John Miller, a Belgian-American journalist, and a player/coach for the Brussels Kangaroos, is in his fourth year of writing Old World Pastime, a take on baseball as lived in 21th century Europe.
The winds of work sailed me to Sweden this weekend, and I took advantage of the travel opportunity to drop in on my pal Frank Pericolosi, the former Kangaroo and ace Pomona College coach who’s laboring for the baseball club in Rattvik this summer.
It’s a town of 10,000, three hours northwest of Stockholm, next to a tranquil lake surrounded by tall, elegant pines. You wouldn’t think so, but it’s home to one of the more remarkable baseball clubs, and men, in Europe.
The Rattvik Butchers – yes, that is a sweet, meaty name – have been going for decades now. Their cornerstone is Magnus Hoglund, a right-handed pitcher, now 49 years old, who put together one of the best national team baseball careers in the world.
Between 1980 and 2008, Magnus pitched in dozens upon dozens of international tournaments. He debuted as a baby-faced 18-year-old, playing in the baseball of Jimmy Carter’s presidency, and graduated from international baseball at 46, an adult male living in a world with wireless internet, the euro and the aftermath of the steroid era.
In between, Magnus threw his canny, cutting arsenal against Italy, the Netherlands, Canada, Panama, the list goes on and on. Swedish baseball is not the world’s best, but it is good enough that the Swedes play with the big boys. For instance, Sweden has, at least once, defeated Italy.
Evenings on Lake Siljan with Magnus generate anecdotes by the peantutful. “I gave up a dinger to Joey Votto…I struck out Bobby Bonilla… I faced Nick Markakis, can’t remember what he did.” Degrees of connection in baseball can quickly, and delightfully, unite the globe.
During a late Sunday afternoon, before our drinking began, we had wandered over to the Butchers’s home field. Nestled beneath a short slope, it reminded me much of Kangaroo Field, before a destruction company started tearing it up last month. The outfield fence is strung together by horizontal slabs of wood. Leftfield is a tall monster, and all around are green and brown. Pure baseball.
Magnus and I long-tossed, and then he threw a pen. There are not many men almost 50 years old in this world who can throw like he does. In a world of six billion human beings, maybe 1,000. Maybe.
The fastball snapped out of a cracking arm action, blowing in at the knees, an effortless 80 mph. The curve and slurve bit like angry dogs. And then there was the changeup. “I throw a one-finger changeup,” Magnus had told me the night before, as we munched sausages off his grill, and drank Tuborgs, while admiring the loving sun setting over the lake. He grips the pitch with his middle finger, he explained. “Sometimes it spins off to the right, and sometimes to the left.”
And so it went in our mini-bullpen session. The first dropped a foot. The second spun off to my right. I had never seen this pitch before.
It is a good world, this, where one might spend a weekend in a small Swedish town, play catch with the Jamie Moyer of European hardball, and learn a new pitch.
Do you know any new pitches? Please do tell, at firstname.lastname@example.org