My baseball spirts were given a lift this month watching spring baseball games, but not in spring training. They were lifted by an unlikely group — players from the Czech Republic’s national baseball team in the World Baseball Classic.
Some of my readers might not know that the landlocked country in the middle of Europe even has a baseball team. After all, Czechs have a climate throughout their country similar to that of Illinois, without any warm weather destinations within their borders like Florida or Arizona. How could they develop baseball players?
But they did, enough to make it to the World Baseball Classic this spring, along with 19 other qualifying teams from around the world. They had to defeat other teams from Europe, including a deciding victory over Germany, to make it to the global tournament. It was the Czechs’ first ever trip to the WBC.
What lifted my spirits especially was knowing that just about every player on the team played baseball as a sideline. They work at ordinary jobs to support themselves, and they include a firefighter, a teacher, an accountant and a building contractor. Their manager is a neurosurgeon, a former ball player who still enjoys the game, as a sideline.
They play baseball for the love of the game, not for the fame or the money—baseball at its purest. Some of them have played baseball in the United States, in colleges or in the minor leagues, none in the major leagues. Now they are playing simply because they enjoy the game.
In their first game of the WBC tournament the Czechs defeated the team from China, 8 to 5, on a come-from-behind home run in the ninth inning. The cheers of 200 Czech fans who had traveled more than 5,000 miles to Tokyo to the tournament reverberated through the stadium.
Almost all of the Czech players were born and raised in the Czech Republic and still live and work there. They were going against teams filled with professional players, many from the major leagues in the United States. Perhaps the best example was their game with Japan, featuring one of the major league’s best players, if not the best, Shohei Ohtani.
The game against Japan was a good example of the Czechs being David against a Goliath at the WBC. Japan’s team was filled with professionals who played baseball for a living in a country that has valued baseball since the end of World War II and has developed many outstanding players.
The Japanese pitcher against the Czechs was a young star, whose fastball was regularly clocked at more than 100 miles per hour. Meanwhile, the Czech pitcher, whose profession is a building contractor, specializes in slow change-ups. In fact, during the game his fastest pitch was 79 miles per hour.
I watched the game on Fox Sports TV on a recording, since it was played in Japan with a California start time of 2 a.m. The first two-and-a-half innings were entertaining for me, since the Czechs led 1-0 going into the bottom of the third inning, to the astonishment of the announcers.
But then the Japanese players figured out the Czech pitcher’s speed and started scoring a bunch of runs. The final score was Japan 10, the Czech Republic 2.
Even in the loss, I was proud of the Czech underdogs, so much so that I ordered a Czech Republic team baseball cap. When I get the cap and start wearing it, I’m sure many Los Banosans will wonder what does the “CR” stand for.
The following day the Czechs lost to Korea, another team with professional players, 7 to 3. That game was essentially over after the first inning, when the Koreans scored five runs. In their fourth game, which I also watched on television, the Czechs battled Australia even for six innings before the Australians eventually won.
The Czechs did not advance beyond the first round, but I still feel proud of the Czech Republic team making it to the World Baseball Classic and earning a victory. The Czechs are an example to underdogs everywhere and an inspiration to underdog teams in the major leagues, which are about to start their regular season on March 30.
Moreover, the spirit of the Czechs seemed to infuse all the teams in the World Baseball Classic. Other games I watched, including the championship game between Japan and the U.S.A., seemed to exhibit a spirit of camaraderie and sportsmanship not always seen in Major League baseball games.
I feel I need to add this disclaimer, as a part of truth in column-writing. My ancestry is Czech. All four of my grandparents were born near Prague, when it was then in Czechoslovakia.
I’ve kept a close eye on the country since I was a kid when it was under the domination of the Soviet Union. I rejoiced in 1968 seeing the “Prague Spring,” when it looked like Czechs would be getting more freedom. I then grieved when Soviet tanks soon after rumbled through Prague, returning the country to a dictatorship.
I rejoiced again for good in 1989 when, after the Berlin wall fell and the Soviet Union domination was ending in eastern Europe, Czechoslovakia became a free and independent country. Later the Czechs and the Slovaks decided to split, and my ancestors’ home became the Czech Republic.
The Czechs for as long as I can remember have been underdogs, but they have never quit fighting, as shown recently by their national baseball team. And, being a longtime Chicago Cubs fan, I’m a sucker for underdogs.