August 2006

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