By Pavel Hrdina, Jakub Kopřiva
Lubomír Vrbenský is a legendary pitcher not only in the context of Czech softball. After this season of the Czech Extraliga, in which he won silver medals with his team – Beavers Chomutov, he decided to retire. At the WBSC congress held in Oklahoma City this month, the four-time European and eleven-time Czech champion, who works as an engine driver, was inducted into the International Hall of Fame.
This season, the 46-year-old Lubomír Vrbenský kept proving time and time again to his teammates, some of whom are a whole generation younger than himself, that he is still the king of the pitching circle. Throughout regular season, the Beavers did not lose a single game in which he pitched. Despite his veteran age, he put in a great performance in the play-offs as well; however, his team eventually had to bow down to Spectrum Praha, who defended their title from last year.
Vrbenský spent his entire career with a single club – the Beavers. He was brought to the field in 1986 by a friend who was too scared to go to his first practice alone. While today boys usually get their first taste of softball at a very early age, the future star of the national team first tried softball, which was virtually an unknown sport at the time, when he was already in high school. “I started pretty late, at the age of 17. I came to practice with a friend of mine and we sort of stuck with the sport,” said Vrbenský himself talking about his early days.
The Jaromír Jágr of softball, which is a popular moniker for the humble engine driver among softball fans in the Czech Republic, started out as an infielder even though it was in the pitching circle where he gained international acclaim. “I started pitching before I did my compulsory year in the army, but I only started working hard at it after I came back. There was no one else willing to pitch, so I had to do it myself,” he said about his beginnings. It is actually quite likely that Vrbenský would never have become a world-renowned pitcher had it not been for an unfortunate accident. He injured his knee leaping over a home run fence at the age of 21. Afterwards, his health would not allow him to field balls in the outfield or run the bases. Wearing his iconic knee brace, he focused fully on pitching.
The era of Lubomír Vrbenský started in 1996 and it meant a lot of success and multiple medals for Czech softball. Vrbenský started at the World’s four times, he won the Czech Extraliga 11 times (making the finals for a total of 19 times since 1997). He also won the now non-existent European Cup (which was replaced by the Supercup in 2012) for a record 6 times, and he is a four-time European champion. “It is the early successes that I value most. The first Czech title, the first European Championship that we won and also the 6th place at the World’s in 2000,” said Vrbenský in evaluation of his career, during which he has played in the USA, in South Africa or in New Zealand. The best athlete of the Chomutov County for several times retired from international national-team play in 2009 after his fourth World Championship in Saskatoon, Canada.
Taking into account his successful career, the October congress of the World Baseball and Softball Confederation inducted Vrbenský into the International Hall of Fame. “We nominated Lubomír Vrbenský along with the legendary coach Mike Stapleton, and the committee ruled both our nominations justified. There is no doubt in anybody’s mind that Luboš deserved this honor thanks to his immense contribution to Czech as well as European softball,” says the President of the Czech Softball Association Gabriel Waage. The induction ceremony will be held during the next season at the occasion of a significant event held in the Czech Republic.
And what was it that was so special about this veteran ace pitcher? According to teammates as well as opponents it was a great sense of responsibility and an immense power of will, which managed to overcome even serious health limitations. “If Luboš has got a vision in front of him, he’s willing to sacrifice a lot for it. If he decides to go to a tournament and says that he wants to be the best pitcher there, it’s most likely he will indeed be the best player there. He will work harder than anyone and he’ll do good. He’s just really determined and stubborn,” said Jan Přibyl, his catcher both in the club and on the national team. “Talking about his pitch repertoire, it was always the rise-ball that was his strongest weapon,” he added.
Looking at Vrbenský’s numbers from the Czech Extraliga (years 2003-2015) leaves one speechless and in awe of what he has accomplished. Since 2003, he’s got a record of 236-61, an ERA of 1.35 with 2760 strikeouts and an opposing batting average of 0.172. In his final 13 seasons he won the pitching Triple Crown five times. His strike-out percentage in that period is an incredible 39%! Volunteers are still searching for pre-2003 stats, as well as for stats from European tournaments.
Vrbenský is always willing to share his experience and skills with his successors, and that is exactly what he is doing for his team these days. “At practice, he is very good at motivating us, but he also knows when it is the right time to raise his voice,” said Marek Malý, one of the young pitchers from Chomutov, who will be trying to make up for losing Vrbenský during the next season (with the help from another young hurler, Jakub Petřík).
Photos by Jan Benes