by Ty Eriksen
It has been a while since the European Qualifiers, but better late than never to reflect on the results, and try to interpret what they tell us about the direction of baseball development in the lower tier of Europe.
Five countries each hosted a qualifier, and it goes without saying that four of these hosts were clear favorites to win their group and qualify for next year’s European Championship. There were a number of surprises and close calls within each group, which make some wonder if a bounce or call could have produced a different result, and put an underdog in the European final twelve next summer.
Twenty-two teams entered into the qualifier round, the same number as in 2008 but with a few new flags represented. Seventeen teams won at least a game, and despite each group favorite going undefeated in the round-robin, a couple groups came down to the last game for the second spot in the final.
Besides the exciting outcomes, there were lots of good stories to come out of the qualifier, none less than the fact that twenty-two nations competed in five (more or less) successful qualifiers. Here are a few storylines that stand out.
Israel, hosting their first major tournament ever, forced a third and final tiebreak game against Great Britain, ultimately falling 5-2. For a young, inexperienced team that hasn’t had any real success on an international level, the boys from Israel deserve a tip of the cap. “Acquiring North American players with passports is great for any country because it gives you an immediate shot of talent,” says Nate Fish, assistant coach for Israel, “but we are more focused on long-term domestic development and feel it will pay off in the long-run, and is somewhat more meaningful if players who live there are on the field representing their country.” While some may point out that Great Britain had one of their weakest teams in years and almost lost to Georgia in the group stage, the team is still one of the most feared on the continent due to their ability to recruit players from anywhere in the British Commonwealth, and Israel showed that the lower tier countries are improving their level of play to compete with the higher teams. Fish says it may take time, but the change is noticeable. “My theory is every new baseball country needs a generation or two to really see if the game will become popular there.” So what does it take to get to that level? “Everything; money, facilities, exposure to good coaching, travel to countries with good baseball to see how it’s done first-hand, and someone from a baseball country who cares to help” answers Coach Fish.
In Antwerp, hosts Belgium ended up advancing through, but they were followed very closely by Austria, Poland, and Slovakia. In the final day of round-robin play, Poland lost a close game to Belgium, and thus a tie-breaker was used to sort out a three-way tie between Poland, Slovakia, and Austria, advancing Austria into the final. It’s debatable that either Slovakia or Poland was more deserving, having better team stats and having played Belgium much closer in their respective matchups. If one of them were to have upset Belgium in the round-robin stage, the headlining story may have been one of those teams reaching the European Championships next summer. As it is, both Slovakia and Poland should be acknowledged for their improvement, advancing the competitiveness of European baseball. Latvia was a feel-good story as well, unlucky to be placed in a very competitive group but fighting to the end. Coach Kristaps Aldins, also head coach of Division 3 School Stevens Institute of Technology, hopes to use the experience as a way to improve the Latvian league and not just the national team, as the players will return to their respective clubs and share their new knowledge. “If they can succeed in doing this, the national team will have a better familiarity with key aspects of the game such as bunt coverage, base-running, relay/cuts, signs, and pickoff plays the next time we head out to train. “ Coach Aldins continues, “For us, the 2011 qualifier was a giant step in the right direction. There is no question that our players believe that if they work hard on the things we practiced they can make some large improvement in the next competition in 2013.”
In Barcelona, Switzerland was the only team in the group to hold Spain to fewer than ten runs. Hungary Assistant Coach Justin Prinstein was impressed with Switzerland’s effort and the tight competition between teams, “Baseball is baseball, and on any given day if you put a pitcher on the mound with good stuff or decent stuff and good command, anything can happen, especially in tournaments like the Qualifier where pitching is spread pretty thin over 4 or 5 days. Switzerland can be considered a mid-level team but Hungary and Ireland still played competitively with them for the most part, despite being considered lower level. And then Switzerland almost beat Spain in Game 1 of the finals, losing by just one run.” The Swiss were so bold as to test the Spanish twice, falling by the scores of 6-0 and 3-2. They may not have the experience on offense to hit top pitching, but their pitching was strong and defense was above average. As Prinstein says, if you can keep it close, anything can happen.
Not every group provided such positive excitement, however; in Russia, there were complications and results that make a strong case for holding the qualifiers in countries that are more accessible for competing countries. Down in Croatia, the hosts distinguished themselves as well above second place Bulgaria, who was then in turn a few steps beyond the third through fifth place teams.
We shouldn’t lose sight of the success. Four competitive qualifiers, with three close races, are a testament to the CEB’s grouping and MLB and IBAF development programs in Europe. Each country should feel that they have a chance to compete, and while some countries are still lacking infrastructure and equipment, the chance to compare to their European counterparts is a more than just a biennial baseball event. Improved competition helps all teams at all levels, meaning development and improvement in the lowest tier is critical to improving the level of ball on the whole continent.