the countries are coming here with their national teams," says Jan Bagin, executive director of Prague Baseball Week, himself a former member of the Czech national team. "The guys that are here are probably comparable to Division II or Division III NCAA players."
Admittedly, most of the best players played on the three American teams, although the home Czech national squad advanced to the championship game, where they lost 6-5 to AIST, a collection of college players from the United States. But over the course of the handful of games I was able to watch during the week, I saw crisp, clean fielding - including a few perfectly executed double plays - solid pitching and even a few home runs.
"Over the years, these games have gotten more competitive because the sport is growing in these other countries around Europe," Bagin says. "No one is overpowering the other teams, now, and that includes the American teams. Everyone is pretty level. It used to be a big deal if [the Czech team] would beat a team of Americans. It doesn't feel that big anymore. I think these guys go out and expect to be able to compete with everybody."
The tournament, which is held predominantly at a five-field, baseball complex in the Krč valley in Prague 4, has the look of the kinds of regional tournaments that get played across the United States every summer: a bank of team buses and vans in the front of the complex, players walking around carrying bat bags and wearing only half of their uniforms as they wait to change before their next game, parents and family of the players wandering around, striking up conversations with parents and families of players from other teams.
But despite all of the international goodwill, Prague Baseball Week is really about the game itself, and the different styles of play from country to country were fascinating to discover. The American teams boasted power pitching and hitters who could drive the ball out of the ballpark. But the French and Austrian teams, for instance, relied on speed and defense. The Czechs seemed to be somewhere in the middle, having a lineup that featured a couple of power hitters surrounded by role players whose strengths were getting on base.
Most of the players spoke a little English, which was certainly the universal language of the tournament, but baseball is one of those little worlds that exists in its own vacuum with a language all its own. At one point during a game between two American teams, a foul ball came screaming into the main walkway between the fields. A Czech boy who had been standing nearby broke into a dead sprint to retrieve the ball, which would become a souvenir. A player from the French team picked up the ball and prepared to flip it to the boy. But before he could release the ball, the boy pointed to the sky, wordlessly asking the player to throw him a pop fly. The player smiled and obliged, sending the ball high into the air. The boy dropped the ball and subsequently kicked it as he knelt to pick it up. The whole thing had to be very embarrassing, but the entire scene summed up the international nature of the weeklong event.
I played in tournaments like this growing up, and the whole setup felt very familiar, if out of place in Central Europe. But if you just swap the soda and nachos that we scarfed down between our games for the schnitzel and beer served here, the differences were negligible. It was the closest to home I'd felt in a long time.
Jack Buehrer can be reached at
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