by Chris Dassy
I met Kristaps Aldins at the ABCA Convention in Nashville in January, thanks to one of my former players, Morgan Brown, former captain of the Harvard baseball team and probably the most brilliant person I have met. Morgan is currently assistant coach at Harvard and he introduced me to the other assistant coaches on Crimson’s staff.
Amongst these guys, sitting at his desk, was Kristaps, working on a computer.
It didn’t take to be a scientist to understand how much passion he had for the game.
He was very animated as he was talking about his work with Latvian baseball and you could only like that type of personality.
I’m not a journalist or even a writer but I felt the need to let baseball people across Europe know about his story.
So here it is.
Chris Dassy: Kristaps, can you tell us a bit about yourself?
Kristaps Aldins: My name is Kristaps Aldins and I am a Latvian- American from Boston, Massachusetts. Both sides of my family are from Latvia, and I grew up in a bilingual/bicultural family, active in both the American and Latvian communities. I also have a younger brother, Gints, who recently graduated from The Hartt School of Music (University of Hartford).
As a child, I grew up playing baseball and the game has always been a big part of my life. I played on teams throughout my childhood, in high school, and then also in college. I attended Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, New York and graduated in 2005. While there I was a four-year starter and team captain. I have visited Latvia a couple of times in my life, most notably in 1993-1994 when I was 12 years old. During that year we lived in Riga, the capital.
My parents have always been committed to their Latvian roots and were active in Latvian exiled communities worldwide, particularly as professional musicians. They were original members and founders of the vocal and instrumental ensemble Kolibri. In 1988, they made history as the first exiled Latvian musical ensemble to be invited to participate in the folk festival Baltica 88. Their visit coincided with the movement for independence from the Soviet Union, and all their performances were emotionally and politically charged, as people rallied for the cause of freedom.
CD: What is your background?
KA: This is my sixth year coaching college baseball and my second as an assistant at Harvard University, a Division I institution in the Ivy League. I also am the Director of the Rising Star Academic Prospect Camp, which helps draw baseball prospects to the Harvard program. During the summers I participate in numerous camps and clinics across the country in addition to a rigorous recruiting schedule. Prior to Harvard I spent 4 years as the recruiting coordinator at Massachusetts Institute of Technology, a Division III institution. While there MIT appeared in two conference championship games and set a program record for wins in 2009.
CD: How did you get be in touch with European Baseball?
KA: My experience with European baseball started in the summer of 2002 when I was contacted by current Clark University Head Coach, Jason Falcon, to travel to Brasschaat, Belgium to participate in the Flanders Invitational Tournament. Representing the United States Athletes International organization, I was exposed to the quality of European baseball and always knew that I would like to return some day in some capacity.
CD: What do you know about European baseball?
KA: I know that the game has been growing by leaps and bounds. While in Europe in the summer of 2002 I was impressed by the quality of play from various European national teams including Belgium and Sweden. I’m sure progress has continued to take place ever since thanks to the efforts of MLB International, MLB Envoy and, most importantly, the passion and dedication of the baseball enthusiasts in each individual country. Although this has been my only true overseas baseball experience, I have been doing research on European Baseball ever since… The level of play in countries such as Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain is obviously tremendous as all are rated highly in the IBAF World Rankings.
Although it has been disappointing to have baseball taken away as an Olympic sport I am confident that it will reappar in the near future. I know that there are many dedicated people out there who are working hard to make this happen. The efforts to promote the game on a global basis through events such as the World Baseball Classic have been tremendous and there is no doubt that baseball has the potential to continue growing in popularity around the world.
CD: What led you to accepting the position of head coach of the Latvian National Team?
KA: The chance to serve as Latvia’s Head Coach in the European Qualifiers is an opportunity that I cannot turn down as there are not too many opportunities that involve representing your native country in international competition! I am very grateful to Harvard’s longtime Head Coach, Joe Walsh, for allowing me to pursue this exciting endeavour.
Ever since I have been a college coach I have actively worked with the National Team in Latvia. In fact… Upon returning from my trip to Belgium with USA Athletes I decided to Google “Latvian Baseball” and was excited to find the following website: http://www.beisbols.lv/. Since that day I have assisted the Latvian National Team as a consultant in numerous capacities.
A major factor in making this summer’s trip to Latvia a possibility has been the assistance and guidance of MLB Envoy. During the 2011 ABCA Convention in Nashville, Tennessee I met with representatives from MLB International and Envoy. The result of these meetings was an agreement to send a MLB Envoy representative to Latvia for first time in history. I believe that this visit has the potential of making a major impact.
CD: Could you tell us about Latvian baseball?
KA: Baseball has been played in Latvia since the mid 1980’s but experienced a rebirth 2003. Its popularity has grown markedly over the past few years led by the efforts of a couple of dedicated enthusiasts, including Igors Aleksejevs (chairman of the Latvian Federation) and board members Didzis Doveika, Rudolfs Budze, Liga Usane, Andis Ansons, Ilgvars Ebels, Zigmars Lapa, and Maris Zviedris. By 2011 there are now 10 teams competing for the Latvian baseball Championship.
Additionally… Latvia has a national team (governed by the Latvian Baseball Federation) which competed in the 2008 European Qualifier In Czech Republic. At that tournament they competed against Czech Republic, Poland, Belarus, and Slovenia. The national team has also gained international experience competing in tournaments in Sweden, Estonia, Lithuania, Belarus, and Poland. The national team was formerly supported by the Latvian National government, but that support has evaporated since the Olympics dropped baseball as a sport.
Over the years Latvia has benefited from generous donations from organizations such as the U.S. Embassy in Latvia and “Pitch in for Baseball.” This support will continue to be important while baseball continues to grow in Latvia. The biggest goal this summer, with the assistance of MLB Envoy, will be the development of an effective youth system. In order to continuing growing the game, much effort will need to be pouted into this endeavour.
CD: What will be your preparation for the Qualifier?
KA: There will be quite a bit of preparation prior to the qualifier, much of it being off the field! Due to my coaching responsibilities at Harvard I will only be able to spend three weeks with the national team, which is not alot of time. As a result.. the two weeks I will have with the team in July in preparation for the Qualifier will need to be well-organized. Currently I am working with Professor Leslie Hitch of Northeastern University to help develop an effective program for the two-week training session (I am one course away from obtaining my Master in Sports Leadership from NEU). During the two weeks on the field with the team I anticipate that we will work hard on the fundamentals of the game and develop our own unique and aggressive brand of team baseball.
Behind the scenes there is already a great deal of preparation taking place. In addition to fundraising efforts, I am communicating with team representatives about various baseball-related activities that should take place in preparation for July’s training sessions with MLB Envoy. My goal is that the team is in good physical shape and 100% ready to train as soon as I arrive in mid-July. There are alot of things that will need to happen before this can be the case!
CD: In your view, what will be your biggest challenges for this event?
KA: The biggest challenges will certainly be cost and lack of time. The Latvian National Team is working hard to raise funds for the trip to Belgium and it is not a guarantee that all of the country’s top players will be able to make the trip. Most have jobs and many do not have the financial resources to be able to pay for the trip. As a result, we all are working hard to raise awareness and possibly receive financial assistance from both the Latvian government and various businesses.
The other major challenge will simply be a lack of time to prepare. Although modern technology has allowed for free and easy communication between myself and the team, having only two weeks on the field to prepare will be challenging.
CD: What are your expectations for this qualifier?
KA: This is a hard question for me to answer because I have never seen my players on the field. I know that each member of the National Team takes a lot of pride in the game of baseball and thus I am expecting that they will play hard and with a lot of heart. I am not planning on measuring the success of the trip simply by wins and losses. The development of baseball in baseball in Latvia is still in its early stages and our participation in the European Qualifier will serve as an important measuring stick. The way I see it is as that we are ranked #72 in the world. We can only go up from here!
CD: Give some background about Latvia as a country?
KA: Latvia is a country in the Baltic Region of Northern Europe. It is bordered by Estonia, Lithuania, Russia, and Belarus and is across the Baltic Sea from Sweden. The largest city is its capital Riga and its total population is 2.22 million. Latvia has been a member of United Nations since 1991, European Union since 2004 and NATO since 2004. After a long period of Soviet rule, Latvia gained its long sought after independence in 1991.
Latvia is 64,256 square km large. Climate is humid, continental, and temperate. Summers are warm and spring and fall are typically mild. Winters can be extreme with large snowfall totals and very short days (northern location).
Latvians are very proud of their culture and traditional folkore, especially dance and folk songs. Records of these date back over a thousand years.
Most popular sports in Latvia are hockey, basketball, soccer, tennis, and cycling. Latvia has had numerous players in the NHL and currently has one player in the NBA. Latvia men’s hockey team qualified and competed in the Winter Olympics in 2002, 2006, and 2010.