National baseball team coach Mike Griffin on the popularity of baseball in the Czech Republic

Photo: Dirk Ziegener / freeimages

Prague Baseball Week is underway in the Czech capital offering games every day; baseball has grown increasingly popular in the Czech Republic over the last twenty years with eight teams competing in top flight Extraliga. I took the opportunity to talk to Canadian-born Mike Griffin, a former college baseball player who coaches the Czech national team.

Photo: Dirk Ziegener / freeimages
“Baseball in the Czech Republic has grown quite a bit and has very firm roots. We have leagues beginning from eight and up to the professional league. There is also a second men’s league, baseball fields everywhere, and the level of competition has really gone up.”

This is a country where there is a lot of emphasis on football and hockey. Is it tough competition? At the same time is baseball attracting more and more fans and players because it is somewhat unusual?

“A bit of both. All of the sports organisations are trying to get the best athletes and there is always competition. Soccer and hockey have a longer history here but baseball is growing fast: there are a lot of opportunities internationally and young players see that there is a future in baseball. It’s a ‘different’ game: a little more strategy, a lot of interesting details, kids like the thinking part of the game. Yet is also fast at moments and is a mix of strategy, psychology and speed.”

It is a fascinating sport: games can have a completely different feel to them, from lots of hits to a game where it is really a battle of pitchers and few opportunities to score.

“Yeah, we call it a cat and mouse game where the pitcher is trying to find a way to outsmart the batter and you have your pre-game plans and so on. It is at a very good level here right now.”

This is your second time with the national team?

My second time but first with the senior men’s team, before it was the U-21 team around seven years ago. Actually, today I coach some of the same players I did then. So it is fun to see how they have developed and grown.”

You had a lot of success with the team during the qualifiers for the 2017 World Classic. You had a nail-biting game where you almost upset powerhouse Mexico. The final score was 2:1…

“The guys were ready to go and took the fight to them. Mexico is one of the top baseball countries in the world, with some of the best baseball players in the world. But our guys competed well: they expect to win and upset some teams. The next day we beat Germany but lost to Nicaragua in the 11th inning. But I was really proud of them. It isn’t easy to suddenly play in front of 20,000 people. But they aren’t afraid of anyone and we are ready to go. The whole experience was great. They did really well against a team full of Major League Baseball players but they knew we could compete. When you think about it, our team was made up of some professional and some amateur players against some top MLB players.”

You are Canadian but you are based in North Carolina. You coached all over the world, here, in Asia… before that you were a player...

“That’s right. I grew up in Canada and I played in local teams and then the Canadian national team systems. In college, I played for the College of Southern Idaho and later at the University of Hawaii. But I suffered a series of injuries and so I gradually got into coaching. I played for two years in the Czech Republic and then took up coaching instead. Later, Major League Baseball asked if I could take a position in Asia, so I was based in Shanghai working with their development centres, but then Japan, Korea, Taiwan. Almost everywhere in the region and got to work with a lot of great people over there.”

Is it the same as coaching here or are there differences?

“Different countries have different philosophies and maybe something that they do a little differently but overall the game is the same. It depends on the kinds of players you have as well, whether you have a lot of power or speed and so on. But there are some things that all the best players in the world do. In the Czech Republic, the players have a good combination of power and speed.

“In terms of fans, baseball is extremely popular: in Japan or Korea they probably have more baseball players per capita than the US. The fans there watch every aspect of the game and it is quite intense. In the US, it is more laid-back and maybe family oriented. A good combination of fun and seriousness. The thing with baseball is that it is played every day in the season.”

What position was yours when you were a player?

“I started as a third baseman but some operations for sports-related injuries saw me later move to first base. So mainly infield.”

You aren’t based in the Czech Republic: is it hard to coach from abroad or mostly when you get together? Do you have to depend on assistants here?

“It isn’t as hard as it might have been in the past. We communicate regularly, players send me videos, we skype, and we get together five times a year to train or play in national team events. During the season, players are at their own clubs, some of them in the minors in the US, so I see them when they play for the national squad. Communication today, though, is better than ever. Right now things are good; it all works out well.”