Thursday July 27th: Winding Down in Varazdin

After the pressures and stresses of a condensed training camp and a week long tournament I always look forward to some downtime and relaxation and Varazdin is always a pretty good place to take a break. We still have a good number of kids to work with but the field time is less and it is nice to pay a visit and spend time with friends that I have made in this little city in eastern Croatia known as "Little Vienna." Bekic has me set up at the home of Davor and Spomenka Mikac and I coudn’t ask for a better host family. Spomenka speaks fluent English and their son Matija is a second baseman on the Junior National Team. We also hosted them and about 20 other Varazdin kids in Colorado in 2001.

Mornings are spent on the field and afternoons helping Bekic with his new apartment, which he is quite proud of. This time of the summer, towns away from the coast tend to shrink in numbers as much of the population manages to head west to the sea. It is by far the most popular time in Croatia for holiday or, as we Americans call it, "vacation." Clark Griswold and the gang would have a field day on the Croatian coast with its many off-shore islands and endless beaches. After the war ended in 1995 the country wound up with over 1200 kilometers of coastline in their territory and what a site! Warm temperatures, boating, fishing, diving, you name it.  And now, over 10 years later, the Adriatic Sea on the Croatian side is attracting vistors from all over Europe. From Trieste on the north, which is just over the border in Italy, to Dubrovnik on the south, the Croatian coastline offers endless opportunities for vacationers. Heck, with any luck, I might have to wander west for a day or two before I head home. Why not? I have been working almost daily now for over three weeks so I don’t think the bosses in New York would mind!

As I mentioned last year, it is always tough saying goodbye. After a number of years and strongly developed fiendships it gets tougher and tougher. But with the new coach-certification class getting established, the University of Zagreb wants me to return in November and spend a solid week with the coaches as we get them certified. I can handle that as long as my very understanding principle at St. Mary’s High School, Patty Beckert, will approve.

Well, the end of the week and the end of my 2006 tour is drawing to a close. The week here in Varazdin was well spent and I did manage to sneak away for a day trip to the coast. It’s time for goodbyes. But before that, Thursday evening I treated the Bekic and Mikac family to a wonderful dinner of barbeque at a hilltop restaurant over-looking Varazdin. The friendships made and relationships developed make this job as an Envoy coach all the more worthwhile. I know many Envoys over the years have experienced similar situations but I must say, I consider myself one of the luckiest ones. Ten years here now and I really don’t entertain thoughts of other countries. Baseball is progressing, maybe not at a pace that we Americans are used to, but progressing well nontheless. I hope all of us Envoys can continue to make progress not only here in Europe but throughout the world. Baseball is slowly but surely developing as a World Sport and it is nice to know that we may have played a small part in it. As the sun sets over the Ivanic Mountains, I bid my final farewells. I have an early plane out of Zagreb so with that, another season in the sun will gradually come to a close. Farewell for now, but I’m sure I’ll return.

Bok and Laku Noc, Bill

Monday July 24th, Varazdin, Croatia: Road Weary Boys Return Home

It’s getting light in the east. I believe it’s Monday morning and we are somewhere near the town of Ptuj on the Slovenian-Croatian border. Yes, that’s right, "Ptuj."  You can use your imagination on the pronunciation.

I drove the first leg from Antwerp to the German-Austrian border so I wouldn’t have to worry about overdoing it. I jumped in the Varazdin van in Ptuj and will close out my stay there this last week of my tour.

I almost forgot: we still had some games to play over the weekend. After that exciting come-from-behind victory over the Brits (me watching it from the stands after my ejection), the moods were quite celebratory that Friday night, especially knowing we would have another crack at Belgium for the championship on Sunday. The moods can turn quickly! As we arrived back to our hotel Friday evening, I could tell the proprietor was not in as good a mood as we were. Apparently, a good number of our young men had been breaking training rules, smoking cigarettes and drinking beer in their hotel rooms during the later hours. One of the boys turned 16 on Thursday and I imagine they wanted to celebrate with a quiet party. Unfortunately, this type of behavior, even among athletes, is vastly more accepted in Europe as it is a strong part of their culture. Culture or no culture, they are still teenage athletes representing their country in a European Championship and I was hot. So hot that after talking with Bekic and Ijo we strongly considered pulling out of the tournament and going home on Saturday. The suggestion was to bench those involved; however, with 14 out of 18 involved… You can figure that one out. 

It was decided not to punish the younger kids and to keep eligibility for the coming 2 years we decided to have an early workout the next morning at the tournament site. It was our scheduled off day and daily games did not begin until 2:00. The players were put on lockdown except for baseball games and related practices. At 8:00 the next morning, they were mine. I don’t like being a policeman but a point had to be made. One cannot change their attitudes on life unless a number of people are involved and it starts with the parents and then teachers, teammates, coaches and so on. After 2.5 hours of fairly strenuous "boot camp" in a steady rain I hope we made an impression on these young men. As an Envoy coach I am a teacher first and then a coach. If I wanted to be a parent or a counselor I guess I would need to make this a full-time job. But I have a family in the states and many students and athletes at St. Mary’s High School in Colorado Springs, so for 4 weeks in the Balkans I will do the best I possibly can.  After the workouts we called all 18 players one by one into our hotel room and interviewed them regarding respect, education, morals and their futures. I think we made a significant impression with some of them. Deep down these are good kids. They just need the proper guidance along the way.

But wait! We still had a championship game to be played on Sunday. And of course our goal all along was to win this thing and get the Croatian Juniors back in to the A Pool.  I presume they slept well Saturday night.  The weather continued to be hot and muggy in Northern Europe and the game againts Belgium began at 12:00 noon. Because of the efforts of Mile Pesa on Friday I was able to rest our number 1 and 2 guys, Bobo and Farcas, and have them ready for Sunday’s big games. Belgium also had their number 1 guy on the hill who, by the way, is also the Senior team’s number 2 pitcher. In this tournament, he was tough to get to.  With Bobo on the mound I still liked our chances, though.  The first three innings breezed by in 30 minutes and both pitchers were mowing the opposition down.

Then, out of nowhere, in the 4th Bobo completely lost both his command and his location and the Belgium guys took advantage of it. When the smoke cleared the score was 7-0 after 4 innings and I had that feeling it was over. We had come back from 4 and 5 run deficits the last two games, but this kid was tough. Farcas came in and pitched well but they scratced out three more runs and ended what should have been a great game in the 7th inning with a 10-0 mercy rule win.

The closing ceremonies were held that night and I felt really good for my long time friend and colleague Rick Steen.  Rick has been an envoy coach for over 10 years and for the last three has been concentrating his efforts with the Belgium Baseball Federation. This old California guy has done some good things with Belgium and I guess he owed me because back in 1998 and 2000 we got Rick pretty good when he was the Ireland National Team coach. At any rate, it is always good to see my colleagues over here and actually compete against them. Our focus on life and baseball is all pretty much the same. And kudos go out to our wonderful hosts in Beveren, Belgium. They put on a wonderful show this last week and will do the same when the Seniors have their tournament in two weeks.

Like I mentioned earlier, with question baseball is on the rise in many countries throughout Europe. And I would like to think the Envoy program has had a significant effect on this rising popularity.

Enough for now. My body needs some rest. I’ll catch up to you all in Varazdin.

Bok, Bill

Players

Friday July 21st, Beveren, Belgium: Croats on the Brink of Elimination!

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After that heartbreaking loss the evening before it is sometimes hard to measure the attitudes of your players and how they will respond the next game. Fortunately in this game of baseball in a tournament format one does not have too long to dwell on bitter defeats or even exhilarating victories. The very next day it is back to the field of competition and time to refocus on staying alive in this double elimination format. It is pretty clear. Lose to the Brits on Friday and go home to Croatia a day and a half sooner than scheduled or win and give yourselves another crack at the host Belgium team.

We found ourselves back at a more familiar 2:00 game time, however the heat in Belgium this week has been unseasonably and unreasonably hot. I don’t believe I need to worry about packing on the normal 10-15 extra pounds this summer. I’ve been sweating it off all month, even with pivo, which is Croatian for beer. To beat this British bunch I knew I would have to find a new hero. My number 1-3 pitchers were all used early in the tournament and not quite ready yet. So the call would go to our number-four guy, Dabo Matko, the Dalmatian from Split. The Dalmatian athletes are normally warriors so I felt fairly confident in the big guy. Unfortunately, the heat was wearing on Dabo and he struggled a bit early and we got off to our customary slow start with the bats. Our defense was developing a few holes also and by the 5th inning we were down 5-0. I was beginning to wonder what I would do with a few extra days back in Croatia.

Players
True to form, in the 6th our bats started to come alive, stringing together a few singles to close the gap 5-2. We were the home team and with the knowledge of having the "hammer" one always feels if they can stay within 3 runs they have a shot. In their bottom of the 7th with the score 6-2 and 2 runners on base, Bobo hit a towering blast to right field that would have been out of most Major League parks, but in this cavernous field it fell just short of a home run. Our runner on first, Mile Pesa, was sent home as he should have been and their relay made it close, however Mile slid under the tag, presumably allowing us to cut the lead to two. Presumably that is until the Belgium umpire called Mile out to end the inning. We had a perfect angle on the play and it was obvious to us and all fans that he was safe. Unfortunately, not to the umpire, whose name I will not disclose. I’m normally pretty composed with umpires here, certainly moreso than when back home in Colorado. And after officiating high school football for 15 years, I have been on both sides of the dugout and sideline so I now take a different approach to arguing, or discussing if you will, with umpires.

Certainly I would have words with this guy, but I also know my limits. Well, this guy never allowed me to get to that limit. He was obviously intimidated by my presence and after getting a bit loud with him he actually came at me. I thought it was supposed to be the other way around. He asked me if I needed glasses and I informed him that no, but the ones he was wearing obviously weren’t working. Had I known I was going to get tossed so quickly, I would have given the fans a little more for their money. Lets see, in 32 years of coaching this is my fourth ejection and I can never recall a quicker one. So quick that my assistants, Bekic and Ijo, did not even know I was ejected until an inning later when the technical delagate came over behind the dugout and made me remove my jersey and sit in the stands. I felt like the French-Canadian hockey goalie in the movie "Slap Shot". I felt much shame.

So now I figure let’s see if the proverbial phrase "fire the players up" would work. Pesa came on in relief of Dabo in the 5th and was outstanding. He kept us close and when we went to bat in the bottom of the 8th we were hoping for yet another comeback like the day before. Crazy game this game of baseball is. Without question, the most unpredictable and contagious game on Earth. The day before Belgium scored three runs on three bleeders and an error. Now it was our turn. Walk, hit batsman, bunt single and and error and we are right back in this thing. Two more walks and and we have scored four runs in the bottom of the 8th inning without having hit a ball out of the infield.

What goes around comes around. Now we take a 7-6 lead into the top of the 9th and I am a spectator in the stands. I’m kind of enjoying this. Pesa, our newfound closer, shuts the Brits down 1-2-3 in the 9th and the Croats would get their revenge match come Sunday against Belgium. After the game, amidst the jubilation, I simply told these young men what all of us coaches remind our players from time to time. The game of baseball is not administered by a clock so just keep putting the pressure on the opposition and you always have a chance. It’s never over till the last out. It certainly wasn’t pretty but we were moving on and we will take it.

And to make matters even better, Saturday is our off day for the tournament. Time to rest some tired bodies and take in the sights of Antwerp the next day.

Until tomorrow, Bok, Bill.

Thursday, July 20th: CROATIA VS. BELGIUM

Its funny how when coaches first notice the schedule of a tournamentand the pairings they immediately notice key games early on or toards
the end of pool play. So it was natural when I first saw the schedule
for the European Championships B Pool, this matchup stuck out there for
everyone to see. Yes, Great Britain has a great ball club, but I also
knew if we were going to win this thing, the key matchup would be
Thursday evening: Belgium vs. Croatia. And true to form, both ball
clubs entered the contest undefeated and the winner would be sitting
alone without a loss in a double elimination tournament.

What a great setting in Beveren as the weather cooperated quite
nicely and this small seating capacity ballpark was filling up
impressively. With both teams throwing their aces earlier in the week
it was pretty much anyone’s guess as to who would have the upper hand.
As charcteristic, our bats started off slow. The energy and enthusiasm
were certainly there, but Belgium jumped out to a 3-0 lead on a few
hits and some shoddy defense by the Croats. Our bats were pretty much
non-existent and with our starting pitcher Alexandar Horvatic reaching
the 100-pitch plateau, things looked bleak.

Until the 6th, that is, when we finally started to show some life
and closed the gap to 4-2. I had to pull Alexandar (aka Ottso), in the
8th and went with our ace Slobodan Galas (aka Bobo). He held the
Belgium team in check in the 8th and in the bottom half we came alive
with a three spot to take the lead. It is always great to see a ball
club’s capacity to come back from deficits and they really showed me
something here. You never know sometimes with these kids and to see
them not fold their tents was impressive. We sent Bobo out there in the
top of the 9th to finish them off and what proceeded to happen is kind
of one of those illogical occurances that happen from time to time in
baseball. The first batter hits a dribbler down the 3rd base line that
sits on the chalk for a base hit. The next batter flairs one over the
first baseman’s head and the third batter flairs one over the third
baseman’s head. Bases loaded and no outs. I’ve been snake-bit many
times coaching and playing this game and I’ve felt this hopeless
feeling before. We pull the infield in and the next batter hits a
rocket, but playable right at our second baseman. Unfortunately, the
play was not made and after a successful suicide squeeze on their part
the wind came out of our sails.

We did not offer much of a threat in the bottom half of the 9th and
would get stung with a tough 8-5 loss. The guys were obviously down,
but not much time to dwell on it. We have a tough Great Britain team
tomorrow and a loss would send us packing.

Stayed tuned, Bill

Wednesday, July 19th: LET THE GAMES BEGIN

The B Pool formats are somewhat different than the larger A Pool. For instance, there are two groups this summer for the European B Pool Championships. Ours here in Belgium and another somewhere, I believe, in Poland. We only have five teams here, but of course to survive and win this thing we pretty much have to win all key games or you are faced with the uphill journey of coming out of the losers bracket and playing an extra game with pitching that may be not as strong as your opponents. The draw a team receives is another factor in applying strategy. For us it would seem to be drawing the two easiest teams right out of the gate in Switzerland and Slovenia. But one never knows. Sometimes teams may have a few new players, perhaps an import with a passport making him eligible. This is more common in Senior and A Pool competition and we certainly have had our share of "legal" imports over the years with the seniors. So without hesitation I went with our No. 1 guy on Tuesday, pitcher Slobodan Galas — also known as Bobo.

Bobo was sharp from the beginning and after we jumped out to a 10-0 lead in the third, I got him out of there in case I needed him for relief against a strong Belgium team on Thursday. Petar Burazin came on to close out the last three innings and the Croats cruised to a 20-4 thrashing of Swizerland. Everyone contributed in the seven-inning game as we banged out 20 hits.

We had a similar feeling the following day against Slovenia, but knew they had one decent pitcher so we went with our number 2/3 guy Marin Farcas against our neighbors from Slovenia. We were a bit sloppy early on and gave them some runs but we eventually settled in and continued with our offensive onslaught. Farcas, in true form, was throwing more pitches than necessary and when I pulled him after six he had 105 pitches, too many for this level. We managed to make it interesting when I put the reserves in. The game should have ended after seven innings with the mercy rule, but I guess my guys wanted to play nine so we did. Final score: Croatia 16 Slovenia 8.

We are 2-0, but the toughest competition lies ahead with Belgium and Great Britain. It was good to see my boss and assignor, Pat Doyle, here to oversee the competition. It is impressive to see how the level of baseball, especially in the B Pool, has risen over the years. In years past, you may see one or two A Pool level teams capable of moving on. However, now with the two groups it is obvious there are easily five or six teams that can compete at the A Pool level. Another plus side is the field conditions. Beveren, Belgium has a very adequate field to host this tournament and the crowds that turn out when the host team is playing are very impressive. So kudos going out to baseball throughout Europe. It is very much alive and growing. Hats off to all those involved, particularly the envoys and their presence over the last 15 years.

Well, it is time to retire for the evening and prepare for the tough test tomorrow with Belgium. Bye for now, Bill

Monday July 17th: ON TO BELGIUM

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Getaway days are always quite interesting when one is talking about B-Pool travel throughout Europe. For that matter, A-Pool travel with this country is also unpredictable if you remember last year. True to form, we were loading up the vans at midnight on Sunday/Monday preparing to embark on a cross continental European drive that would take the Croatian Juniors to Belgium sometime Monday afternoon. As mentioned, we did play the Croatian Senior team over the weekend and hung in there with them at least while our starting pitchers were in the game. Our ball club is about 10 to 11 deep with perhaps four to five pitchers that I feel confident in, but after that our productivity rapidly declines. But with our starting nine and pitching staff, I feel we can compete in Belgium and hopefully win this thing and get this country back in the A Pool for the first time in nine years. But first we have to get there. We left Karlovac at 12:30 and stopped in Zagreb to pick up an umpire that would work the tournament. Bekic would meet us in a little town called Ptuj just across the Slovenian border.

We arrived in Ptuj around 2:00 am already behind schedule. The weather gave us a big break as the temperatures were around 15 degrees Celsius (about 60 degrees Fahrenheit), but that would change as day would break. And of course this is Croatian travel, so guess who is driving the vans? Yeah, you got it. Bekic, Percy, and our technical rep. Horva. The umpire will share the driving with me, thank goodness, or we would never have made it. I took the first leg and hung in there until the morning when we stopped for gas and coffee somewhere in the middle of Austria. And for the first time I gave Red Bull a shot and I guess it worked for a while. It would not be long before my body started questioning me as it always does when I travel without sleep. I was a zombie by Monday afternoon. The players for the most part slept but an uneasy sleep. Bekic and Horva amazingly hung in there all the way.

Traveling through Germany is always a treat. I am continuously impressed with the beautiful countryside and what appears to be the efficiency of the German farmers. A good part of our midwest in the US is made up of farm families of German descent who have helped shape our agricultural environment. The Danube River and the castle regions are always a treat for travelers, whether by car or train.

Danubecastle

We were making good time through Germany, bypassing Frankfurt and up towards Cologne. One slight problem: Bekic in the lead car missed an exit off the Autobahn and we wound up driving north into the Netherlands. It only cost us an hour and we arrived finally at our destination in downtown Antwerp only to realize we had a team practice scheduled for 5:00. We followed a driver to the host site in a little town of Beveren, and much to the dismay of the boys, we were on the field and running through a brisk 50 minutes of batting practice and fungo work. We were the only team to take advantage of a team workout the day before. And most likely the most tired. Advantage Croats. Tomorrow we face Switzerland in our opening game.

Until then, Bok.

Bill

Wednesday, July 12th

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Karlovac: Monday morning I was back to work with the Junior National Baseball Team at Croatia’s version of the National Baseball Team Training Center, the Karlovac field. It really is, by European standards, a decent set-up. For the most part, the team roster has already been decided upon so we are off and running with two-a-day workouts and exhibition games beginning Wednesday. We have eighteen young men ranging in ages 16-18 with most of them coming from Karlovac and Varazdin. We do have a 17-year-old from Toronto who has Croatian citizenship and this North American kid, Mile Pesa, will help us. As mentioned earlier, it has been almost 10 years since the juniors have competed in the A Pool so those involved know what is at stake.

We must win the five-team tournament in Belgium to advance to the next A Pool in 2007. What a difference a year makes! Last year, if you recall, I was pretty much winging it with the seniors and one coach, me. This year I am blessed with three assistants all week and one of them, Jason a three-year minor leaguer in the Twins organization from Australia, is just what the doctor ordered. Bekic from Varazdin will be my third base coach and Ijo from Karlovac will handle the first base coaching duties. The spirits are pretty high with these kids but I noticed immediately after one day of two-a-days that they are not in the kind of shape that our North American kids are. Day two and they were dragging a bit. It was time for the curfew and alcohol/cigarette talk. It is Europe and customs are a bit different, but they are a national team so I guess curfews and watchful eyes will be necessary. Practice picked up on Wednesday, and with our first exhibition game against the local Keltek club team I was mildly impressed. Adequate starting pitching but our bats have to pick it up. We will continue with our two-a-days and over the weekend will play the Senior National Team in a couple of exhibitions. Should be interesting, going against my old team…

Talk to you soon, Bill.

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