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  • Writer's pictureThe San Juan Daily Star

Can a Czech firefighter compete with MLB’s biggest stars?


Martin Schneider, a firefighter, during a break at work in Olomouc, Czech Republic, on Feb. 20, 2023. Schneider moonlights as a top pitcher for the Czech national baseball team.

By David Waldstein


The next emergency call could come at any moment during one of Martin Schneider’s 24-hour shifts at Olomouc’s Fire and Rescue Brigade. It might be for a car accident, a fire or a capsized canoe in a river, and in an instant he and his colleagues would slide down a pole, jump into a truck and go.


Schneider faces life-threatening situations on a routine basis and pressure is normal for him. So the thought of standing on a mound in the middle of the Tokyo Dome — with 55,000 fans screaming, chanting and banging on drums when Shohei Ohtani, the superstar designated hitter (and ace pitcher) for the Los Angeles Angels, walks to the plate — does not frighten him. It beckons him.


“I do best when I’m under pressure,” Schneider said at the station house late last month, growing more animated with each word and rapping on a table with his knuckles. “I love those situations. I need those situations. It’s my dream. I want to pitch against Japan.”


It is quite likely that on Saturday a full-time firefighter will pitch to Ohtani — a modern Babe Ruth earning $30 million this year with the Angels — and other talented Japanese batters in a unique matchup between the Czech Republic and Japan at the World Baseball Classic in Tokyo. If not the firefighter on that mound, then perhaps it will be the team’s public relations manager or a real estate agent or a schoolteacher.


All of those jobs, and more, are represented on the Czech team, which, despite its mostly amateur status, qualified for the global baseball tournament for the first time and has established itself as Europe’s second-best national team. And the nation has done it organically, with players actually from the country, rather than mercenary pros brought in from abroad.


“In over 30 years of scouting, it’s the most remarkable achievement I’ve seen by a small country to qualify for the WBC,” said Gene Grimaldi, an international scout, who now works for the Philadelphia Phillies. “In terms of development, what they have done is really unbelievable in the history of baseball.”


Most European national teams rely on imports from the United States and Caribbean nations, but the Czech roster is overwhelmingly Czech, by birth, passport and temperament. From the language they speak to the food and beer they consume — schnitzel and lots of fresh pilsner — these guys are Czech to the core. To see their fluid swings and precise throwing mechanics at modern facilities just a few kilometers from 14th-century cathedrals, in a country where hockey, tennis and soccer dominate, can be jarring.


But baseball is gaining a foothold in the Czech Republic, a nation with a population of about 10 million (about 4 million fewer than Tokyo). Youth leagues and training facilities have popped up around the country, and an estimated 7,500 Czechs now play the sport — 10 times the number there were in 2000.


The Czech national team is 15th in the men’s world rankings and second in Europe, behind only the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which is stocked with excellent major-league players from Curacao and Aruba; technically Dutch, but who mostly grew up in the fertile baseball culture of those warm, Caribbean islands. Other European teams rely on imports with far more tenuous connections to the country they represent.


Petr Zyma, the captain of the Czech team and a financial analyst, said he spoke to a German player just before September’s World Baseball Classic qualifiers in Regensburg, Germany, and asked if that player was excited.


“He said, not really,” Zyma recalled last month, during a traditional Czech dinner in Prague with goulash, dumplings, pigs blood soup and large mugs of foamy pilsner. “He said there were 12 Americans flying in the next day to take over.”


After the Czechs beat Spain, 3-1, to qualify for the WBC, Zyma, Schneider and the others partied through the night in a delirious celebration of decades of work together. They had just eliminated a Spanish team of mostly Caribbean players from the U.S. minor leagues. Six came from Venezuela, five from the Dominican Republic, four from Cuba and another was born in Buffalo, New York. Only one was born in Spain.


In the Czech Republic, there are no warm-weather states or fields playable year round, so players spend winters at indoor batting cages, on nights and weekends — whenever they are not working. Still, talent is emerging. Several Czech players have reached the minor leagues, including Martin Cervenka, a superb defensive catcher who played 10 seasons in the Cleveland, Baltimore and New York Mets organizations, and Marek Minarik, a sturdy right-handed pitcher, who played in the Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates systems and regales teammates with tales of working out alongside great pitchers such as Roy Halladay, Cliff Lee and Tyler Glasnow.


The Czechs have only three players who did not grow up there. Jake Rabinowitz, a right-handed pitcher, is from New York and played at Fordham University. He has lived in the Czech Republic for 10 years and holds a Czech passport. Eric Sogard, a veteran major-league infielder most recently with the Chicago Cubs, was invited to join the team because his mother is Czech. The same goes for Willie Escala, a Czech Cuban American infielder in independent professional ball, whose mother, Iva Escala, left the Czech Republic during the communist era in the 1980s, and eventually settled in Miami.


Iva Escala has visited her native country several times, and her recent trip to Prague last month was her first with Willie, who arrived in Prague in February to train indoors with his new teammates.


“It’s just amazing to me that we are here and that he is representing my country,” Iva Escala said last month outside the Prague Castle, near where her son was meeting a group of teammates for dinner. “I only wish my father was here to see it. It would have made him so proud.”



It’s too American


Iva Escala grew up in Prague, watching a variety of sports with her father and sister. Baseball was never on the agenda, in part because the communist government discouraged the sport as too American, too capitalist. That stance ignored the fact that there was a baseball club in Prague dating to 1919 and another in Brno since 1927, and that no nation adores baseball more than Cuba, one of the world’s most ardent communist states.


Softball was seen as slightly more palatable to the communists who ruled Czechoslovakia from 1948 until 1989. The games existed underground mostly, tolerated only under the name, “Batting Sports,” and much of the equipment was supplied by a Cuban manufacturer, Batos.


Pavel Chadim, the manager of the Czech national team and a neurologist by day, took up baseball as a teenager in 1986 and played for 24 years, until he was 40. He said he used Batos gloves and bats, wore soccer cleats and played on soccer fields that were modified with black dirt for the infields.


“You could tell the baseball players because their cleats and pants were black from the dirt,” Chadim said last month at his neurology practice in Brno, where not even his patients knew he managed the national team.


But baseball has grown since those muddy days, especially over the past few years. Today, there are baseball and softball facilities in many cities, with pristine outdoor fields and indoor cages, and a 10-team domestic league that holds games on weekends, so that players can also work. With the help of some American, Canadian and Australian coaches over the past few decades, the sport gained a niche footing.


Mike Griffin, a coach from Vancouver Island in Canada, who now runs the PRO5 Baseball Academy outside Raleigh, North Carolina, coached in the Czech Republic. He managed the national team for eight years and was instrumental in the country rising 12 spots in the international rankings.


“Without Mike Griffin, we are not here,” Jakub Ondracek, a veteran Czech infielder, said at a recent national team workout.


Griffin tabbed top coaches, including former Boston Red Sox outfielder Trot Nixon, to increase the level of professionalism, and filtered that approach down to school children. Many kids play after school at the clubs run by the Extraliga teams, like Prague’s Tempo club. Some are beginners with difficulty catching and throwing, while others demonstrate precocious talent.


Each year, Griffin invites players to his academy to play college teams like Duke and North Carolina. The first year the Czechs went 2-7 against the college squads. Three years later they finished 7-3. Griffin also guides young Czech players into high school and college programs, and pushes for the national team and domestic club teams to increase financial bonuses and improve training and travel conditions.


“The players really have to sacrifice a lot of free time because they work at their jobs all day,” Griffin said in a telephone interview from his academy. “But Czech baseball is here to stay. The system is healthy and there has been a huge leap in belief.”



Bringing the noise


On a Saturday afternoon late last month, a two-vehicle caravan loaded with national team players made the three-hour drive from Prague to Brno for a full national team workout at the Cardion Hrosi club. Along the way, the players, many of whom have played and traveled together since high school, stopped at a roadside McDonald’s, where they spoke mostly Czech, plus English to include Willie Escala. They ate, laughed and shared their food like a group of intimately close, longtime friends, while fellow patrons, seemingly unaware that their national baseball team was in attendance, barely glanced over.


Lukas Ercoli, a crafty left-handed pitcher, was part of the traveling crew that day. He began playing baseball 20 years ago, when he was 6. He also served as the team’s publicity director until last week, when the team arrived in Japan. It was time to concentrate on pitching baseball, not story ideas.


“Maybe it is an advantage we have, that we are so close,” Ercoli said. “We grew up playing together. We love playing for each other. It’s like a family.”


That would make Chadim, the manager and neurologist, their father figure. At his office in Brno, he outlined the challenge they face in navigating a gantlet of games against the top players from China, Japan, South Korea and Australia. But he senses no fear. He even made a deal with one of his players. Schneider, the 37-year-old, right-handed-pitching firefighter will likely throw against China in the first game, and then get either one inning against Japan, or come in just to face Ohtani.


“I hope that after Tokyo, all of our players will be proud of our games, the tournament and the journey,” Chadim said. “I am very proud, but like a father, I am a little bit afraid and hope nobody will be disappointed and have bad feelings.”


Chadim is doing his best to prepare his players. As the team gathered from all parts of the Czech Republic that Saturday night, with most of the squad in attendance at the cramped indoor batting cages, the coach played a looped recording of crowd noise from the Tokyo Dome through a portable speaker — yelling, singing and drumming. The players suffered through the pounding din for more than three straight hours.


“They complained after the first 40 seconds,” Chadim said, laughing over the noise. “But that is what it is going to be like in Tokyo. We must be prepared.”


For months now, Czech baseball players have been preparing for the biggest and loudest moment of their lives. The rest of the baseball world, which will likely focus on their amateur status, may need to start preparing for Czech baseball.


“People see us as a bunch of guys with outside jobs,” Cervenka said. “But I know these guys and I have so much pride, not just in this team, but in Czech baseball. We will be competing against the best at the WBC, and we are going to do it together.”

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