Jeff Chapman’s daily diary from the EMEA Seniors and Little League championships in Poland, and the Lithuanian Juniors Friendship Tournament, 7/27 to 8/18/05. WEDNESDAY, 7/27, AT MIEJSKA GORKA, POLANDArrived in Miejska Gorka, Poland Wednesday evening for the EMEA (Europe-Middle East-Africa) Senior LL Championships, which start Friday.Wasn’t easy getting here…flew SF to Chicago and then caught LOT Polish Airlines for the next leg to Warsaw…halfway down the runway, the pilot killed the engines and we veered off into a waiting area…for 10 minutes, no word as to why…then we were informed that our “clearance for takeoff was rescinded.”…that’s all we got…for 20 more minutes, we sat and nothing from the pilot…and then, suddenly, we started back to the head of the runway and took off…we still don’t know what that was all about…we had a scheduled 3-hour layover in Warsaw before our flight to Wroclaw…we were bussed out to the tarmac to board the plane, but after sitting tantalizingly close to the aircraft for 10 minutes, the bus took us back to the terminal…no reason why…(The Polish didn’t communicate very well today, for some reason)…finally found out they were changing a tire – 1-hour delay…got to Wroclaw – no luggage…still don’t know if my bags are in SF, Chicago or Warsaw…or some other city I was never even in…so we left Wroclaw airport in rush hour traffic and turned a 1-hour drive to Miejska Gorka into 2.Then we found out we’re not in a hotel after all…umpires are being headquartered on the 2nd floor of a catholic church rectory (the priest lives downstairs)…I’m thinking: the hits just keep on coming! This whole day had been laughable enough already…But then the whole day came into focus…Across the street from the rectory, as part of the Miejska Gorka Sports Complex, tucked behind a small hillside and shielded from view from the street, is the field upon which this championship will be played…and there is no other way to describe it than a field of dreams…John Zbaraz bought this land a couple of years ago and recruited the corporate support of two large European companies, Toraed and Tubadzin, and received a grant to purchase all the makings for 90-foot, 60-foot and t-ball fields…all the labor was donated by residents of this 2,500-person town after John basically went door to door asking…it is absolutely stunning…LL was so impressed with the finished product that it awarded this baseball-crazed Polish town this event…it won’t be the last! Italy and Germany are already here…we expect Austria, Poland, Netherlands and Georgia tomorrow…after a meeting on Thursday to discuss tournament logistics (I am co-Umpire In Chief for this event along with Sam Griffith from Mission Viejo), we’ll meet with the teams, set expectations and start play Friday…I can’t wait, especially after seeing this field and how excited the Italian team (American kids from Naples Navy Base) was to see it, too.
THURSDAY, 7/28, AT MIEJSKA GORKA, POLANDLet’s play some ball, shall we?
The teams are here. The umpires are here. And despite a sudden and tremendously ferocious lightning and thunder storm around dinner time, the facility everyone here is calling “the field of dreams” is ready for tomorrow morning’s first pitch between Georgia and Netherlands.
The winner of this six-team EMEA Regional goes to Bangor, ME for the Senior LL World Series.
Poland, Netherlands and Germany are the most athletic-looking teams, and that always seems to be a successful barometer for success in EMEA tournaments. Italy, Austria and Georgia trail on that standard alone, but that’s why they play the games, right?
The German and Italian teams are all American kids – from Ramstein AFB and Naples Navy Base, respectively. The Austrian team is a mix of U.S. Embassy
kids and natives.
Five of our 8 umpires are from California – Russ Ruslender from Danville, Sam Griffith from Mission Viejo, Bob Slabinski from Corona, John Kuykendall from Moreno Valley and myself.
Georgia, which broke off from the former Soviet Union, had an 18-hour trip to get here. No one else, save the umpires, traveled anywhere near that far. But from the looks on everyone’s faces when they see this red-clay,
perfectly manicured park, the hassles of getting here become moot.
At our umpires/coaches meeting this evening, we had to address an issue that kind of took us by surprise. Beer. It’s a way of life in Poland, and they sell it at the LL snackbar – 80 cents US a bottle.
We can’t buck local customs and ask them not to sell it, but we did have to warn the teams that they will be excused from the tournament if any players or coaches are caught drinking. Period. End of story. I hope it doesn’t become an issue, but stranger things have happened.
I assigned Russ the plate for the opening game in the morning – as the co-UIC, I did all the scheduling, which was both fun and somewhat challenging. Russ is only going to be here for a short time, as he has to get back to Kutno for the 12-year-old championships which start Monday. Sam, Bobby Gumbs and I will join him after we finish the seniors on Wednesday.
FRIDAY, 7/29, AT MIEJSKA GORKA, POLANDThe local organizer of the EMEA Senior Regional is way over the top – not necessarily in a bad way. It’s just that he does everything in over-the-top fashion.
After Georgia upset Netherlands 13-6 and Poland waxed Italy 13-3, all the teams and umpires reported to the town square here in Miejska Gorka for the start of the tourney’s opening ceremonies.
I’ve been through opening ceremonies at EMEA regionals for the last 2 years, but nothing like this. A marching band. Cheerleaders. Dignitaries. We paraded around the town square to the cheers of locals who lined the streets waving hankies as though we were war heroes returning home, then we marched to this brand-spanking new stadium, where the
stands were pretty well filled for the actual ceremonies themselves.
Afterwards, while Germany and Austria squared off ON the field, a rock concert blared in the background and fans strolled between the two events to celebrate what local league president John Zbaraz called “the greatest day
in Miejska Gorka baseball history.”
NOTES FROM THE FIELD: the Italians kids, most of whom are Americans, have been playing texas hold’em every waking, non-baseball moment. According to the managers, the Armed Forces Network televises a lot of the World
Series of Poker…
A betting man would have put a zloty (Polish currency) on Netherlands to mop up Georgia in the day’s first game. But the hard-hitting Georgians stamped themselves as a contender and play with a passion that is stamping them as a crowd favorite…For good luck, Georgia manager Gela Chikhradze wore a pair of baseball pants that Angels manager Mike Sciosca gave him at Dodgers spring training in 1988…The local organizers are providing housing and 3 hot meals to teams at a meager fee of $5.33 USD per player per day.
SATURDAY, 7/30, AT MIEJSKA GORKA, POLANDBuild a field and they will come…
It was a great day for Poland baseball…in fact, it’s been a great year. In a region historically dominated by Netherlands, Russia, Lithuania, Ukraine, Germany and Saudi Arabia, Poland has begun to stamp itself as a big-time player.
First off, the European Little League center is in Kutno, a 2-hour drive from Warsaw. That has allowed the country to promote the game from within and grow its number of leagues by leaps and bounds.
As numbers have grown, the need for more fields has, too. This complex in tiny Miejska Goeka a few hundred kilometers from the Czech border is a product of that growth.
Two years ago, Poland had two districts. And 500 total kids participating. Now it’s three districts and 1,500 kids.
Last season, the Kutno 12-year-olds went to the LLWS in Williamsport. Many of you helped support that with cash donations that allowed those kids to purchase once-in-a-lifetime souvenirs.
So far in 2005, Poland has won the EMEA Regional in Big League baseball, Senior Softball and Majors Softball. And this year’s Seniors team is beating up the competition thus far with their bunt-and-run, small-ball style that’s driving opponents nuts. In two games, Poland has outscored Italy and Netherlands 33-5. Sunday morning, Poland faces its first big test in this tournament, against Germany, which
is stinging from a wild 20-13 loss to surprising and also unbeaten Georgia.
But to see this Poland team play, you can’t help but be impressed. To see this complex, which was 6 years in the making, and these crowds, you can only shake your head in amazement. And when you see these championships
taking place on one field while a Netherlands dad organizes a game for a dozen Polish 5- and 6-year-olds on the adjoining field, and you see these kids picking up skills so fast, it does your heart good to see that baseball in this quite-poor country has come so far so fast and that its future is so bright.
NOTES FROM THE FIELD: Kutno’s umpire hangout is Jana’s. Here in Miejska Gorka, it’s Pizzeria Debet. For takeout, the number is 54 75 666. The way they drive in this town, you’ll have it in the states in 20 minutes.
SUNDAY/MONDAY, 7/31-8/1, AT MIEJSKA GORKA, POLANDWhat sets the EMEA apart from regionals in the states is the contact that the umpires are allowed to have with people. In the U.S., umpires are pretty much sequestered from teams, coaches and fans except during games.
In Europe, the regional tournaments are veritble love-ins, with everyone interacting with everyone else both on and off the field (mostly OFF it). For me, anyway, it’s the perfect combination of baseball and cultural experience.
The stories here at the European seniors aren’t anywhere as dramatic as you may have read from my previous years’ diaries from the majors in Kutno, but there’s a reason for that. Fewer teams in the upper divisions, and if a country is going to fund just one team to go to a regional, it’s going to be the majors in Kutno, where the winner goes to the more celebrated LLWS in Williamsport.
But that’s not to say that there aren’t some great, fascinating folks wandering the complex at Miejska Gorka.
*One of the Netherlands coaches is a former Division II baseball star from Oklahoma who went to Holland to play semi-pro ball and was asked to coach this team before returning home to San Antonio. “I’m trying to get them to
play AMERICAN baseball, but they’re Dutch and they still think we’re trying to get points, not runs,” he said.
*The Italian manager is a 10-year Naval seabee (engineer) from Missouri who is stationed at the Naples Navy base.* The German manager hails from Florida and is an air traffic controller at Ramstein Air Force Base. In Monday’s
all-american pool play game, Air Force (Germany) beat
Navy (Italy) 16-1.
*One of the Austrian coaches is an American who oversees atomic compliance in Europe for the United Nations.*The Georgia manager heads the YMCA in his country and is the former president of the Russian Baseball Federation.
*Tournament organizers needed to fill 6 interpretor positions, one each for the five non-Polish teams and one for the umpires. To find worthy candidates, 16-year-old honor students at Rawicz Secondary School were asked
to write an essay about why they love baseball. The umpires were lucky enough to get Czyz (aka Charlie), who plays for the local league seniors team. This kid lives right behind the Miejska Gorka complex and would take the shirt off his back if we asked.
*Kazutomo is the third Japanese semi-pro player to come to Miejska Gorka on a three-year foreign exchange contract to work with local kids and provide baseball expertise. He is at the fields every day, and during this tournament has done everything from scorekeeping, statistics tabulation, and
groundskeeping to helping kids organize pickup games.
*Marian is the pastor at St. Mikol Catholic Church across the street from the sports complex. The umpires are staying on the second floor of the rectory, and Marian lives downstairs. He speaks no English and Sam Griffith, Bobby
Gumbs and I speak no Polish. Sunday night, after the tournament BBQ, when we returned to the rectory at midnight after a few too many sausages and beers, Marian was in the kitchen and invited us in for sausages and peach necter. Couldn’t be rude, so we said ok. A bit later, he pulled four crystal shot glasses out of a cabinet along with a bottle of Greek liqueur (Metaxa) and we spent the next two hours doing the unthinkable: shots with an already “tipsy” priest outside in the gazebo of his beautiful garden. (Now you know why there was no Day 5 update). Somewhere during all that, he gave each of us 8×11 glossy photos of Pope Benedict and and John Paul, and later, he would give us each a cross among 100 that he had personally blessed by John Paul three years ago. It was a night none of us will soon forget.
NOTES FROM THE FIELD: How cool is this? At the same time I was on the plate for unbeaten Georgia vs. once-beaten Poland in the stadium at Miejska Gorka tonight (Mon.), Perry Tucker was on the plate in the stadium at Kutno, four hours away…Perry and I are neighbors and both work in Dublin LL…
Georgia beat Poland 4-1 to secure its spot in the championship game Wednesday…Georgia will face Germany, which it beat 20-13 two days ago in pool play…In the third-place game Wednesday, it’ll be Poland and
Austria…We have three pool play games Tuesday, but they were made meaningless by the outcomes tonight.
By Wedesday night, Sam Griffith, Bobby Gumbs and I will join Perry, Danville’s Russ Ruslander and a half-dozen other umpires to wrap up the 12-year-old tournament in Kutno.
TUESDAY/WEDNESDAY, 8/2-8/3, AT MIEJSKA GORKA, POLANDGeorgia on my mind.
This tiny, pathetically poor former piece of the Soviet Union is on top of the Europe-Middle East-Africa baseball world today. By outscoring Germany (Ramstein Air Force Base) 14-4, Georgia’s 15-year-olds fulfilled a dream that began in 2001.
Georgia will now represent Europe in the Seniors World Series in Bangor, ME, Aug. 14-20. They’ll go with the clothes on their backs and little more, in part because these kids from Georgia’s capitol city, Tbilisi, don’t OWN a
whole lot more than what they brought with them. And logistically, they don’t have time to go home and re-pack anyway, so tournament organizers here have generously and not surprisingly offered to house/feed them and allow them to use the training facilities until they can secure visas and get flights to the states. That could be 7-10 days, and no one will know for sure until at least Friday, when their manager meets with U.S. Consulate officials in
Visas for Georgians traveling to the U.S. can take months, but Little League has a little bit of extra pull at the U.S. Embassy in Poland, so Georgia has a better shot of making this all work here rather than at home.
For Georgia, which went 6-0 in the tournament and had a team batting average of nearly .500, it all started in Kutno four years go when this same exact group of kids, then age 11, set a goal to win an EMEA title. They finished
second to Russia that year, came back and finished third in 2002 as 12-year-olds. In 2003 and 2004, they could not find financial support to go to the junior regional.They were promised that if they stuck together, funding would be in place to send them to the EMEA in 2005. As they circled the stadium carrying their championship flag and blowing kisses to the crowd, you had to feel good about where they came from, what they’d achieved, and what it meant.
Manager Gela Chikhradze, who suffers from rumitory arthritis and could not even walk on Tuesday, was standing on the mound, taking it all in and talking on his cell phone to the Georgia Olympic Committee, the Baseball Federation of Georgia and his fellow board members back home.
“They are so proud of these kids, for sticking with it,” said Chikhradze, who was still wearing the good-luck baseball pants Angels manager Mike Scoscia gave him in 1988 at Dodgers spring training.
Only two of the Georgia players had ever been outside Eastern Europe before this week. They were the best team in this tournament by a longshot, outscoring second-place Germany 34-17 in two head-to-head meetings.
Nice to see kids who played with so much passion all week prevail in the end. They probably won’t win more than one game in Bangor, but who cares? It’s another one of those “only in Europe, Little League feel-good” stories.
NOTES FROM THE FIELD: Austria beat Poland 13-2 for third place. No doubt, the Austrians’ good showing here was a byproduct of the great coaching of our good friend, Ken MacDonald, who had some of these kids a few years ago
at the 12-year-old tournament…the closing ceremonies had all the pomp and circumstance of every other event these tournament organizers put on – amazing, but Miejska Gorka wants to be awarded a 90-foot regional for years
to come, so they left no stone unturned…each umpire was given a foot-high, custom-made crystal baseball with our names and the event details etched into it. It’s beautiful, but I don’t know how I’m going to get it home, with stops in Kutno and Lithuania still remaining.
THURSDAY, 8/4, AT KUTNO, POLANDThe Moldova White Sox are 4-0 thus far in the EMEA 12-year-old Little League Regional tournament in Kutno, Poland. That’s right – the same team that came
to Kutno last year as 11-year-olds with one bat and “uniforms” that no team in the states would be caught dead wearing, is undefeated and threatening to do no worse than make the semifinals.
It’s a great story. They are coached by three 26-year-old electrical engineers from Kvint who, a year ago, answered a newspaper ad to take a Moldovan team to Kutno. Not one of them spoke a lick of English, and they were embarrassed to admit that they had financial issues. But one look at them then, and you knew.
The umpires took the team and coaches to dinner one night and, you might remember this story, paid about $75 USD for 10 large pizzas and 30 sodas. I also gave them a full set of Dublin Little League jerseys – yes, the White Sox.
Well, they’re back. Moldova has six returning players, the three returning coaches, and minor sponsorship from a cognac distillery. I watched Moldova beat Lithuania 7-6 in seven innings today, and I couldn’t believe it was the
same team I watched a year ago. They swing the bat. They make all the plays in the field. Their pitching is reasonably strong. And they have the consistency of these three young coaches who took their vacation again to bring the team back.
Tonight, I invited the coaches up into the umpires’ quarters to “shop” for baseball pants (from District 57 administrator Dave Wetmore), baseball socks (from Dave) and gloves (from my brother-in-law Curt Whitaker, who has been
picking them up at garage sales and thrift shops for the last few months).
This is what it’s all about. One of the other umpires who is here for the first time, Bob Slabinski from Temecula, CA, was in the room at the time and nearly cried as he watched it all unfold. He had to take a picture, and email his wife about what he’d just seen. It feels good to give to people who need, especially those who show such genuine appreciation, and in this case, it felt good to watch it
Moldova probably won’t win this regional and earn the trip to Williamsport. Not with Russia, Netherlands and Germany in the field. But if they do, it’ll be a story that ESPN will enjoy reporting.
HAD THE PLATE for Russia-Scotland this evening, and while the outcome was obvious from even before the first pitch, everyone was impressed with Diane Harley’s Scottish club. Last year, they were pathetic. They simply didn’t
understand the game. But after playing 10 games in a week against regional competition, hosting a clinic in February that involved Ken MacDonald from Austria, Bobby Gumbs from the Netherlands, Sam Griffith from SoCal and
myself, and dedicating their off-season to simply getting better, the Scots are no longer laughable.
They “Swing the damn bats,” as the t-shirts they had made up remind them. Not necessarily real well, but a whole lot better than in 2004. Their pitcher threw strikes. Their catcher caught them. They made some plays in the field that any coach would have been proud of. When the game ended and
Russia had won 12-2, all the kudos were for the Scots, who struck out looking only twice and had every other team watching from the stands rooting for them.
They won’t win a game this year, either, but they are a hundred times better. It shows you how far they had to go, but it also shows you how far they’ve come.
OTHER BENEFACTORS: Henry Garnett from San Diego, who is making his second trip to Kutno this year, gave full sets of Yankees jerseys and hats to Slovenia today, and a set of Red Sox jerseys/hats to Belarus, thanks to a donation from Rancho Buena Vista LL in Vista, near San Diego. The Slovenians, who had already played their game for the day, were so excited that they immediately went and changed into their new pinstripes and went back out to the field to find Henry, who was working the plate on the Lithuania-Moldova game. After the first half-inning, Henry left the field to have a picture taken with the kids as about a hundred people looked on and clapped. A pretty cool moment for him, and for all of us.
GEORGIA’S CHAMPION Seniors team is coming to Kutno today. In the wake of the second skirmish involving kids at the seniors tourney site in Miejska Gorka, one that reportedly landed a Germany player in the hospital, Georgia’s coaches decided it might be a bit safer to stay in Kutno until their visas are secured.
It’s a great opportunity for all the younger kids here to meet them, and vice versa, but moreover, I look at it as an opportunity to do something I should have thought about earlier in the week. The Georgians have very little money left, I am told from reliable sources. So we will likely
take them out to dinner some time over the weekend, and put money in their pockets to purchase keepsake souvenirs at the Seniors World Series in Bangor, ME, that begins Aug. 14. Last year, we put money in Poland’s pocket to purchase souvenirs in Williamsport and it went over so well, it just seems like the logical thing to do.
I’d like to personally thank Ryan and Terry Meadows, and Jim North for their contributions to this cause. Ryan and his mom, Terry, coordinated a fundraiser through Big 5 Sporting Goods in Dublin and raised over $230 one weekend for me to bring to Europe this summer for such a cause. Jim made a cash donation with the same thought in mind. Guys, after hanging with this team for a week in Miejska Gorka, believe me when I tell you that these Georgian kids are going to be overwhelmed at your generosity.
FRIDAY, 8/5, AT KUTNO, POLANDAfter Bulgaria beat Belarus 9-6 in the stadium tonight to close out pool play in the 12-year-old regional tournament here in Kutno, the Bulgarians asked Sam Griffith and I to come out onto the field for a presentation, and they proceeded to award us certificates of appreciation
for our efforts in coordinating the shipping of used baseball equipment to this part of the world.
Brian Edwards, the Bulgarian manager who is a U.S. missionary in Sophia, nearly broke into tears as he explained that since last year, California Districts 57
(NorCal – my home district), 55 and 68 (the latter two in Socal – the districts for which Sam is Umpire in Chief) had sent upwards of 240 boxes of clothing, jerseys, socks, baseball pants, bats, gloves, balls, catcher’s equipment and the like.
Previously, the greatest issue with sending equipment to needy European teams, over and above the ridiculous customs fees, even for donations, had been that the shipments rarely got to the intended recipients. But Ken
MacDonald, the Austrian coach and good friend who works for U.S. Homeland Security in Vienna, found a way that we could make it happen. As a result, for the last nine or so months, our leagues have been boxing up used equipment and uniforms and sending it to the Bulgarian Embassy through a Dulles, VA, address. The domestic address means infinitely cheaper shipping and significantly less cumbersome paperwork. Bulgarian American Little League (B.A.L.L.) has been warehousing the shipments, sorting the items, keeping what they need for themselves and sending the rest to the other four leagues in Bulgaria, to an orphanage in Sophia and to Romania, Ukraine, and other countries in the region. It’s a system that is working so well for leagues in the states, Bulgaria American can hardly handle all that’s being received.
It’s a problem Ray Roussin, the B.A.L.L. president, doesn’t mind dealing with for years and years to come. His team here at the EMEA tournament is wearing full “Viejo” uniforms, courtesy of Viejo LL in Mission Viejo. Knowing that Bulgaria already had the uniforms, Sam brought over a great deal of Viejo LL pins and t-shirts as well that are now in the hands of the Bulgarian team. They wear the t-shirts proudly around the complex, and they treat the Viejo pins as their own, trading with other teams (pin-trading is still huge over here). Seeing that gives both Sam and I a great feeling about what we’re doing over here.
The letter Ray wrote that accompanied the certificate, which is signed by the American Ambassador to Bulgaria, James Pardew, said, in part, “Your generous contributions have made our league all the more enjoyable for everyone involved and have made us look and feel like a real Little League
operation…In only our second year of the program, we have children from more than 10 countries involved in learning the game of baseball and the team spirit, sportsmanship and character that are so much a part of the game.”
Sam and I share in thanking all the leagues that have participated in the program, and we hope that this email finds folks in other leagues and baseball programs that might also be able to help. For more information on
how to ship baseball equipment via the route mentioned above, email us at email@example.com or firstname.lastname@example.org and we’ll follow up with you
upon our return from Europe Aug. 18.
UMPIRE PLATE ASSIGNMENTS for the quarter-finals, semifinals, third-place and championship games here in Kutno: Steve Taylor, a Tech Sargent in the Air Force in St. Louis, has the title game Monday night. He’s been here six years, and last worked a championship plate in 2001. This guy spends a MONTH here every summer, working tournament after tournament after tournament. That he is a great umpire doesn’t hurt the cause. A richly deserved honor. I will have second base in the title game and Perry Tucker, from my home league in Dublin, gets the right field line in the six-man crew.
Perry, the only newcomer in this group of nine, has the plate for the third-place game earlier in the day Monday, and I’ll have first base. Gil Ladoucer from Canada and I have quarter-final plates on Saturday while unbeatens Russia and Moldova enjoy byes, and Henry Garnett from San Diego
and Rene Kolb from Germany have semifinal plates Sunday.
GEORGIA’S CHAMPIONSHIP Seniors team arrived from Miejska Gorka this evening and when they got off the bus and saw Sam, Bobby Gumbs and I – we had worked
that tournament as well – they broke into smiles and a long line of high-fives. They will work out here at the European L.L. center until Wednesday and then fly to Bangor, ME, for the Seniors World Series. With the help of Little League’s pull at the U.S. Embassy in Warsaw, it took the
Georgians exactly 30 minutes to get the visas they needed today. We’ll take the Georgians out to dinner Sunday night, courtesy of donations made by Ryan Meadows and Jim North from Dublin Little League.
SCOTLAND LOST 12-0 to Netherlands today to finish the championship portion of the tournament winless. However, the difference between Scotland’s losses this year and Scotland’s losses last year were dramatic. This year, they
competed in every game, made some nice defensive plays and swung the bat.
Last year, they might as well have been statues, both in the field and at the bat. Today, the Scots get Slovenia in a friendship game, hoping to avenge an 8-4 loss in the first game of the tournament.
ONLY IN EUROPE DEPT.: Steve Taylor called a runner out on a bang-bang play at second base in the Bulgaria-Belarus game tonight. So excited was the THIRD baseman at Steve’s call, he ran over to second base, high-fived Steve,
and then raced back to his position.
SATURDAY/SUNDAY, 8/6-8/7, AT KUTNO, POLANDAfter Sunday’s semifinals of the EMEA Regional Tournament in Kutno, we took the Georgian Seniors team to dinner at the umpires’ favorite local hangout, Jana’s. To see this group of thirteen 15-year-olds and their coaches enjoy
the evening to the extent they did was heartwarming and infinitely rewarding.
Fortunately for us, one of the Georgians, their catcher, spent 10 months in the U.S. a few years ago with a junior national traveling team. He was able to act as our translator
and give us an inside look as to what the Georgians are up to these days, and that was both staggering and heart-wrenching.
These kids won the European seniors title in Miejska Gorka last week, and had been promised that they could stay there and train and that their accommodations and meals would be handled until they secured the visas needed to come to the U.S. for the Seniors World Series.
But before we left Miejska Gorka, there had been an altercation between local Polish kids and one of the Georgian players and the police had been called. The night we left to come to Kutno, there was yet another
altercation between local Polish kids and the Americans from Ramstein AFB that landed one of the Ramstein kids in the hospital.
That forced the Georgians’ hand, they felt, to find a safer haven, and Kutno was it, just four hours up the road. So they rolled into town a couple of days ago. Here, they would have training facilities and accommodations, but
no meals. So, they stretched their limited budget by eating cornflakes in the morning, and making sandwiches in their dorm room for lunch and/or dinner. I’ve heard worse stories here, but these kids are one week away from opening the Seniors World Series in the U.S. and they’re eating cornflakes and ham/cheese sandwiches, and little more. They hadn’t had a hot meal since they arrived.
When we got to Jana’s, we informed them they could order anything they wanted. They wanted pizza. They couldn’t choose between all the choices, so the order went back to the kitchen for 15 ham/cheese pizzas and 15 cokes.
There was not one slice left on any plate. We asked if they would like ice cream sundaes, and the body language to the translator’s question indicated that was a big-time yes. Again, they all but licked the bowls clean.
All the while, through the interpretor, the five of us (Sam Griffith, Russ Ruslender, Bobby Gumbs, Gil Ladoucer and myself) told the Georgians of our Impressions of them. Most notably, we told them that we had NEVER EVER seen
a team play with more passion for the game, and that they would be the crowd favorite in Maine no matter how they fared in the W-L column. Their third baseman throws the ball so hard that when he fields a ground ball and throws to first, he runs all the way across the field to high-five the first
baseman for catching it. And then he stops by the mound to kiss the pitcher on both cheeks on his way back to third. All this happens in seconds. When any of his team’s pitchers throws a strike, which happens quite often, he flexes his forearms and screams the pitcher’s name.
The first time I saw all this, I thought it was a bit showy, but it’s just who they are. He is their coach on the field, and every thing he does brings his team tighter and tighter together. It doesn’t hurt that he is their best hitter, too, and their closer. The rest of the team feeds off the third
baseman’s energy, and when Gil asked the catcher-interpretor who the team’s best player was, EVERY Georgian player pointed to the third baseman.
The very first time I saw the Georgians last week, they were throwing the ball around in the outfield prior to the tournament-opening game against the Netherlands. They dropped almost every throw. They looked uncoordinated and geeky. I mentioned to Russ as we walked toward the field, “I better go tell the Georgians to leave the field before someone gets hurt.” We chuckled.
And then Georgia went out and 10-runned Netherlands. And won every other game in the tournament, too. I am convinced now that the Georgians were setting up the Dutch. When I mentioned this to the kid who was acting as the interpretor, and asKed him to validate my belief, he told his team what I had said, and they laughed. He responded to me, “…our little secret.”
When the meal was over, we had a group picture taken, and the Georgians headed back to the Little League complex. We stayed behind. Russ shook my hand, thanked me and said, “My friend, this is what it’s all about.”
And so I thank Dublin’s Ryan Meadows and Jim North, whose efforts funded this special evening, and I say the same thing: “My friends, this is what it’s all about. You did good tonight.”
I am the only umpire still awake as I write this at 12:30 a.m. Monday. I’m on Cloud 9. The looks on the kids’ faces throughout the evening. The sincerity of their gratitude. The HUGS, not just handshakes, that we received as they left. It’s the kind of stuff that brings you to your knees.
THE GEORGIANS will have a special batting practice session Monday morning. A professional softball pitcher from the Netherlands, who attended both the
seniors tournament and this event, offered to throw BP to them (overhand), and they were excited to accept his offer. Little League rules prohibit the Georgians from scrimmaging against anyone except kids their own age from
their own league, and since that is not possible, they are happy to have the chance to see pitching from something other than a machine or someone other than their own talented arms.
This Netherlands parent saw what we were doing with the Georgians tonight and approached all the other Dutch parents who were in the restaurant and collected 600 zloty (about $200 USD) to give to the team tomorrow. A very
nice gesture from a group of parents who, based on their behavior at games, everyone has been calling obnoxious all week. Suddenly, I have a newfound respect for these folks. They’re still a bit obnoxious, but at least their hearts are in the right place.
NETHERLANDS WILL PLAY Russia in Monday’s championship game at 3 a.m. California time. The Dutch burst Moldova’s bubble, 6-1, and Russia blanked
Poland, 11-0. The winner gets an all expenses-paid trip to Williamsport as the EMEA representative. Russia has won the title four of the last five years and is the prohibitive favorite, but the Dutch have a little extra incentive after one of their coaches had a minor heart attack Sunday evening
and had to be hospitalized for three days worth of tests.
MONDAY, 8/8, AT KUTNO, POLANDNot quite as much to write about today, even though Russia did win the championship 8-3 over Netherlands to earn the all-expenses-paid trip to Williamsport.
But that was just a game, and a pretty boring one at that. Russia led 8-0 going to the bottom of the sixth and was one strike away from victory before the Dutch went walk-homer-double-single-single to make it a bit interesting.
Moldova won the third-place game to cap a great week, 4-2 over Poland.
But you could have pretty much found all that information on the internet.
Here’s what’s NOT on the internet:
*All week, Moldovan television followed the team’s every move here in Kutno, and an hour-long documentary on this cute-as-heck group of 12-year-olds and their three 26-year-old coaches will air some time next spring.
*The Georgia seniors team was vocal in its support of the Dutch in the title game. The Dutch parents presented a 600 zloty donation to the Georgians this morning to help them with meals for the rest of their stay in Kutno.
*Umpires visited the local orphanage this morning to see some new additions from various donations made during the last year: most notably, the thousands of dollars of brand new play equipment coordinated by Gil Ladoucer
from Canada. The kids also wore their North Coast Section t-shirts and sweatshirts that I sent over, which was pretty cool.
*So far, I have done my very best to unload all the donations I brought, keeping in mind that Sam Griffith, Bobby Gumbs and I leave for Lithuania in the morning, where more needy teams exist. But you could argue that over the course of the first 13 days, I have collected as much as I’ve given away. To wit: a book on the history of Kutno, from the kids at the orphanage; a hat, thank-you letter and certificate of appreciation from Bulgaria American LL; t-shirt, polo
shirt, hat and kilted bear stuffed animal from Scotland; stuffed animal from Poland; cognac from Moldova; bottles of wine from Georgia; crystal baseball, clock and tournament shirt from the seniors event coordinators, and last but not least, pictures of the last two popes and the cross blessed
by Pope John Paul, from Marian, the priest who housed us for a week in Miejska Gorka.
*When a member of the Piszek family that helped fund this complex passed away earlier this year, donations were made to Little League in the form of 1,000 baseball gloves, which were distributed to needy leagues and teams
throughout the region.
*When is a player out 4 times on the same play? When he steps on the plate while bunting (not called), interferes with the throw from the catcher by running inside the line, dives head-first to the bag and is thrown out anyway. Happened to a Moldova player in the semis against Netherlands.
*The drive to Vilnius, Lithuania is 8 hours. We leave first thing Tuesday morning. Play starts Friday in this non-championship juniors tournament that includes Utena, Kaunas and Vilnius (all Lithuanian teams), Belarus and Irvine, CA.
TUESDAY, 8/9, ON THE ROAD TO LITHUANIALeft Kutno at 9 am today for the long northeastern trek to Vilnius, Lithuania that was lowlighted by detours, miles and miles of unfinished dirt roads, traffic jams, rain, wind that brought down trees, and power outages at every gas station at which we stopped.
Some of the nine teams that vied for the 12-year-old championship in Kutno are home by now or were planning to leave today. Russia, the champion, will stay in Kutno until they go to Williamsport. Scotland had friendship games scheduled today, against both Netherlands and Slovenia. None of the umpires, except Rene Kolb from Germany, who drove, will leave until at least Thursday. This tourney had two rain days built into it, but they were never
used, so there will still be a flurry of activity around the center a bit longer.
But not for Sam Griffith, Bobby Gumbs and I. We have a date with a bunch of 13-year-olds in this final baseball event of the year for us, a five-team tournament being put on by the Lithuanian Board of Tourism and the country’s
Sports Ministry. I am involved through two contacts – Sarunas Marciulionis, the former Golden State Warrior, who heads the Sports Ministry, and Virmidas Neverauskas, who coaches most of the country’s top teams. Virmidas asked me a year ago in Kutno if I’d be interested, and whether or not I could bring three other umpires with me. The fourth umpire in our group is Barry McFarland, whose son will be playing on the Irvine, CA, team that is particpating in the event. We’ll be joined by four relatively junior
Lithuanian umpires who we will both work with and train along the way. After all, this is a friendship tournament.
But as we make the drive and I author this from the backseat of Bobby’s car, we continue to talk about the central theme of this whole junket: how small the world is and how baseball brought together such a
great and fun group of people.
Ken MacDonald – U.S. Homeland Security in Vienna and an Austrian LL coach we met here in Europe last year – put it best as we shared emails this morning: “This world is a scary place if I can talk to you two Californians (Sam and
I, via Blackberry) from Austria, by way of AOL in America, to Poland, in a Swedish car being driven by a Dutchman from Aruba (Bobby).” And we were listening to Cuban music – I swear.
Anyway, Ken and his wife Jennifer are just two of the fabulous people we have met on our international umpiring journeys. No doubt, we’ll see them again, perhaps next June if a proposed opportunity to umpire in Holland plays out. Or in February, if a clinic in Slovenia that was discussed this
past week happens.
The folks we left behind in Kutno who we will miss the most are the LL staff, although we’ll see them again next summer, and the Scots. Many managers, coaches and teams come and go from these tournaments, and they’re nice folks, but they don’t leave lasting impressions. Diane Harley is the
Scottish manager who we met in Kutno last year, and who invited us (Sam, Bobby, Ken and myself) to come to Glasgow last February to do a baseball clinic. If we do say so ourselves, it went great, and we have been in
contact with the Scots via email most every day since. They played so much better this year than last, and their winless record didn’t do their play justice.
The talk this morning before we left was about whether or not we’d ever see the Scots again. Many of the Scottish players are 12, and the Scots have so few players in their young program that they doubt they’ll send a team to the
juniors in ’06.
For everyone’s sake, I hope they do, because everyone who has come into contact with the Scottish contingent the last two years is a better person because of it.
I ASKED A FEW people at dinner last night about their Kutno highlight. Some of the answers:
Sam: The Bulgarian team wearing the “Viejo” jerseys that one of his leagues, Mission Viejo LL, shipped over months ago, and the gratitude they showed. One of the team moms hand-cut the letters B-U-L-G-A-R-I-A out of red felt
and stitched them onto the back of each jersey.
Regional Director Beata Kaszuba: Monday’s orphanage visit that she attended with all the umpires to see recent improvements, and the fact that three of the regional directors overseeing orphanage operations chose to be there to meet all of us.
For me, it was seeing the Moldovans still wearing the Dublin LL jerseys I gave them last year, and the looks on the coaches’ faces when I offered matching socks and new, white baseball pants that they wore the rest of the tournament.
Notice that none of the highlights had anything to do with baseball, per se.
That’s what the European region is all about.
Just cleared the Lithuanian border. Back at ya tomorrow. WEDNESDAY, 8/10, AT VILNIUS, LITHUANIAThat huge roar you may have heard about 8 am California time Wednesday was just Lithuanians celebrating the fact that the intense rain stopped after 72 hours. While it may be wonderful in terms of keeping this fertile country green and lush, it absolutely wreaks havoc with trying to run a baseball
tournament. And, of course, that’s why we’re here.
If the forecast holds true and we get a rain-free day Thursday, we might be able to get under way on schedule Friday. Met Frank Harris, the Irvine manager, last night. He could not stop talking about how hospitable the Lithuanians have been since his party of 17 arrived late Saturday night. The players have been staying with host families, the
coaches have been staying with Lithuanian coaches, and Harris himself has been staying at the home of Virmidas Neverauskas, the Lithuanian national coach who asked me to umpire this event a year ago.
“I will never coach the same way again; I will never complain about anything in my life; I will never pamper a spoiled brat player or his family again,” said Harris. “Not after what I have seen the last couple of days.”
I just nodded my head. I know what he means, and why he says it. People in this part of the world toil endlessly to make a nickle, and they don’t think twice about giving that nickle to you if you need it. In fact, they are insulted if you attempt to pay for anything if you are their guest. And the
Irvine team and the umpires are guests here.
Last night, Virmidas took us to dinner. Today, he picked us all up and took us on a field trip to Trakai, a town of five islands about 20 minutes outside the capital of Vilnius that was founded in 1320 and that is encircled by Galves Lake. A restored Gothic castle sits on one of the islands and has been turned into a museum, and the cold, windy, rainy day
seemed to add to the eeriness of this already-cold brick encampment. Before that, it was lunch punctuated by a Lithuanian delicacy, kibinas, a warm breaded shell filled with beef, potatoes and onions. Most of the Irvine kids
looked around to see if their buddies were eating it or not, but Frank announced in no uncertain terms, “Guys, we’re going to eat everything they give us, and we’re going to like it.”
Frank “gets it.” Nothing here resembles Orange County – not the buildings, the cars, the people, or the way of life in general. He says that about half of his players “get it.”
“The other half, I hope they’ll ‘get it’ before we leave,” he said.
Two days ago, during a break in the rain, the Irvine kids practiced with some of the Vilnius kids at the local LL field. “Two of the Lithuanian kids slid into second, and paid the price,” he said. When I asked him what he meant by that, he explained that the infield has rocks “the size of my fist”
all over it. “It’s not even really a field – it’s a plot of land, and the base paths have been worn in by kids running the same route over and over,” he said. “It’s not right – these kids play with such passion for the game, and most of them don’t even realize, or care, that their field stinks.”
Already, Frank is plotting ways to help Lithuania baseball, whether it’s fund-raising, sending over a percentage of the equipment budget his league gives him, picking up a rake
and shovel himself….his mind is racing a mile a minute, like it tends to do when you come to this part of the world for the first time.
“We’ve got to do something for these kids, and for Virmidas,” he said. “Because it’s just not right that we have so much and they have so little, and we’re all trying to accomplish the same thing – play baseball and have fun doing it.”
Among the umpires, we have three suitcases filled with equipment and jerseys that is designated for the
needy teams and leagues here. And Frank told me last night that he has already told his kids that they can keep their gloves and shoes, but that “everything else we own” is staying with these kids. They need it a whole lot more than we do.”
This tournament will be played an hour northeast from here, in the town of Utena. The field is brand new. Virmidas said the infield is currently under water, which is no surprise, because the top six stories on Lithuanian TV news this
morning were weather-related. I didn’t understand a word they were saying – I wish now I had paid more attention when my mom made me take Russian in summer school when I was in sixth grade – but the pictures said it all.
Said Frank, “You know, even if we don’t get in a single game, this is the best, most rewarding trip I’ve been on in my life.”
LITHUANIA IS BORDERED by Russia to the west, the Baltic Sea to the west/northwest, Latvia to the north, Belarus to the east/southeast and Poland to the southwest. Not surprisingly, they speak Russian, Polish and
Lithuanian here. They are hearty, hard-working people who, other than those who live in the capital of Vilnius, are not used to a lot of visitors. So our presence here is something special to them, and they take every opportunity to ask what more they can do for you, whether it’s in a store,
restaurant or hotel. They ask so often, it’s a little embarrassing to keep saying no.
TUESDAY NIGHT, Sam Griffith, Bobby Gumbs and I were having a beer in the hotel after our long drive from Kutno, and a 6-foot-5 young woman walked past us, turned and
said, “How’s it going, guys?” Caught us a bit off guard.
Her name is Iveta (Ivy) Markascaise, and she is a member of the Lithuanian national women’s basketball team that is practicing at a sports club down the street in preparation for the European Championships in Turkey. She is from nearby Meskuciai and attended high school for two years in the U.S. before attending the University of Illinois in Champagne. She just returned from playing a few games for the Indiana Fever of the WNBA.
THURSDAY’S PLAN is to drive up to Utena to see the field, do some work on it if necessary to help get it playable for the tournament, and perhaps meet the Lithuanian umpires we will be working with.
THURSDAY, 8/11, AT UTENA, LITHUANIAWell, we’ve now seen Lithuania’s newest LL field…and we’ve seen the field it replaced…and we’ve met kids here in Utena who remember us from years gone by in Kutno, Poland.
I am writing this as I sit on the left field warning track of the country’s newest field and most prized baseball possession, watching eight local kids and a coach prepare for practice. In an hour or so, the California kids from Irvine will be here.
We called one of the Irvine coaches on his cell phone to tell him about the field, and to ask him to tell his kids not to point and laugh and denegrate this field when they get here. For Lithuania, this is a gem. In the states, you’d call it a work in progress.
The Lithuanians will be watching the Americans’ reaction, no doubt. And they are so proud of this field, you can see it in their eyes, their smiles, the way they point and gesture.
These are 13- and 14-year-old kids, and this field is THEIR Yankee Stadium.
Never mind the weeds, or the 63-foot distance between home plate and the backstop, or the sporadic grass, or the rock-hard outfield. None of this matters to these kids, and as they prepare to host a 5-day friendship tournament starting Friday, the ONLY thing that is important to them is the game itself. Lithuanians love their baseball.
Virmidas Neverauskas, the Lithuanian national baseball coach, has been telling Sam Griffith, Bobby Gumbs and I about this field for a year. And as we sit here and watch the Utena team practice, I am as proud of this field as if I had something to do with it myself. Which I didn’t.
The red clay that adorns the infield, plate area and mound here are about the only resemblances to the fields these kids get to play on in Kutno at the regional LL center. No wonder Lithuanian teams do everything but get down on
their knees and kiss the ground upon which they are about to play when they are in Kutno.
This field sits in the infield of the Utena horse racetrack. Just beyond the left field fence is the field that the new one replaced, which is nothing more than a relatively flat piece of unfenced grass where constant use had worn a plate area, mound (depression, actually) and basepaths. It was good
enough to be the home of Utena LL the last 10+ years until the league, the town and the Lithuanian Baseball Federation coordinated efforts to build the new one, which opened in May.
The Utena juniors team practicing here right now isn’t wearing helmets or catcher’s equipment. Only a couple of the kids have cleats. No practice jerseys. They have 8 black baseballs that I believe used to be white in a previous life, 3 bats and a lot of spunk.
The Americans have arrived now and play on the field stops. Everyone is staring at the Irvine kids, what with their brand new red, white and blue ensembles, and bat bags stuffed with equipment. What the Lithuaniuan kids don’t know is
that at the end of the tournament, manager Frank Harris’ kids are leaving EVERYthing behind.
And Sam Griffith, Bobby Gumbs and I have bags and bags of jersey, hats, bats, gloves and other baseball items to give to the Lithuanian and Belarus teams, too.
The Lithuanian kids leave the field so the Americans can practice for an hour. It just stopped raining Wednesday night after 72 straight hours, so baseball is a welcome diversion to movies and malls.
Before Irvine takes the field, the Lithuanians drag it for them, using a mangled piece of fence wrapped around scrap lumber, with a rope handle. It’s the most archaic drag I’ve ever seen. The Irvine kids watch in utter disbelief and amazement. Hard to know if they’re more taken aback by the drag, or by the fact that the Lithuanian KIDS are doing all the work.
As the Irvine team practiced, Nathan Leuthold showed up. He and his wife are missionaries from Illinois who started a non-profit baseball organization soon after arriving here in 1998. Just a few months, they brought three large containers of new and used equipment into the country from the U.S., and he explained how badly needed it all is and how, in this baseball-crazed country, it gets gobbled up so quickly that he can hardly believe it himself.
About this time, yet another team was ready to use the new field, so Irvine wrapped things up. And Harris got into the spirit of things by having his kids drag the field, just as it had been dragged before his team used it.
Any concerns about the Americans “getting it” had long since been dispelled, but it was a gesture that had even the Lithuanians nodding in approval.
FRIDAY, 8/12, AT UTENA, LITHUANIAWith the roar of car engines from the Grand Prix of Utena as a backdrop, it looked like and even sounded like just another little league baseball game from a distance.
I was in the top row of the grandstands at the Utena Horse Racetrack, a slightly unusual vantage point compared to what I’m used to, and was watching Brest, Belarus against Vilnius, Lithuania, and assessing the work of a first-year umpire, who is also from Vilnius and who would probably be
heralded as the best umpire for miles if not for the guys he was working with today – Sam Griffith, Bobby Gumbs and Barry McFarland.
I would much rather have been the fourth man on the field, but as the Umpire in Chief of this tournament, my role is to be as much an organizer as anything else. I’ve learned that from Sam at the European Big League championships in 2004 and from Danville’s Russ Ruslender at the EMEA Little
League event the past three years.
I got my first taste of being a tournament UIC at the EMEA seniors in Miejska Gorka, Poland, a few weeks ago, when I shared the honor with Sam. This is my first solo.
In Sam, Bobby, Barry and myself, we have four very senior umpires. In Zilvinas Bareika, to whom we gave a 5-minute mechanics clinic on the dirty back window of a parked car before the game, we have someone who is not comfortable working a plate and someone who is quite tentative on the bases, too.
And if tournament director Virmidas Neverauskas is correct, and three or four more Lithuanian umpires with the same skill level show up for Saturday and Sunday games, my scheduling issues become magnified. There are only so many bases to put umpires at.
Not to rip on our mechanics-challenged Lithuanian umpire, but he had TWO “safe-out” calls in the same game – one of them was a “safe-out-sorry” call, I swear – and was clearly a bit nervous. The good news is that he’ll be 3x a better umpire by Tuesday, because we’ll be working with him every step of the way ON the field, and we’ll run a clinic for the Lithuanian umpires before we leave, too. If any more show up.
The point of all this – there had to be a point, right? – is that there is an absolutely overwhelming appreciation for the senior umpires who are here at this non-championship event. Because, apparently, there isn’t an abundance of umpire talent in the area.
Sergei, the Belarus coach, saw Sam, Bobby and I, and remembering us from Kutno, approached me and said, “I did not know this tournament was so famous. I tell my players that we have professional umpires. From all my
players, thank you for bringing your experience.”
I knew what he meant. It was his way of saying thank-you for coming. Others show their appreciation differently. Between games, when we’re hanging out in the shade of the grandstands, the Vilnius parents have been offering us shots of Lithuanian whisky – THEIR way, I suppose, of saying thank-you. Virmidas has thanked us a hundred times for coming, and even threw a party specifically for us and the Irvine coaches tonight.
It’s nice to be appreciated, but as we’ve told all these tournament hosts, we’re there because we want to be there, and they don’t have to do anything special for us. Unless they want to do our laundry. DIANE HARLEY, the Scottish majors coach we know from Kutno, gave me a couple of “Scotland Baseball” hats when we parted company Tuesday. Diane, you’ll be happy to know that the two Utena kids who did not have hats for their tourney opener were NOT hat-less when they took the field.I HAVE SO MUCH still to give away, and this is a target-rich environment with 3 Lithuanian teams and a team from Belarus here. Tonight, I gave a couple of sets of jerseys, baseball pants and socks to Belarus. That led Sergei, the Belarus coach, to tell Sam: “This is like Christmas.”
SATURDAY, 8/13, AT UTENA, LITHUANIAIt struck Sam Griffith, Bobby Gumbs and I at about the same time this evening. We’d just finished our games for the day here in Utena, Lithuania, and as we were gathering up our equipment bags, we started looking at each other as if to say, “Are you as exhausted as I am?”
Try as we might, it’s next-to-impossible to be razor-sharp and on top of your game every game when you’ve been on the road 18 days, working an average of more than two games a day, having been at three tournaments in two countries, and having had to relocate to five different sleeping quarters, including 3 the last 3 nights.
Did I mention that not one of the beds was as long as I am tall? And that between Sam, Bobby and I, I’m the shortest, and it’s not close.
No wise cracks please, but tonight, Sam and I are supposed to share a queen-sized bed. We just gulp, smile and say, “No problem. We’ll make it work.” I mean, it’s either that or, “No, this won’t work. Where’s the
But that would be insulting to our hosts, who are beyond hospitable in so many ways. Virmidas Neverauskas, the national baseball coach in Lithuania, hosted Irvine coach Frank Harris the first few days the California team was
here. From the first night, Virmidas and his wife slept on the floor and insisted Frank sleep in their bed. Eventually, after arguing about it for 30 minutes the first night, he realized Virmidas was not going to have it any other way.
In every stop along the trail, which started what seems like months ago in Miejska Gorka, Poland, people could not have been nicer, or more giving. I can’t think of more than just a handful of meals we’ve had to buy, we’ve not had to pay for one night’s accommodations and we’ve not had to ask twice for anything.
We’ve enjoyed Polish and Lithuanian hospitality at its very, very best. I mean it. And we’ve met some of the most kind, giving, caring people that I can imagine.
And while 75% effort on our part would be plenty good enough in this loosely-played friendship tournament, you can’t help but want to give your all every time out for people who would spend their last dollar to make sure you are having a great time. Plus, we want the Lithuanian umpires we’re working with to see the best product we can deliver.
It would help OUR energy if the energy in this tournament was higher, but it’s just not that way. The two previous tournaments in Poland were EMEA championship events. They were intense and there was a big prize for the winner – an all-expenses-paid trip to the U.S.
This tournament is long on organization, but short on quality. The team from Irvine is 2-0, but but they’re not an all-star team, just a random group of 13-year-olds from South Irvine LL and neighboring leagues whose parents were in a position to pony up $2,500 apiece for them to make this once-in-a-lifetime trip.
As far as the other four teams are concerned, they are on par or just a notch below Irvine, so at least the games are reasonably competitive, even if the errors seem to outnumber the hits at times.But we know this event is just as important to these teams as the previous tournaments were to those participants, so we’ll get through it.
Even if Sam and I have to sleep in closer proximity than we”d like for one night.
TONIGHT, I AM writing this from among a throng of about 2,000 at the closing ceremonies of the Grand Prix of Utena. Lithuania’s hottest pop star, Luara, is on stage and singing her award-winning song “Little By Little.”
What does this have to do with anything? Despite the fact that the umpires would have been very happy to just grab dinner and a beer, tournament organizers insisted on yet another night out as a sign of their appreciation for us being here.
TODAY’S TEARY moment came when Kaunas changed pitchers against Irvine and put their first baseman on the mound. Bobby noticed first that he still had his first baseman’s glove and told the coach he couldn’t use it to pitch. Problem was, he didn’t have another glove and he’s the only lefty on the team.
Seeing this, Manny Pacheco, one of the Irvine dads, brought out his own personal, custom-made lefty glove and gave it to the kid. And told him to keep it. At first, the kid didn’t believe it. Not sure he really DID believe it until Manny reassured him for the 15th time. Great moment.
ONLY IN EASTERN Europe Dept.: Utena’s pitcher against Belarus was wearing a “Scotland Baseball” hat and San Ramon Valley LL (Danville, CA) jersey. SRVLL gave Dist. 57 administrator Dave Wetmore the jerseys on one condition: that they be re-distributed as far away from CA as possible. I think I found the perfect home for them.
SUNDAY/MONDAY, 8/13-8/14, AT UTENA, LITHUANIAThe final is set and it couldn’t be more perfect. By the slightest of margins – and I mean the SLIGHTEST – it’ll be Irvine, CA, vs. Vilnius, Lithuania in the championship game of the Lithuanian Army Juniors Friendship Tournament on
Tuesday here in Utena.
Irvine lost to Belarus on Sunday and had to beat Vilnius on Monday by two or more runs to make the title game. Final score: Irvine 10, Vilnius 8.
Vilnius’ road to the title game was a bit more gray. After losing to Irvine in the morning, Vilnius lost again, to Utena 5-2 later in the day, but had that decision overturned on protest because the winners didn’t use all their
players. This tournament, like every one we’ve worked for the last 6 weeks, is being played by Little League Tournament Rules. A protest in a friendship tournament – a first for me.
So, it’ll be Irvine against Vilnius for the title, and Utena-Belarus for third place. In one respect, it’s a fitting conclusion to this tournament because the Irvine kids and coaches spent the first four nights of their stay here with the Vilnius players and coaches’ families. Friendships and bonds have clearly developed, and during today’s game, there were numerous high-fives, handshakes, pats on the back, applause and other signs of congratulations for outstanding plays between the two teams.
It was, as the tournament name suggests, quite friendly.
In the final, Barry McFarland will have the plate, even though his son is a reserve on the Irvine team. He’s deserving. A great umpire from District 68 with a big heart who has been overwhelmed by what he’s seen here. Sam Griffith, Bobby
Gumbs and I will work the bases – we’re the only other umpires here now.We were expecting up to five or six Lithuanian umpires and had planned to conduct a clinic for them, but only Zilvinas Bareika – we have called him Z-Man all week, and now EVERYbody is calling him that – showed up.
Virmidas Neverauskas, the Lithuanian national baseball coach who is throwing this party, was lamenting the umpire situation in his country just this morning. He was embarrassed, I think, that no one other than Z-Man showed up after a number of promises.
“Our umpires are not so good,” he said. “Some, they can do balls and strikes, or maybe they know the rules. But they do not know situations. They just stand behind the plate with their mask on. They do not move like you (guys) do.”
Arnoldas Ramanaskas is one exception to that. He lives in Vilnius and is one of, if not the top umpire in this region. But he is currently umpiring the Juniors World Series in Taylor, MI. Perhaps with Arnoldas around, he could have rounded up a few more umpires for us, but we may have to wait a year to see how that scenario plays out.
Today is Monday, and it is a national holiday, the Catholic Assumption. As 88% of the country is Catholic, only an
occasional gas station and convenience store is open. Between games today, a large gathering of the Vilnius parents prepared barbequed sausages, soup and fresh cucumbers and tomatoes for us here at the field. They offered beer and hard liquor, over and over again, but we politely declined until games were over for the day, when we no longer had an excuse. That didn’t stop the parents from drinking throughout the day, though, and by the end of Game 3, well, some were pretty well lit. Tonight, we are being treated to smoked eel, beer (Utenos, from right here in Utena) and Lithuanian whisky at one of the parents’ lakefront homes in the area. Never had eel before – we’ll see.
Virmidas has already asked us to come back next year. As wonderful and supportive as everyone here has been, it’ll be hard to say no.
THE TOURNEY IS over for Z-Man – by his choice, not ours. We’ve been working with him on rotations and “going out” but it has been difficult for him to grasp.
But in the the 7th inning of his final game, a 1-0 thriller, with runners at first and second and the second base umpire in, the batter hit a rocket into the left-center gap and, to all of our surprise, there was Z-Man, having left third base in his wake. He made the “out” call on the catch and as he
turned to come back to the infield, all the other umpires were applauding.
A very nice moment for him.
THE COACH OF THE Belarus team, Sergei Lukiyanchuk, is one of the nicest men I have ever met. He is also an umpire. And if you think Poland and Lithuania are poor countries, Belarus “is 15 times worse,” according to Virmidas.
Belarus had a great tournament, going 3-1 and beating Irvine. This afternoon, I gave him my mask, chest protector and shin guards. Bobby gave him a pair of umpire slacks. Barry gave him a hat. A couple of days ago, I emptied my giveaway bag and gave him bats, uniforms, socks and all the pins I had left.
Today, as I began stacking my umpire equipment in his arms, Sergei cried. And then he hugged us. WE cried. “You American umpires are the only ones who will help us. From the bottom of my heart, thank you, thank you, thank
It was my best moment in 3 weeks on the road.
TUESDAY, 8/16, AT UTENA, LITHUANIA
My last Little League games of 2005 are in the books. South Irvine LL rallied for two runs in the 7th to beat Vilnius, Lithuania, 3-2 in the championship game of the Lithuanian Army Juniors Friendship Tournament here in Utena today. Doug Isa of Irvine was named tournament MVP.
Homestanding Utena won the third-place game, rallying for three runs in the 7th for a 10-9 win over Belarus.
We’re driving back to Vilnius as I write this and listening to a cassette of Belarus pop music that Sergei, the Belarus coach, gave us. On a scale of 1-10, Bobby Gumbs and I give it a 6, and Sam Griffith gives it a 5.
Tomorrow is the tournament BBQ, and then Sam and I fly back to California Thursday, and Bobby drives back to Holland. Can’t wait to get home – it’s been a long journey, and while it’s been absolutely awesome from a baseball ambassador perspective, well, let’s just say it’s time to get back to life as we know it.
We have standing invitations to umpire a tournament in Holland in June, and to do baseball clinics in Slovenia, Belarus and Lithuania. And, of course, to work this tournament again, as well as the EMEA Regional. Short of moving to Europe, I don’t see how we can accommodate everybody, so I guess we’ll just wait and see who makes contact with us when we get home and see what talk turns to action.
TODAY WAS AS BIG day for Lithuanian baseball. The championship game drew the attention of Lithuanian national TV and two local newspapers. Everyone
wanted to know our impressions of Lithuanian baseball.
Sam did the TV interview – being from Mission Viejo and hobnobbing with Hollywood jetsetters all the time, it was a good fit. With Illinois native and Lithuanian missionary Brian Johnson interpreting, Sam basically said that the country’s baseball future was in good hands with Virmidas Neverauskas, the national coach, and Valentinos Bubulas, the country’s LL district administrator, in charge.
I spoke to the two newspaper reporters after they were done interviewing winning coach Frank Harris. With Valentinos interpreting, they asked me to describe the difference between baseball in the U.S. and Europe.
I had to think twice about how to phrase my answer. I said that Americans play situational, strategic baseball and that Europeans haven’t been playing the game long enough to do much more than just play the game. They didn’t ask a follow-up question on the subject, so I either satisfied their
question or confused the hell out of them.
AS FRANK HARRIS had promised, the Irvine kids gave all their gear to the Vilnius team after the game in a very quiet, matter-of-fact way that was very classy. Irvine’s traveling party heads home Thursday as well.
WEDNESDAY, 8/17, AT VILNIUS, LITHUANIAAfter 22 days on the road in Poland and Lithuania with Sam Griffith and Bobby Gumbs, here are a couple of lists that pull the trip all together.
Things we’ll miss:
*Eastern European hospitality*Polish beer*Lithuanian beer*Kutno and Miejska Gorka fields*Watching 20 Lithuanian kids turn a submerged field
into playing shape by scooping the puddled water with soda bottles, and then dragging it with a mangled piece of fence wrapped around scrap lumber*The prices*Jana’s*The Scots, Moldovans and Bulgarians in Kutno*The Georgian seniors*The Belarus juniors*The Vilnius parents*Metaxa shots with Marian, the Catholic priest we lived with in Miejska Gorka*The setting of the Lithuanian ballfield in the middle of an active horse racetrack*Having Ana, a 23-year-old college student from Miejska Gorka, ask if she could sit with the umpires during a game to listen to us talk and perfect her English-speaking skills*Having Czyz (aka Charlie), a 16-year-old high school junior from Rawicz, Poland, give up a week of his summer vacation to hang with the umpires and get us anything and everything we needed, from sunrise to sunset*Polish pedicures*Sausages/mustard*Our fellow umpires packing their bags to the max with giveaways for needy teams in this part of the world*Mushroom soup*The fenced t-ball field in Miejska Gorka, with its red clay basepaths, grass infield, warning track and foul poles*More fans at a European baseball game than at a soccer match between Poznan and Miejska Gorka in the adjoining stadium*Fresh sliced cucumbers and tomatoes with every meal – breakfast included – for 22 days*The stunning beauty of the Lithuanian countryside*The Miejska Gorka city parade, complete with marching band and cheerleaders, that signified the opening of the seniors tournament*Diagramming 4-man mechanics for Z-Man on the dirty back window of a parked car in Utena*The universal understanding of “super perfect”
*Doing interviews with Lithuanian TV and and newspapers about American umpires’ involvement in European baseball tournaments
*Oasis Poker and Russian Poker at City Casino in Vilnius
Things we won’t miss:
*3 umpires to a room the size of a walk-in closet*Umpires who snore like freight trains*Standing for 21 innings a day*Rain*Polish highways*Polish drivers*1-ply toilet paper*Wax paper shrapnel masquerading as napkins*Car alarms going off incessantly in downtown Vilnius*No ice*”Law and Order” on the Hallmark channel, dubbed over in Lithuanian*”Suck My Dick” t-shirts the Dutch were wearing in Kutno*Poverty among the Eastern European countries and teams*Packing and unpacking 3 times in 3 days
*LOT (Polish Airlines)
*Instant coffee that doesn’t dissolve*Seafood pizza (shrimp, mussels, salmon)*Cheese blintzes for dinner, and cheese raviolis for breakfast*The 20-hour trip home
THURSDAY, 8/18, AT VILNIUS, LITHUANIA
The Irvine, CA, team put up a website before leaving the U.S., and one of the team dads, who is a web designer-professional photographer, loaded pictures on the site daily…if you’re interested, go to www.lithuaniabaseball.org and click on the various calendar days to see the
photos…had a chance to scan the site from the hotel computer this morning before we left for the Vilnius airport and it’s quite well done…
PERRY TUCKER, the other Dublin umpire who was in Kutno with us, sent me an email last night to report that he had just finished listening on his computer to the Georgia seniors winning their last game at the World Series
in Bangor, Maine, upsetting once-beaten Panama to finish at 1-3…because of the British Air strike, Georgia’s team ended up getting to the U.S. later than planned and, in fact, had to borrow equipment to play their first few games because luggage ended up somewhere else…for an EMEA
team to win even a single game at any World Series is a big deal (both the juniors team, Netherlands, and big league team, Poland, went winless in their WS this year), so congrats to the team we took under our wings and that Ryan Meadows and Jim North helped out with monetary donations for food and to allow the kids to have a little spending money in Bangor.
BETWEEN US, Sam Griffith and I figure we were able to give away 300 t-shirts, 75 jerseys, 1,000 pins, 75 hats, 100 pairs of baseball socks, 10 throat protectors, 25 pairs of baseball pamts, 15 bats, 10 gloves, and a full set of umpire gear while we were in Miejska Gorka, Kutno and Utena the
last three weeks. Thanks to Perry and Henry Garnett for offering up all their leftover giveaways in Kutno for us to bring to Lithuania…And a big thank-you to those folks who loaded us up with giveaways before we left home…Believe me when I tell you they brought many smiles, many thanks and
many tears along the way…To me, one of the most vivid memories of the trip was the Utena, Lithuania, shortstop wearing a Scotland Baseball hat, San Ramon Valley LL (Danville, CA) jersey, and new pants and socks I
brought…wouldn’t have been possible without all your help.
IT’S 5 AM IN CALIF., and 3 pm Thursday in the Lithuanian capitol of Vilnius as we await the first leg of our journey home…To give you an idea about this part of the world, from Vilnius, which is considered the central point of Europe, you can fly direct to Brussels, Oslo, Copenhagen, Helsinki, Moscow, Riga (Latvia), Stockholm, Tallinn (Estonia), Dublin, Frankfurt, Dalaman (Turkey), London, Warsaw, Vienna, Prague and Amsterdam….We’ll hit Warsaw, then Chicago, before we see California….Barring delays, that’ll be some time after midnight.
THANKS FOR being avid readers of my daily diary and for your love of baseball… We’ve done so much over here, and yet there’s so much still to be done…During the next few weeks, I’ll be getting info out to you regarding ways you can help kids over here that don’t require anything more than just a little effort.
For the final time this season, I’M OUT!!!