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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

A World Series champ, a venture capitalist and hopes for team Poland

Carl Yastrzemski at bat in Fenway Park, circa 1979 (Wikipedia)

By C. Trent Rosecrans / The Athletic

As the story goes, the first baseball glove wasn’t purchased in Poland until the early 1970s. That glove came from what was then Czechoslovakia and was exchanged for a bottle of vodka; Poland, of course, was behind the Iron Curtain at the time, and America’s National Pastime wasn’t exactly the kind of import popular in Soviet circles.

But as Poland pushed away from the Soviet sphere in the 1980s, the Western game gained popularity in parts of the country. Much of Poland’s early familiarity with the sport came from Cuba because of its ties with the Soviet Union — Cubans living in the country would share their skills, teach the native Poles the game. The first Polish players used soccer cleats and other makeshift equipment. But in 1987, Hall of Famer Stan Musial and Polish-born big league pitcher Moe Drabowsky went to the city of Kutno for a baseball clinic, and the pair brought along equipment donated by MLB Commissioner Peter Ueberroth’s office.

That visit would prove transformative. Almost 40 years after Musial’s trip, if there is a Cooperstown or St. Louis of Poland, it’s Kutno, located about two hours from the capital city of Warsaw. Games are held regularly at Stan Musial Field, and the city plays host to the annual Little League Europe and Africa region tournaments.

Kutno, then, is where Dennis Cook was headed last week. A left-handed reliever, Cook pitched for nine teams across 15 major league seasons and pitched in two World Series, winning a championship with the 1997 Miami Marlins.

Now, Cook, Poland’s new national baseball team manager, will set foot on Polish soil for the very first time. His mission? Qualifying for the 2026 World Baseball Classic. It is an understatement to say that he has his work cut out for him.

“They have a league,” Cook said of Poland. “I’m not going to tell you how good it is because I don’t know.”

Cook, who is not of Polish ancestry, is traveling to Kutno for the country’s senior team and under-23 team tryouts. It’s possible that he may unearth a few diamonds in the rough. But the reality is that if Poland is to realize its dreams of making the World Baseball Classic, American players may be the key to helping Poland jump-start its program.

In that, they have a model: Team Israel.

Although baseball has never had a large foothold in Poland itself, many Polish Americans have made an impact on the sport in the United States, starting with, of course, Musial. Others of Polish ancestry include Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski and his grandson Mike Yastrzemski. Joe and Phil Niekro were also of Polish descent, as well as many other big leaguers, including A.J. Pierzynski, Bill Mazeroski, Ted Kluszewski, Mark Gubicza and Hall of Fame spitballer Stan Coveleski.

A.J. Pierzynski catching for the Atlanta Braves during spring training 2015 (Wikipedia)

Team Poland is currently ranked 72nd by the World Baseball Softball Confederation, tied with Finland and ahead of seven other teams, including 74th-ranked Romania.

After play in 2012, Team Israel was ranked where Romania is now. Four years later, the team qualified for the 2017 World Baseball Classic, where it would win its group, beating Europe’s traditional power from the Netherlands.

Israel didn’t just sprout baseball players. By using the WBC’s liberal eligibility rules, which allow citizens and those eligible for citizenship of a country to participate, Team Israel put together a group of players with Jewish heritage to compete and help spark the game’s growth in their country.

“We look at them as inspiration,” said Paul Bragiel, who was first an adviser for the federation and then was asked to be Team Poland’s third coach, along with veteran big league manager John McLaren.

Bragiel has less experience than either Cook or McLaren, both baseball lifers. But the venture capitalist from Chicago has always been a dreamer. A decade ago, he decided he would try to qualify for the Olympics. He used data to see which sports he could potentially pick up and find a way to qualify. He settled on cross-country skiing and received citizenship from Colombia. He raced at the 2017 World Championships in Finland, but he fell just short of his Olympic dreams.

Bragiel’s parents emigrated from Poland to the United States in the ’70s, settling in Chicago. According to the 2020 census, more than 200,000 people of Polish descent reside in Cook County, Illinois.

Bragiel’s nieces play softball, and he wondered one day if Poland had a softball team. He found out it did — and that it had a baseball team, too.

He inquired about the federation, developed relationships and offered his support. Now, he’s on a coaching staff with a former World Series champion in Cook and the third-base coach of the United States’ first World Baseball Classic team in McLaren.

And he is well aware of how Polish baseball will need to operate to have a chance. Because Chicago, Bragiel’s hometown, has such a large Polish community, the group is considering holding a tryout for American players with ties to Poland in the city later this year.

“I think the way to build it is to have a mix of Canadian and U.S. players with [Polish] passports and the Polish kids already playing over there,” said Cook.

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