Michael Varga might only be nearing 25 years of age, but his baseball CV is already chock full full of entries: a Junior College World Series appearance, two years with the NCAA Division-I Presbyterian College Blue Hose, stints abroad in Belgium and Australia, participant at the 2019 World Port Tournament, 2020 Austrian Bundesliga home run champ with the Attnang-Puchheim Athletics and, for the 2021 season, he will be suiting up for Draci Brno, one of the most storied clubs in the Czech Republic.
Varga had an excellent 2020 season in Upper Austria with the Athletics, amassing a slash line of .376/.500/.823 across 24 games. Sixteen of his 32 hits went for extra bases, including 11 home runs in just 85 at-bats. Following up on his success in 2019 with the Mont St. Guibert Phoenix in Belgium, where he tied for the league lead in home runs, Varga has established himself as a top import on the European circuit. He is currently pursuing Hungarian citizenship, and working on his Hungarian in order to do so, which suggests that he will be competing on Europe’s ball fields for years to come.
In the first portion of a two-part interview, which occurred via email, Varga explains the challenges of preparing for the 2021 season and joining Draci, discusses the pressures of being an import player, and talks about the philosophy behind his coaching service, Michael Varga International Coaching.
Francisco Barreto: How are you preparing for the season?
Michael Varga: Right now I am back on my family’s farm in Connecticut. It’s a beautiful place to be, but in terms of preparing for a baseball season, I think I’d rather be in South Carolina [Home of Presbyterian College]. We’ve had a lot of cold, snowy weather, and there are not many local connections in terms of other college or pro-type players looking for an offseason partner. But honestly, those are adjustments I’ve had to deal with most offseasons in my baseball journey, so it’s easy to manage.
The Covid-19 restrictions have definitely complicated things a lot further. The US is much less restrictive than Europe, but there are still some tough rules in place, especially in my region. My good friend and longtime personal coach, Peter Olson, lives in the next state over, and we aren’t allowed to meet each other at the normal baseball facility we use. In that sense, it has been tricky. Running a bit of a one-man offseason is not ideal. But I think if anything, this pandemic has shown us that having success absolutely entails knowing how to be adaptable.
Has Brno been in touch about the start of the season?
As of this moment in time, I am slated to leave in mid-March for the Czech Republic. Also as of now, the Czech Extraliga is beginning on time, and as far as I know, the federation is pushing hard for an on-time opener, which is really encouraging news. I’d say as an international baseball fan, most leagues are going to start on time if not close to it.
However, more importantly than this, my biggest concern is the state of international travel. I think any type of import [player] is going to have a lot of trouble getting overseas in 2021 again, regardless of when league seasons begin. [In my opinion,] The rules and regulations of international travel have been very poorly conceived and managed for the duration of the pandemic, and I think it’s hard for most people to see that because it does not necessarily directly affect them on a daily basis.
That being said, from an import perspective, I look to travel restrictions more than season start dates as an indicator of whether or not I personally will be participating in the season, because I think there is a good chance a lot of leagues begin the 2021 season with little to no international players again.
How and when did Brno get in touch?
Draci Brno has been something in the works for over a year and a half now. I was actually supposed to have played with them during the 2020 season, but the Czech Extraliga’s decision to temporarily ban the majority of foreign import players from the league due to the virus prevented me from participating. Attnang was a very last-minute opportunity that came as a result of not being able to play in Brno, and it honestly worked out in the best way. Needless to say, I’m super excited to finally be a part of Draci and to help continue the winning tradition there.
(Editor’s note: Draci Brno has won 22 Czech championships, including 16 in a row between 1995-2010. The club will open the 2021 campaign as defending champions. In 2017, the club also won the CEB Cup, Europe’s second tier club competition, and it has been competitive in the CEB Champions Cup, Europe’s premier club competition, narrowly missing out on qualification to the finals in 2015.)
Have you been in touch with the coaching staff or any of your future teammates?
Usually, I do get in touch with, at the very least, a team’s coaching staff before I arrive to the club. I know this has been a theme throughout the interview, but with Covid-19, that has been a little different this year. I do speak with one of the head guys at Draci about once a week, just to touch base and keep everyone updated and on the same page. But with the uncertainty again this season, I have not gotten too immersed in the program as of yet.
In terms of imports, Draci always does a good job of bringing quality international guys in to compete and help lead the program. And for me I think its important to keep in mind that actions always speak louder than words. I like to express my excitement and gratitude and eagerness to join a program and meet new teammates and things along those lines. But I think it’s critical to lead by example, and to let your actions dictate the conversation. I like to show new teams and new players what I’m about first, and then let that help facilitate the conversation, as opposed to vice versa.
Is it difficult to walk onto a team with an established domestic player pool and then be “the guy,” a leader?
The most important thing for me when coming into a new team is fostering mutual respect. I think import-team relations do have a chance to get dicey if that foundation of mutual respect isn’t there, and then, yes, it’s absolutely difficult to walk onto an established team and hold any kind of weight on your own.
From an international player perspective, a lot of guys in the US have no idea that baseball internationally exists at all, let alone at the level that it is at, and continues to grow into. Europe, Australia… baseball is taking off in its own right, and so it’s important to acknowledge that, to appreciate that, and to be a student and a learner as much as a teacher.
The other side of that is, hey, baseball is a hard game, a humbling game. There’s definitely a right level of expectation that an import player has from a club to perform and be “the guy”. But ultimately, baseball is a game of failure no matter what country you play it in, so there’s going to be some type of ups and downs in performance that our sport just naturally entails. When those things are understood, and there’s mutual respect about those topics, then not only is it easy to be “the guy” or to be a leader, but it’s a lot easier to have success in general on the field.
Tell us about Michael Varga International Coaching. What led you to start the business, and what are your coaching plans while in Brno?
Michael Varga International Coaching (MViC) stemmed from my desire to continue nurturing relationships and coaching ballplayers that I meet abroad. I get an amazing opportunity to be in the sphere of influence and development for both kids and adults around the world, and I take pride in the small part I get to play in the development of baseball internationally.
Ever since I began my overseas baseball journey in Belgium, I’ve looked at ways to provide a platform for international baseball players, regardless of talent or location, or if we’ve ever met before, to tap into my knowledge pool and reach their individual baseball goals, because I think I have a lot to offer. So MViC has been the product of that passion. With the difficulties the pandemic has brought logistically to in-person coaching, people have had to grow accustomed to online coaching and began to realize there can be benefit to that as well. So on the website (www.michaelvargainternationalcoaching.com), I offer a wide variety of online and virtual coaching services that covers just about anything a normal in-person baseball coach would. From video analysis to virtual lessons to having a daily personal coach, I think there is a great deal of knowledge and experience [available] and a program that fits everyone. Ultimately, I’m just looking to turn good ballplayers into great ballplayers and, more importantly, great ballplayers into great people, too.
At Draci, I’ll still be running my personal service, but I’ll also be spending a lot of time working with the youth program there. Maintaining a deep, energetic, enthusiastic developmental youth program is so important for clubs in helping grow the game not only in their own vicinity, but around the world too. I’ve dove headfirst into the youth programs of every team I’ve played for and I’m excited to do the same in Brno.
The Extraliga is scheduled to begin play on April 2nd and you can follow Varga’s progress via Draci Brno’s homepage. Photo Credit: Michael Varga International Coaching.
For more of mister-baseball.com’s coverage of European baseball, check us out on Facebook and stay tuned for the second half of Francisco’s chat with Varga.