Batter up!

How the All-American sport of baseball is finding a place of its own with CZ youth

Czechs form their sport allegiances when they’re young. Where you sit at lunch, who you hang out with after school and what you do on the weekend is all influenced by which side of the field you cheer for. My six-year old son chose his school backpack because it has FK Dukla’s colors – and he doesn’t even play football.

While crying SPARTA, DO TOHO! may be enough to incite a riot in your neighborhood hospoda (pub), if you ask a Czech whether Babe Ruth or Mickey Mantle has a better RBI, you might get a blank stare. Baseball doesn’t send most Czechs jumping up and down like football or hockey (at least not yet).

When I mentioned that my son wanted to try out for baseball, his tennis trainer rolled his eyes and said, “I guess someone in America taught it to him.”

Although professional baseball has been in the Czech Republic since the 1980s, until recently it has been an “unknown” sport to many Czechs. As Kotlarka Prague youth coach Hana Vancurova says, “There is rarely TV coverage of Czech Extra-League games, and the sport does not have support from big city or state sponsors. Many people here do not even know baseball has its own league in the Czech Republic, they think it comes from the US.” Hana became interested in baseball when her Czech boyfriend played for the Tegola back in 1999 and has been involved in the sport ever since.

Despite many Czechs thinking of baseball as a US sport, for a growing number of young Czech athletes, baseball is becoming a popular free time activity. Recreational baseball and its cousins – softball and tee ball – attract Czech youth (both boys and girls) who want a chance to try a different sort of game. Hana says, “Three years ago we hardly had enough interest to make an U9 team. Now, we have enough players to make two scrimmage teams.”

On the afternoon of September 1, I joined several other parents at Kotlarka’s Na Markete practice field in Prague 6. It was hot, I was sweaty and the antuka (red clay) formed a cloud of dust near home plate. While Kotlarka’s U9 team played a scrimmage game, the newcomers, including my sons Oliver and Sam, aged 9 and 6, lined up in pairs to practice catching. Hana, dressed in a Kotlarka jersey and baseball cap, wiped the sweat from her eyes and took a swig from her water bottle.

“Kdo se mnou jeste nehazal, vemte si rukavice a pojdte sem,” she called. A parent volunteer nearby translated, “Hey, if you haven’t thrown with Hana, get over there!”

My boys looked at me for encouragement, then picked up their gloves and trotted toward Hana. As we watched, Hana taught the kids how to hold the ball, how to throw and how to catch. The first ball rolled through Oliver’s legs. Sam stuck out his hand instead of his glove for the second ball. Later, the new recruits took turns batting off a tee. “Keep the bat up, don’t rest it on your shoulder, swing level and DROP the bat before you run,” another coach instructed.

Although Hana was precise, the atmosphere was light-hearted. At one point, the children lined up to run the bases (no bat, no ball – just pretend). One-by-one, each child stood at home plate, fake swung and took off. As the coaches shouted, “Faster, go, go, go,” each child ran around each base with teammates cheering in the background. When a girl skipped over home, Hana called her back, “You’ve got to touch this white plate,” she explained.

As the coach of Kotlarka’s U9 team (and mother to two of its players), Hana makes baseball fun for its youngest recruits. She says, “I am trying to teach the kids that making mistakes is a must and without mistakes it cannot work. From each mistake, we learn a lot. Nobody can play baseball perfect from the first day. When a batter on the other team strikes out, I teach the kids to say, ‘It is a shame,’ not ‘hurray’ because we want the batter to hit the ball so that we can catch it and throw.”

As I listened to Hana, I remembered that my own relationship with baseball in the Czech Republic. New to Prague, I had instructions to call up a friend of a friend. Like me, he was an American who had come to the Czech Republic to teach English, travel and have fun. Shortly after arriving in Prague, he realized that his life abroad was missing something that he’d always done back home.

Through the expat grapevine, he found out about a league baseball team in Prague. He took the bus to the practice fields, walked on to the Tegola team and began to play ball. Prague suddenly felt more like home. For my part, I watched a few of his games, hung out with the players and their girlfriends (who all spoke much better English than I spoke Czech) and thought how funny that I’d come all the way to the Czech Republic to watch baseball.

This fall, when Oliver started talking about playing baseball, I figured it was just a phase left over from his summer visit to the US. I had forgotten about my baseball experience. I was steering Oliver toward floorball or tennis – sports that were popular at his Czech school.

Oliver persisted. I searched the internet for baseball and found Kotlarka. We showed up on the right day. At the wrong field. Wide-eyed, we watched as 13-year-old boys in white pants and baseball jerseys lugged duffels with bats, balls and mitts onto the field. They looked like professionals. We almost left.

One of the coaches noticed us. He explained how the Kotlarka teams worked and showed us on a map where the Marketa field for the U9 team was. Oliver was one year too old to play for the U9, but the coach said he should go anyway. Maybe they would find a spot for him on the U11 once he learned the basics.

When you’re a nine-year old boy in the Czech Republic who doesn’t play football or ice hockey, you feel a little left out sometimes. I was glad for Oliver to try a team sport, but afraid that baseball might be hard to break in as an older newcomer.

At first, Oliver stuck with his brother and other new recruits. After two weeks of practice, I heard one of the other boys call Oliver’s name. Oliver was at the pitcher’s mound. His job was to catch short balls and throw them to the first baseman. The first baseman shouted encouragement, “Hey, Oli, it’s for you.” Oliver got the ball and threw it to first. The batter was out. Both boys grinned.

When Oliver left practice that day, several kids shouted, “Ahoj Oliku!” Afterward, Oliver told me that he felt really happy at the practice. It’s too soon to know what’ll come of his baseball career, but as a way to meet new friends, Oliver is one Czech/American kid who’s made a Kotlarka allegiance.

And, as it turns out, his coach Hana is actually one of the first Czechs I met watching baseball in Prague fifteen years ago.

Kotlarka Baseball Prague
Kotlarka Baseball Prague U9 (CZ)

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