Small Country, Big Dreams: Czechia’s road to baseball glory
Czechia’s national men's baseball team is on the road to the World Baseball Classic in Tokyo this March, but many may not be aware that this team is largely made up of professional baseball players, who also have full time careers outside of wearing Czechia’s national jersey.
Members of the Czech national baseball team dropped into Radio Prague International ahead of their departure to Tokyo to play at the World Baseball Classic (WBC). I had the chance to speak with designated hitter Petr Zýma, infielder Willie Escala, pitcher Marek Minařík, assistant coach David Nevěřil and pitcher Lukáš Ercoli, about the journey for the team to get the ticket to the WBC, and their new documentary, ‘Small Country, Big Dreams’.
‘Small Country, Big Dreams’, that’s the title of the latest documentary out, why do you think that name is fitting for the Czech baseball team?
Lukas: “I think it’s a perfect fit because we have some position in European baseball, we belong in the top five European countries, but if you look global at how big baseball is in America and Asia, for us since we are a small country, we don’t have a big history with baseball in Czechia, but we’ve shown that we can play against the best in the world, and we got the ticket to the WBC, which is the top 20 countries in the world, so I think it’s a perfect fit.”
David, maybe you can comment on this since you’re a coach. What is the state of the sport overall in Czechia compared to other major sports like ice hockey and football?
David: “We have a big chance to be on top, or be in a more confident position in Czechia where society understands how big the sport can be, and how serious it is to be in the WBC, that’s our main goal. We’ve done our best to prepare for the tournament, and I hope we challenge the best teams in the world, that’s our goal.”
Willie, I’m curious about you because you have an interesting background, you’re part Cuban, part Czech, but raised in the United States. How do you see the level of training in the US where you grew up versus here in Czechia, is there anything you feel one can learn from the other?
Willie: “I think it’s different because in the US obviously baseball is very prominent wherever you go, especially in South Florida where I grew up. But what I’ve noticed here in Czechia is that the professional teams have their development teams right underneath, so they’re in a system where they all grow and play with each other, they continue to play and get better with each other, which is pretty cool because in the US, you’re with your team throughout high school, but then from high school you go to different colleges, and from college if you go to professional, you’re all going throughout the country so it gets very spread out. And you make a lot of friends that way, but at the same time, here in Czechia they have a very strong brotherhood and sense of companionship on the team.”
Marek, what do you think is unique about the comradery on the Czech national team, do you think it’s something other countries are lacking?
Marek: “I think a lot of teams are lacking this, because the [Czech] national team is all about the friends we really are- everybody knows each other, we know each other’s families, sisters, and brothers, so if something is happening, we can help each other. On other teams, if something happens in their families, they don’t know each other's families, they don’t know what’s going on. So whatever happens on our team, we can go to each other and help each other.”
What I think is really interesting about you guys, is that you’re a team of professional baseball players, but you also have full time jobs, we have an investment banker here, a realtor, that’s a lot, so how do you manage being professionals in both senses, with your careers and with baseball?
Peter: “Baseball is passion, it comes easy to me, I believe it’s the same for the other guys. Once you have the passion and you see the sense of it, you will always find a way. You will always find a way to make it work with business, with family, with work, with kids, and with baseball. Because when we get to the field, you can see the pure joy, of us being just like little kids, and playing the sport that we have now managed to make a huge step in. We’ve been really close in the last ten years, and this is no luck for us, it’s been something that we’ve been knocking on the door for. There’s a lot of sacrifice, and our families often take the burden for us, because we don’t always have the time for them. But now we’ve taken the major step, and it’s just proof that the way we’ve approached baseball with the kids, with the youth programs, it’s something that’s sustainable for the future.”
Are there any skills that you guys take from your professional careers outside of baseball, or any skills that you bring from baseball to your professional careers?
Peter: “I would say that I am a baseball player, it defines me and it’s my lifestyle. And sometimes you win, sometimes you lose, you take feedback from the game. So I definitely take it into my business. When I put my suit on in business, I know it’s game time, just like when I put my jersey on and step on the field, I know it’s time for me to perform way better. I can definitely handle the pressure at work because of baseball, and also with my family. I think you just focus on what’s really important, and I do believe I am a baseball player. I’m usually thinking about baseball when I’m doing business, and I barely think about business when I play baseball.”
Lukas: “Definitely, I think for me it’s the same as Peter said, baseball just formed me my whole life since I was five. Team sport, team spirit, and cooperation are really important skills you can use in your professional life and in your business. As our manager Pavel says, he runs a neurologist office, and when he is hiring new people for his team, he wants to know if the person played team sports, because it's totally different when you know what you need to sacrifice for team success. It’s not just about your goals, it's about team goals, and everyone has to sacrifice something for team success.”
David, as a coach is it ever difficult to train a team that also has so many other competing priorities?
David: “It’s hard to be on the same page, about work, and the confidence you have after work, just like Peter said, the passion- that’s our main goal, and everybody on our team is one big family, and it’s our goal to stay on this level and to achieve our dream.”
David, are you hopeful that one day people will be able to play baseball in Czechia and have that be their professional career, and to not have to work on the side?
David: “Yea, maybe one day, and these steps for us are the main goals, that people in Czechia start to know the sport better. For people in Czechia, it’s so hard because they have so many opportunities to see sports, especially in Prague, and if we do the steps right I think the people are going to know the sport better and will join us, and maybe the professionalism will come later. But I think now we need more passion than professionalism.”
Peter: “We see it with the major sports, once a team has a huge success, then there is a platform for growth of the sport. We’ve seen it in biathlon and floorball here in Czech - they’ve gotten a major surge of interest. At this point, our advancement to the WBC tournament, some might say it’s one of the biggest sports Czech feats ever being done. So for us, this might be the platform of rapid growth of baseball, where people can see the passion and the conditions we have, anything is possible. The small country is about to face baseball giants in Tokyo next month, and I think we’re ready to take it to the next level.”
Just thinking about the next generation of baseball players here in Czechia, what are your hopes for the next generation of players?
Marek: “I know a lot of young players right now who are developing really well, we have great coaches. Before, we didn’t have coaches who were getting paid to only coach, they all had other jobs as well. Now, we have coaches who are just with the teams and helping the players. So we can see amongst the younger players a lot more improvement, and a lot of players trying to get to the US to colleges. So the future for the Czech national team and Czech baseball is going to be really good, when the younger kids will be older. There are many years to go, but the future is going to be really good.”
What about you David, as a coach how do you see the future?
David: “Just like what Marek said, we have better development to join the Czech players into the American systems where other major league pro’s go to. We have a better future now because we have many more opportunities to get the young players more developed.”
Before we wrap up, let’s talk about the WBC coming up in Tokyo. You’re in a pool with some pretty tough teams, Japan, South Korea, China, and Australia. Are you particularly excited or nervous about meeting any one of those teams?
Lukas: “For me, I don’t feel nervous yet, but we will see with 50,000 people in the crowd, but I’m excited, it’s a normal baseball field, it’s a huge stadium, but you have to think about it like it’s a normal baseball field, like the fields we’ve played on over the last 20 years. But yes, we will definitely face some of the best in the world, and teams that are fully professional and could practice twice a day, so they will probably be better prepared for this because we could just practice in our winter facilities here in Czechia. But on the other hand, when you step on the baseball field, everybody has the same chances, the balls are the same, the bats are the same, anybody can make mistakes. So I think if we can play the same game against Spain, for the qualification tournament, that was the game where everything went our way - we had perfect defense, we hit two huge home runs, and we had great pitching. So if this happens, we can easily beat China or Australia and get the ticket for the WBC 2025.”
Peter: “I think we have done everything we could given the circumstances. I can feel it from the whole team. Everyone is sacrificing every single second to get ready. We know what to do, we are humbled to be there, we are excited to be there, but we aren’t going there just to be there - we’re going to make some noise, if possible. So either we will win, or we will learn. There is no other option. Like I said, the momentum we can gain from this is something we can use to build the next steps for the Czech national team.”