Going on Assignment in Prague July 2024 – July 6, 2024
‘America’s Sport’ By Way of Bohemia
By Amanda Brooks
by Amanda Brooks
Czech fans welcomed the country’s ball players with a huge banner when the national team played South Korea in a World Baseball Classic first round game at the Tokyo Dome on 12 March. Photo by Yohei Osada/CTK Photo/AFLO.
Flush off a win at the World Baseball Classic, the Czech Republic – long dominated by football and hockey – is an unlikely, but emerging baseball powerhouse.
Those in attendance at a baseball game in Prague in early July could have been forgiven for thinking they were somewhere in middle America during the dog days of summer. Throngs of spectators at Eagle Park – the largest baseball and softball complex in Europe – watched as Boston Red Sox legend Manny Ramirez threw out the ceremonial first pitch at a recent Czech professional game. Playing on a finely manicured field with the forests of a Prague suburb beyond the outfield walls, the Hippos, visiting from the country’s second-largest city Brno, went on to thrash the Prague Eagles, 13-0.
Highlighted by a recent invitation to the 2023 World Baseball Classic (WBC) as one of the best national squads in Europe, the Czech Republic – where football (soccer) and hockey have long been the dominant sports – is an unlikely, but emerging baseball powerhouse. So much so that The New York Times, in the midst of the country’s appearance at the WBC in March, featured a lengthy article on “a scrappy Czech Republic team, full of guys with regular jobs, who just might win your heart.” A win over China secured the national team’s participation in the next WBC in 2026, placing them in competition with the 20 top-performing teams in the world once again.
“The World Baseball Classic has been a huge success, and we have managed to make the Czech Republic alive with baseball. Until then, it was a very small and marginal sport here,” said Lukas Ercoli, the public relations manager for the Czech Baseball Association (CBA).
An American expat living in Prague first brought the sport to Czechoslovakia in 1919. However, because of its ties to American culture, it was banned by the communist government until 1964. Baseball truly began to take hold in the country with the establishment of the Czechoslovak Baseball League in 1979. The Extraliga, the highest level of baseball in the Czech Republic, was formed after the dissolution of Czechoslovakia in 1993.
Justin Fancher is an American who played college baseball for the University of San Diego before being recruited to the Extraliga as a catcher in 2001. Retired from the sport, but still living in the country, he sees continued growth in European baseball, especially in the Czech Republic. “The knock-on effect of the national team’s success will increase the level of attention to the sport,” he said.
The talent level has continued to improve since Fancher’s time on the field. “The game has evolved in very specific areas,” he said. “If you watch ball games now, there is a significant increase in the power skill set in hitters; some of that has to do with better coaching or swing dynamics, and some of it has to do with players going to the U.S. and bringing that into the game and passing the skills onto younger players.”
The opportunity to win scholarships and attend university in the United States – and even play professionally – boosts baseball’s appeal to parents looking for extracurricular activities for their children. With three current and seven former National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) players, the national team has benefited greatly from that experience abroad.
With two children currently in the game, Fancher is excited by the way that sport is being encouraged in the younger generation. “Youth programs are of varying degrees but there are more of them and higher quality for sure,” he said.
Petra Vodstrcilova, a mother of two boys, Viktor and Marek, who have played the game for five years, shares that optimism. “At this moment, Czech baseball is on a good wave,” she said. “Not only the Czech men’s team, but also the teams of the younger boys and girls … Children have a strong motivation now that their dream could change into reality.”
And More on the Way
One of the next steps will be to grow the popularity of baseball among youngsters with little to no knowledge of the game.
“We are a family sport: Parents played baseball so the kids are playing, and friends of the parents played baseball, so it’s still kind of hard for us to focus on those who have no experience with baseball,” said Richard Jarosik, the development manager for the CBA. “They think it’s so hard to understand the sport, so we’re building a development program to show that baseball has four main basics: catching, throwing, running, and hitting.”
To that end, the CBA launched its “Baseball to Schools” project, which now embraces 22 clubs from 79 schools and 5,000 students participating throughout the country.
“This is a big year, a big year in baseball,” said Jarosik, pointing to the Baseball European Championship, which will take place in five cities around the Czech Republic this fall. “We have a lot of money from that and the World Baseball Classic; if we don’t use this big year, nothing will change, so that’s why we are focused on helping the clubs, not just bringing the kids [to the sport] but getting them to stay.”
“2023 is the year of Czech baseball,” agreed Ercoli. “This year is an investment year for us and we are investing a lot of money and effort to make Czech baseball more visible.”
Although the sport is growing, funding has been slow to catch up. In a normal year, the CBA has an operating budget of around $1 million, according to Jarosik. For comparison, its U.S. counterpart USA Baseball works with an annual budget exceeding $13 million.
This fixation on ensuring that every penny is put to good use combined with the dedication of amateur players who work other jobs before heading to practice reminds the rest of the world of something too often overlooked – a true love for the game.
“We’ve come from a point where almost nobody in the Czech Republic knew that baseball was even played here. Now a larger percentage of the Czech Republic knows something about baseball,” said Ercoli. “But we still have a lot of work to do.”
Amanda Brooks is a feature writer based in the U.S. state of Tennessee. She just finished her master’s in journalism at the University of Tennessee/Knoxville. She recently participated in Transitions’ Going on Assignment in Prague study abroad program where she had the opportunity to report this story.