August 28, 2012

Baseball: A Different Ball Game Abroad

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“Raise your hand if you can understand me when I talk like this.”

Only one or two of the young boys standing before Rick Stein timidly raised their hands. He pointed at one of them and said, “Ok buddy, you’re going to be my translator.” The boy puffed out his chest, turned to face the crowd of wide-eyed, red-faced twelve and thirteen year olds kneeling before him, and said something to them in German. When he finished they all started to laugh. I looked over at Stein questioningly, but he just shrugged his shoulders and adjusted his cap so that the MLB logo was facing the crowd.

The baseball stadium at the Sportplatz Heerenschürli in Zurich, Switzerland where Rick Stein was standing was a long way from any semblance of Major League Baseball. In fact, the “stadium” could only hold up to 75 fans and was surrounded by soccer fields on every side. Stein — a retired MLB scout — though, was being paid by professional baseball to give clinics in different European countries. After spending the last two months in Ireland and Germany, here he was in Zurich along with four or five other American coaches, addressing elementary school boys who were only just starting to learn English in school.

Personally I was pretty worried about the language barrier, but Rick didn’t seem fazed. He explained how to take leads off of first base, how to take a wide turn on a single, pausing every few sentences to let his young translator do the talking. When he got nods of recognition from the boys, he continued.

This clinic for the U14 Swiss National Team was the first of its kind in Switzerland. I was there playing for the Swiss NLA, the only professional baseball league in the country, which was trying to expand to reach out to younger players. The coach of my team, Chris Byrnes — who moved to Switzerland from the United States 13 years ago — was helping Stein to run the clinic. As a former player and coach in a country where baseball is the nation’s pastime, Byrnes knew the importance of breeding baseball players at a young age. The National Swiss Baseball Federation, on the other hand, did not.

The oldest players in the league who had been part of it since its creation were mostly people who had lived in the United States for some period of time and had brought baseball — along with some broken English — back with them. Even they had not been exposed to the game as little leaguers in America are today, yet they were eventually able to find enough support for the game to create the NLA. Now, these players are in their forties, nearing the end of their baseball careers, and the influx of new, younger players has become stagnant. The U18 Swiss National Team — which plays in the European Championship every other year and eventually feeds most of its players to the Swiss NLA — is routinely looking for more talented players to fill its depleted roster, which only has one or two pitchers.

However, even these seventeen year olds — who are the best-of-the best in terms of Swiss-born baseball players — often drift away from the game as they are forced to choose between gimnasium (the Swiss equivalent of high school) and an apprenticeship, which will thrust them into the workforce at an age where most Americans are just entering college.

By the time Swiss boys are at this juncture in their lives, they have probably only been playing baseball for three of four years. Therefore, giving it up in order to go to work would not be as devastating as it would be to a 17 year old baseball player in America who has been a part of the game for over ten years. This is the fundamental reason why the NLA is searching for young players to bring up through the organization. Right now the best players are usually the ones who have spent long periods of time in America, or who are recruited to come play from the U.S. or the Dominican Republic. The natural born Swiss players are still struggling to catch up.

The clinics that people like Stein and Byrnes are running are exactly what Swiss baseball needs. One pitcher on our team with a seven year old son even started training the boy and his friends at our team’s home field in Embrach. He gave them jerseys and baseball cards, hoping to make them excited about the game early on in their lives.

Because the people in Switzerland who truly love the game of baseball are taking matters into their own hands, things are looking up. More of the NLA clubs have created affiliate teams for teenagers, and over 50 kids showed up to the U14 clinic at the stadium. While I worked with them on their fielding and hitting, many of them were already learning to speak in baseball terminology, using words like “bunt,” “hit-and-run,” and “sacrifice fly.” If this can continue not only in Switzerland, but in other European countries that are being introduced to America’s National Pastime, it may be possible to eventually make baseball a universal language.

Original Author: Scott Chiusano