By Jason Daniels.
It has been a bumper year for Czech baseball, and the milestones keep coming following Czechia’s ground-breaking run at the 2023 World Baseball Classic.
At the conclusion of the WBC this March, Czech and Japanese baseball authorities began cultivating a partnership to establish long-term cooperation between the two nations. Few would have seen this coming at the tournament’s start. Eight months later, the fruits of this unlikely friendship continue to make themselves noticeable.
“The WBC was definitely the beginning of this collaboration,” says Lukáš Ercoli, Head of Communications for Baseball Czech. “Thanks to the WBC, the interest in Czech baseball in Japan has increased.” It is worth noting that at the WBC, Ercoli also pitched for the Czech Republic, and it was this rare combination of full-time employment and national team service – common for Czech players and staff, but nearly unheard of for almost all other WBC nations – that first endeared Japanese fans to the Czech team.
In Japan, the amateur status of the game carries tremendous cultural significance. Decades before the professional game took hold, Japanese baseball was firmly rooted in the educational system and provided a means to instill core values in young students. Today, there is no greater example of this baseball purity than the summer high school tournament, Koshien, which annually seizes the nation’s attention. Though Koshien Stadium is home to the Hanshin Tigers of the Nippon Professional Baseball organization, the facility’s primary use is to host the iconic high school tournament. For two and a half weeks each August, the Tigers, winners of the 2023 Japan Series, are de-prioritized and reassigned to the road.
It is from this vein that Japanese baseball tradition places great emphasis on individual sacrifice, team harmony, and fighting spirit – all traits that the Czechs themselves expressed over four games at the Tokyo Dome. It must be noted that Czech fans during the tournament also embodied great intensity and togetherness, as evident through their relentless chanting and cheering. Pound for pound, they were the loudest and most passionate fans in Tokyo – if not the entire WBC.
In all, the Japanese saw a bit of themselves in the plucky Czechs, and they hardly hesitated to show their admiration. Following Japan’s victory over the Czech Republic in the opening round, Shohei Ohtani posted an image to his Instagram of the Czech team under the singular caption: “Respect”. He was also seen wearing a Czech hat after the two nations matched up. Footage of an encounter between Roki Sasaki and Czech outfielder Willie Escala then went viral in the baseball world. Meanwhile, Czech mementos and memorabilia grew more visible in the streets of Tokyo that week as word increasingly reached the broader baseball community in Japan.
Immediately following the WBC, that mutual appreciation began to take greater shape.
“Akira Matsumoto, who works for the Chiba Lotte Marines [of the NPB], came to the Czech embassy in Tokyo right after the WBC and said he wanted to start cooperation with Czech baseball,” mentions Ercoli. “The embassy contacted me and then we had several online meetings.”
That momentum led to negotiations with the Marines in June and, subsequently, to the announcement of the Marines – Czech Republic Baseball Bridge Program, supported by Panasonic HVAC Company. By late July, Czech national team manager Pavel Chadim, Ercoli, and fellow national teamer, first-baseman Martin Mužík, flew to visit the Marines. The trio toured ZOZO Marine Stadium, meeting with Marines’ representatives, players, and fans. Chadim threw out a ceremonial first pitch and exchanged gifts with Marines manager Masato Yoshii. Chadim, Ercoli, and Mužík then toured the Panasonic factory, where they spoke with management and received a peek into the production process.
They also met with Japanese national team manager Hideki Kuriyama. “On this trip we approached Hideki Kuriyama [and asked] if he wanted to become an honorary ambassador of Japanese – Czech baseball cooperation,” explains Ercoli.
A week before the Czech Republic hosted the 2023 European Championship, Kuriyama would fly to the Czech Republic to wish the hosts well in the competition and accept the offer of honorary ambassador. There, Kuriyama spent more time getting to know Chadim. The two visited Chadim’s office, where he works as a leading neurologist in Brno, and together vowed to continue developing their cross-country partnership.
Kuriyama returned to Japan after a week-long trip, but not before high praise for his counterpart. In an interview with Baseball Czech, he confessed: “For the first time in my life, I feel so close to a foreigner. When I watched him in the Czech dugout today, I felt like I was watching myself. We move and approach the game in a similar way.” A little sacrifice and fighting spirit goes a long way, too. “I admire Pavel Chadim a lot because he has two jobs. He’s both a great doctor and a great coach…I admire how he can manage all that.”
It has been a landmark year for Czech baseball. New heights were achieved both at the WBC and in hosting a successful European Championship. Youth registration numbers have taken off since the spring. And the world has taken notice, especially Japan.
So, what happens from here? Ercoli says Baseball Czech is currently finalizing details to have a Czech national team coach join the Marines during the club’s month-long spring training in 2024. The goal is to then bring that experience back to Czechia in the interest of greater knowledge sharing and cultural exchange. Given the relative levels of baseball in the two countries, even a month for a single coach could spur significant dividends in Czechia.
The hope is also that the Japanese-Czech partnership is just in its infant stages. And that the foundation that has been laid will be a launching pad for years to come. Notes Ercoli, “Now we are negotiating further cooperation.”
Thanks to Baseball Czech and Lukáš Ercoli for information in this article. For more on the trip by Czech Baseball members to Japan, see the YouTube video here. Look for a follow-up to this article after the Marines’ spring training in early 2024.