Baseball may slowly be on rise among Czechs
MAR 12, 2015 BY JASON COSKREY、The Japan Times

World travelers: Jakub Starik (left) and David Agner traveled to Tokyo from Prague to cover Team Europe's games against Samurai Japan for Czech TV. | JASON COSKREY

Among the over 100 or so media credentials issued for the two-game Global Baseball Match 2015 between Samurai Japan and Team Europe on Tuesday and Wednesday were two for Jakub Starik and David Agner, a pair of journalists from the Czech Republic. Baseball is pretty far down the pecking order in the Central European nation where hockey is king — Jaromir Jagr and Dominik Hasek are just two in a long line of NHL greats with Czech lineage — and whose borders consist of other hockey and soccer-mad nations Austria, Germany, Poland and Slovakia.

Even so Starik and Agner traveled all the way from Prague for Czech TV, the nation’s public broadcaster, to document the European baseball team made up of athletes from six nations, including Czech infielder Jakub Sladek. Armed with a microphone, a video camera, and with Agner sporting a Brooklyn Dodgers hat he bought from a shop in Prague, the pair was bringing attention to the sport vying for exposure in an area already deeply invested in a number of other sports, such as volleyball, basketball and handball.

“People who have seen the footage we have done here are like ‘wow, this is happening, and there is a Czech guy there, you can get that far in baseball? You can do baseball on semi-professional or amateur level in Czech Republic and you can play in a stadium that fits 40,000 people,’ Starik told The Japan Times at Tokyo Dome on Wednesday. “And there are 100 journalists here. People now in Czech Republic, are watching not only Jakub play, but they see that something about baseball is happening, which is important.”

It should also be important to the World Baseball Softball Confederation. Since baseball and softball were scrubbed from the Olympic program after the 2008 Games, the WBSC has been steadfast in its quest to prove, to the International Olympic Committee mainly, that the sports are indeed global endeavors not limited to traditional hot spots in North and Latin America and Asia. Further inroads into countries like the Czech Republic, or any number of European locales where other fans might be surprised to even know baseball is played, would certainly strengthen the confederations’ case.

“Obviously the biggest sports we have are hockey and soccer, but baseball’s growing, and it’s growing really fast,” Sladek said. “From what I know, a lot of people are interested in watching the game. So it’s a good thing for us that we have someone from the Czech Republic here.”

Starik agrees that the sport is slowing taking root.

“It’s definitely growing,” he said. “It’s small when you count the numbers of players or you compare the numbers with Japan. But I think we have a great development program and Czech players are being recognized more and more by international organizations in the United States, and even in Japan because Jakub played here for one season (in 2012 for the independent league Ishikawa Million Stars).

“Our Under-21 team, they were fifth in the world championships,” he added, referring to the inaugural WBSC 21U Baseball World Cup, which was held in Taichung, Taiwan, in November. “It was a great result for Czech baseball. The players who come after these guys are even better. When we have tournaments in the Czech Republic, and even across Europe, there are always many, many scouts from major league clubs.”

The Czechs are no strangers to the various goings-on in the world of baseball, even though the game still has only a minor presence.

“If there is something very interesting in baseball, we do baseball,” Starik said of he and Agner’s work at Czech TV. “People know about the sport. If you go to the Czech Republic and you say ‘baseball,’ it’s not like people are saying ‘What? What is this?’ They know. They have a sense about it. Because it’s being played in every city. You’ve got baseball fields in almost every small village in the Czech Republic.”

The sport is hardly new to the country. Sladek, now 25 years old, picked it up in elementary school.

“They had a class in my school, that’s how I started,” he said. “It was the only sport that didn’t real come easily for me at the beginning. I did hockey, soccer, basketball and everything was easy right away, but I wasn’t good at baseball. It made me mad and I was working really hard and made it to the national team.”

Starik described baseball as something “people are still discovering” in the Czech Republic. He feels the game gains more traction as the populace continues to learn about it.

“I think baseball is getting bigger and getting more attention,” he opined. “Because every player there, every coach, everyone who experiences baseball for the first time usually spends the rest of their life in baseball or softball.”

The trick for the WBSC is spreading that throughout the rest of the country.

“People who do baseball there are really dedicated to the game, but most of the public doesn’t know that much about the sport,” Starik said.

A breakout star who could reach MLB, or even NPB, could help draw more attention to the game. Baseball Reference’s archives list no players born in the Czech Republic after Jan 1, 1993, when the former Czechoslovakia peacefully split into the Czech Republic and Slovakia, having played in MLB. The site lists only three player having been born in Czechoslovakia, including Slovak Elmer Valo, who played in the majors from 1940-1961.

Sladek made it as high as rookie ball with the Phillies and would advise young European players to go anywhere where they can play as much as possible. He noted, however, different countries had different methodologies for developing talent.

“The States are obviously pretty good, but they aren’t pushing you as hard as they do in Japan,” he said. “In Japan, they’re going to push you to play at the best level you can. In the States, you have a chance to do well, but it’s on you. If you don’t wanna work hard, then sorry. Here they’re going to push you and you have to do it. I would recommend going to the States or come here.

“The problem for us is we have only 40 to 50 games a year in Europe. You can’t compare that to 162 in the States or here (144). If you can get more ABs, go somewhere and play winter ball.”