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Jan '22 17

Focus On: Lithuania



In this inaugural piece in our “Focus On” series, in which we provide a deeper look at Europe’s smaller baseball countries, we start with Lithuania. The Baltic country is most likely not the first thing that comes to mind when you think of baseball, but Lithuania, a country of roughly 2.8 million people on the eastern shores of the Baltic Sea, has a colorful baseball history, and it has achieved what many larger European countries have failed to do: put a native son in the Majors.

THE BEGINNINGS

Lithuania’s baseball history has been well documented elsewhere, but in brief: It all began with Steponas Darius, who was born in what was then the Russian Empire and emigrated with his family, like many of his fellow Lithuanians at the time, to the US in 1907. After fighting in World War I, the Purple Heart recipient (this meant he had been injured in combat) returned to an independent Lithuania in 1920 and brought the sports he had played with him in Chicago, where he had settled, back to his native country.

Basketball over time became the country’s national sport, with baseball far down the list, in part due to the untimely death of its patron, Darius, in a plane crash in 1933. The first Lithuanian baseball champion was crowned in 1922, and it would take another 66 years for the second to be named. The destruction of World War II did not help baseball’s cause, as did the fact that an independent Lithuania ceased to exist. It became a Soviet republic, with baseball’s ties to the United States leading to the game falling into disrepute. It was not until mid-1980s that baseball appeared again in the Baltic republic.

O PIONEERS!

One of those present at the re-birth of Lithuanian baseball in the mid-1980s was Virmidas Neverauskas, who saw a flyer in February 1987 put out by Soviet authorities eager to get together a group of athletes to play the sport in preparation for its being added to the Olympic program in 1992. The young Lithuanian took to the exotic import and devoted his life to growing it at home. Along the way, Neverauskas, who has coached the country’s national teams and currently serves as head of the Lithuanian Baseball Assocation (LBA),  had a son, Dovydas, who in 2017 made his Major League debut with the Pittsburgh Pirates, in the process becoming the first player born and raised in Lithuania to play Major League Baseball (MLB).

In a country plagued – both then and now – by limited baseball infrastructure, Neverauskas the younger trained, in part, by throwing buckets of balls in the basement of a training facility. Frequent trips abroad exposed him to the wider world of baseball, however, and to scouts.

Neverauskas would eventually throw 80.2 innings over four seasons (2017-2020) with the Pirates, along with another 535.2 innings in the Minors. After his release after the 2020 season, he broke another barrier when he signed with the Hiroshima Carp of Nippon Professonal Baseball (NPB), making him the first Lithuanian to play in professional baseball’s two premier competitions.

2021: THE YEAR IN REVIEW

The Lithuanian national team missed out on the 2021 European championship after finishing second in its qualifying pool on home soil in Utena, in eastern Lithuania, in July. Greece took the honors instead, despite Lithuania defeating Greece 9-7 in group play. But when it mattered most, Greece prevailed, taking the deciding contest 8-4 to claim the grand prize: a trip to Turin to compete with Europe’s top baseball countries.

It was the second consecutive qualifying disappointment in Utena for Lithuania. The country missed out on the 2019 European championship after losing out to Israel, who would surprise at the tournament and, of course, eventually qualify for the Tokyo Olympics.

More bitterly, Lithuania’s defeat to Greece was its third lost in a qualifier championship in four years. It is the highest-ranked European nation (currently No. 13) to never appear at a European championship,

In the youth ranks, Lithuania qualified for both the U12 and U18 European championships. In both cases, the country finished ninth. The U18 squad, coached by LBA president Neverauskas, finished the tournament winless and in last place, with the U12 team finishing one spot ahead of Poland after a 21-6 victory on the tournament’s final day.

Domestically, the seven-team Lithuanian Baseball League was won by BK Vilnius.

YOUTH MOVEMENT

Despite the ever present challenges that Lithuanian baseball faces – limited infrastructure, the northern climate, competition domestically from more popular sports – the country remains poised to continue punching above its weight on the European stage.

In the inaugural U18 Euro Baseball Winter League, which took place on Tenerife in November, four Lithuanians  were among the 48 ballplayers that suited up, with Martynas Sadzevicius of BK Vilnius named the event’s MVP.

In addition, a number of Lithuanians are currently playing in the US, with pitcher Marius Balandis and corner inflieder Vytas Valincius leading the way.

The Vilnius-born Balandis, who was impressive on the mound against Romania on Day One of the Utena qualifer, striking out 15 while allowing no hits, pitches for St. Louis University.

The Lithuanian-American Vytas Valincius, an incoming freshman at the University of South Carolina, is a bonafide professional prospect who had the eye of MLB scouts in the run-up to the 2021 MLB draft. At Day One of the MLB Draft Combine in June, he recorded an exit velocity of 106.4 mph on a batted ball, good enough for third on the day. The achievement provides support to the claim in his Perfect Game profile that he was “one of the strongest players in the 2021 [MLB draft] class.” His .333/.421/.400 slash line at the Utena qualifiers, in which he held down the No. 3 spot in the lineup as an 18-year-old, bodes well for Team Lithuania.


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