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Mar '21 29

INTERVIEW: Varga Recounts Travels Across Europe and Australia

In the second part of mister-baseball.com’s interview with Draci Brno’s Michael Varga, he discusses his baseball travels, touching on his stops in Belgium, Australia and Austria. Varga confesses that his passion for the game was at a low point as he finished his collegiate career at Presbyterian College, but that the passion he encountered during his first summer in Europe with the MSG Phoenix and at subsequent stops on the international circuit has rekindled his love for the game.

Varga answered these questions via email in early March in between working on the family farm in Connecticut and preparing for the 2021 Extraliga season. The first part of the interview, in which Varga discusses his preparations for the season and how he came to sign with defending Czech champions Draci Brno, can be found here

Francisco Barreto: You have mentioned that you are “an international baseball fan”. How and when did your interest in international baseball begin?
Michael Varga: I am a little ashamed to say that for the longest time, like a lot of baseball fans in the US, I was clueless about international baseball. You hear about the leagues in Asia (Japan, China, Korea) and of course I knew about baseball’s popularity in South America and the islands, but I had no real notion of what the game’s popularity was in places like Europe, Australia, etc. My first real introduction to that side of the baseball world came as a freshman in college. I was playing summer ball in the Mid-Atlantic Collegiate League and had a teammate who was about to graduate and weighing his professional options. He made me aware of Baseball Jobs Overseas, a playing service that helps bring international team and free agent players together. That was my introduction to baseball abroad.

And in terms of my interest, who wouldn’t want to play baseball professionally, travel the world, and help promote the incredible opportunities, memories, and life lessons this great game provides? My teammate ended up going the overseas route, played at Draci Brno, and played against me in Australia. So in a lot of ways my international baseball journey has come full circle.

How did your international career begin? In other words, how did you move from Presbyterian College to Belgium?
Well, as I said above, I was introduced to the possibilities of playing professional baseball internationally as a freshman in college. So throughout my college career, the opportunities of the game abroad were always in my mind. Two, three, four years down the road, my experience as a college baseball player definitely went through some major peaks and valleys. There were some absolutely unreal highs: going to the NJCAA Division I Junior College World Series in 2017 with the team that I was a part of at Florence-Darlington Technical College will undoubtedly be the greatest baseball experience of my life, and one of my overall favorite years ever. And there were some really bottoming lows: by the end of my senior year I had honestly lost a lot of the passion and enthusiasm for the game that I had amassed since I fell in love with the sport at two years old.

Midway through my senior year, I applied with the same service my former teammate had used, Baseball Jobs Overseas, and didn’t expect much. I did get a few offers, but it was eventually a connection through one of my former college catching/hitting coaches that lead me to my first (half) season overseas in Belgium. I ended my college career in late May, and was in Belgium in early June. And wow, what a change of scenery and a little revitalization can do! International baseball has been a new page, and an extraordinary page, in my baseball journey.

In terms of baseball, what were you expecting to find in Belgium? What surprised you most?
I had zero expectations of what baseball was like in Belgium. I looked at it as a blank canvas and I was thankful for that alone. My experience there was incredible. I don’t think there was a better place I could have had my first overseas season than in Louvain-la-Neuve with the MSG Phoenix. Those guys are out of this world!

What surprised me the most was the level of enthusiasm around me for the game of baseball. It is definitely not the most popular sport in Europe, so the ballplayers, youth players, and fans that immerse themselves in the game display a real investment. I mean, people put a lot of effort into their clubs and the success of the sport. The feeling of community around the game is something very hard to describe, and something you don’t see in quite the same way in the US. That was also the year the Red Sox played the Yankees in London, and I had a chance to go there for one of the games and experience that once-in-a-lifetime event. All I can say in summation, I guess, is that there is a real passion for baseball abroad, and it’s really special to observe and luckily get to be a part of.

What do you remember about your time playing in Australia?
Australia is a magical place. Being there for six months felt so surreal because it is a land like no other, and it is so far away that it feels like it runs in its own separate world. The level of baseball there is super competitive. There is definitely a lot of passion for the game, and having the Australian Baseball League (ABL) does a lot for the fan base and the development of baseball. The level of play is a bit more consistent and deeper than in Europe for sure, but that gap is shrinking.

But I would be lying if I didn’t say that my experience as a baseball player there was trumped by my just general experience of being in Australia. The natural beauty is indescribable. I really hope things clear up soon and I am able to get another go in the winter league there, and New Zealand too.

(Editor’s note: Varga played for the Wembley Magpies during the 2019-20 Western Australia State League 1 season. Like at all of his previous steps, he played well Down Under, hitting four home runs and compiling a .269/.367/.538 slash line in 28 games with the Magpies.)

For those who are not familiar with Austrian baseball, how does it compare to the level of play at your previous stops?
There is some legitimate talent in the Austrian Bundesliga, and I think it will be an even more formidable player in the European circuit sooner rather than later. I know there are quite a few people who are very involved and determined to continue pushing the envelope in terms of the league’s talent, facilities, and the overall depth and popularity of the game. The team I was with, the Attnang Athletics, are a phenomenal program with the right guys in the right spots, and I am so excited to see what they do this year and in the near future. I know they have made some legit upgrades to the ballpark, and are very serious about continuing to grow the game in Austria. I know the rest of the league is following too, and I’d love to spend some more time playing and coaching there as well. Austria is a fantastic spot to enjoy the game of baseball.

JUCO World Series, NCAA Division 1, Belgium, Australia, World Port Tournament, Austria … you have amassed quite a resume. How long do you envision playing?
If I could play baseball forever I would, especially internationally. Your scope of influence as a player and a coach, in helping programs succeed, in growing the popularity of the game, in leaving impressions on the next generation of ballplayers both as a player and a person… you have so [many] more opportunities internationally than in the US. I’ve loved the game of baseball with all of my heart since I was two years old. This game has gifted me so many memories, relationships, teaching moments, and opportunities. I want my passion for baseball to reach as many people as it can, and I can’t think of a better way to do that than continuing my career abroad. That being said, realistically, health and feasibility play important roles too. I take a lot of care off the field to make sure my performance and health are maximized on the field, with the ultimate goal in mind being playing longevity. So hopefully I get lucky in that regard.

Another super important factor is feasibility. One area that international baseball severely lags behind in comparison to the US is its ability to be a career. It may be my only quarrel with the game abroad. I know quite a few really good ballplayers, but more importantly, fantastic coaches and people who have had to turn away and leave the international market because they can’t make a living doing what they love. My hope is that as leagues abroad continue to develop, continue to evolve into more professional entities, continue to help foster the growth of the game in their respective countries, so will continue the ability for players and coaches to legitimize their careers. I would be really pleased to see the right type of players, who are equally as passionate and invested in the development of international baseball, be able to have at least modest feasibility in the pursuit of their dreams.

The Extraliga is scheduled to begin play on April 9th and you can follow Varga’s progress via Draci Brno’s homepage. Photo Credit: Michael Varga International Coaching.

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