Chasing a dream

A few days after winning the 1994 Amateur Baseball World Series, Jimmy Summers entered the house in Eastern Ohio alone. He was about to negotiate his first baseball contract and all he brought to the meeting was a six-pack of beer, a burning desire to play ball and an open mind.

As he reached the cellar, he saw that Kruno and Damir Karin, the representatives of Baseball Klub Olimpija Karlovac, were already there. The brothers K were standing between the bar and the Ping-Pong table, flashing broad smiles and holding a bottle of vodka.

Jimmy looked at his beer and realized that he had brought a knife to a gun fight.

* * *

Life was different in 1994. A gallon of gas was $1.11, the Montreal Expos had the highest winning percentage in baseball and there was a war in Europe. Well, there wasn’t a war in most of Europe, but there was a war in Croatia and, as Jimmy learned from George, that’s where Karlovac was.

George was George Vukovic, and without him neither this meeting nor any of what was to follow ever would have happened. But as chance will have it, in 1989 the basebal- crazed Ohioan did decide to visit the country his parents came from. And while in Croatia he did hear about some crazy students playing some sort of stick ball. One of them was the elder Karin, Kruno, who founded Olimipija.

George brought a baseball team from Ohio to play in Karlovac the following year, and in 1991 he organized the rematch in the States. The bond was formed.

His son Ross played alongside Jimmy on that 1994 national amateur championship team. Ross invited the Croatian visitors to the championship party, and a day later, in his dad’s cellar, Jimmy’s life was about to change forever.

* * *

It was an unorthodox signing, to say the least. The brothers K stressed all the advantages of playing in Karlovac (“Yes, there is technically a war in Croatia, but Karlovac is at least two miles from the front line”), while young Mr. Summers stood firm by his contract demands (“Guys, I don’t want to lose any money on this,”).

There were cups on the Ping-Pong table, and there were shots of vodka taken when one’s cup was hit by a skillful shot. As Jimmy later said, “I had no idea that Croatians were that good in Ping-Pong.”

When everything was said, drunk and done, there were no papers and no signatures. There was a hug and a handshake between the two 21-year-olds. “Dude, I’d really love it if you would come and pitch for us next year,” said Damir. “I will, I promise,” said Jimmy.

It was up to Kruno to organize the plane ticket, a place to stay, free food and a little allowance every now and then. The brothers left, hoping Jimmy wouldn’t change his mind between November and March, and the winter fell on Ohio.

* * *

Baseball in Croatia dates to the end of World War I, when Americans from Navy vessels played exhibitions in the coastal city of Split. The local kids took to it and played a bit on their own. They got the equipment in exchange for other goods, as gifts and, as a legend has it, by opportune usage of moments when the sailors were not paying enough attention.

Or, as one historian phrased it, “they were more base stealers than home run hitters back then.”

But then, the Americans left, interest died down and it was going to be a long time before baseball was to be played in Croatia again.

* * *

The radio station the Summers family followed kept talking about bombardments in Bihać all winter long. Finally, Mrs. Summers opened a map, only to see that Bihać was as far from Karlovac as Columbus was from Dayton. She wasn’t thrilled.

But Jimmy was 21, he wanted to play ball and see the world, he had given his word and he just hated his job at KFC. “It was terrible. I mean, literally, I had to sink my arms up to my elbows into the buckets of frozen chicken parts and deep fry them. Over and over again.” Overseas, there was an opportunity to play baseball for money waiting for him.

The fear of the unknown, of bombs and conflicts was real. But the fear of wasting his life without trying something extraordinary was even bigger and Jimmy started packing.

* * *

One plane took Summers from Cleveland to Chicago and when the next one landed in Frankfurt, Germany, he was abroad for the first time in his life.

He was also scrambling to get his entire luggage transferred, for Jimmy Summers was not traveling light. “Everybody and their grandmother ordered something.” he said. “I’m talking jerseys, gloves, bats, chest protectors, balls, cleats, batting gloves, you name it. I had a home plate, the four inch thick one. I was carrying duffel bags you could have hidden a NFL lineman in. Everything you can imagine, I had it.”

* * *

Not far away from that airport, a 12-year-old German kid was getting acquainted with the game of baseball. Simon Gühring, like his siblings, was blessed with both athleticism and curiosity, and when his older brother offered him the chance to come along to an introductory course on the American pastime his school was organizing, Simon said yes.

Simon had no idea just how deep his love for the new sport would grow to be. He was good at soccer and handball, but it was going to be baseball that would define his athletic career.

He also had no idea that he was going to cross paths with a pensive young American flying over him, on his way down South.

* * *

The war in Croatia started in 1991, and by the time March of 1995 came around, people were already used to it. There isn’t really a way to truly get used to war, but as worn out as the phrase sounds, life does go on.

As much as they could, people kept working, going to school, raising children, visiting relatives, falling in love and doing sports. War was like a dark gray background on the painting of everyday life and with time the focus went more and more to whatever bright spots could be found in the foreground.

* * *

Kruno was waiting in Zagreb, which is a 45-minute drive from Karlovac, as the plane from Frankfurt landed. The closer they drove toward Jimmy’s new home, the more visible were the signs of destruction. Most houses were scarred by shrapnel shots, some were completely destroyed and the ones that weren’t had their windows protected either by wooden planks or stacked sand bags.

There was also a funny rattling sound as they drove down the freeway. “What’s this noise?” Jimmy asked. “Oh, it’s just that the roads are like that after the tanks pass on it,” Kruno answered calmly. “No big deal.”

It was for real. It was different. It was unlike anything Jimmy could have imagined.

* * *

The first game Summers pitched was a spring training game against Zagreb, Karlovac’s archrival. He didn’t have his best stuff that day and he felt like he was getting squeezed a bit by the home plate umpire. He didn’t complain, though.


Jimmy Summers pitching for Croatia

“Croatian umpires were real characters,” he said. “I remember one guy who was a policeman and always made a point of leaving his sports bag half open, so everybody could see he had a gun in it.”

Whatever the reasons, the new acquisition got hit around by the Zagreb squad and failed to make the impression he had hoped on both the fans and his new teammates. After the game, Damir, the starting shortstop, took him to the side.

“Jimmy, it’s not looking good,” he said. “Our team president was in the stands, and he didn’t like what he saw one bit. He says your velocity is not where it should be, that you’re not holding the runners well and that, frankly, he thought your slider would have quite a bit more bite to it. He just doesn’t know what to do.”

Jimmy felt crushed. He had traveled to the other end of the world and after only one game there were already doubts about whether he had any future here. He pleaded his case vigorously until Damir’s face turned into a grin.

“Dude, I’m messing with you. He doesn’t even know the rules and he just said you looked like a nice kid. Let’s have a beer.”

* * *

The teams in Croatia had problems getting their hands on equipment, but the playing fields were a challenge, too. Karlovac had a nice field, somewhat ambitiously called the “Four Rivers Stadium” (take that, Pittsburgh!). The “four rivers” part was absolutely true, and by Croatian standards, “stadium” was probably in order, too.

Zagreb was constantly reshuffling its field and the work was carried out by the players themselves. As one player said, “We never knew when to bring the gloves and when to bring the shovels to the practice.”

Varaždin was using a multipurpose field shaped as a soccer pitch, posing problems of its own. Right field went on forever, meaning that any sharp shot over the right fielder meant an easy stroll for an inside the park home run. Left field, however, was only some 250 feet down the line. That called for some creative ground rules. Anything leaving the park to the left of the top of the poplar in left-center field was a double. Anything to the right of it was a home run.

Jimmy remembers his first game there. “(A huge teammate very appropriately nicknamed) Konan hit an absolute monster of a home run. I mean, he got everything on that one, it must have gone over 450 feet. I was in absolute awe.” It was also a double, as it left the field on the wrong side of the poplar.

You might think that playing left field in Varaždin was easy, with so little ground to cover. You might not know that there was a concrete Ping-Pong table in the middle of it.

Split had a quadrangular field as well, only switched so that the right field was the short one. The rugby team shared it, making Coliseum in September look as flat as an ice rink in comparison.

And those were the good fields.

Second division teams like Medvednica or Dugave didn’t really have a field at all. Before each game, they would build the field, and after every game they would pack all the stuff back and take it home. Sometimes, goats had to be chased off the field before the game. Sometimes, games had to be stopped as old ladies guided their wheelbarrows through the infield on their daily route they had no intention of changing for some kids’ games. But baseball was played regardless, with dedication and enthusiasm that impressed the young American.

* * *

Fields in Germany were scarce in the beginning, too, although unlike in Croatia, there was a lot of baseball played in and around American military bases, most notably in Mannheim area. Interestingly, the perhaps most instrumental person in popularization of baseball in Germany was neither an American nor a German, but—a Dutchman.

Jan van den Berg saw his first baseball game way back in 1951, when he was a 15-year-old. Roaming the streets of Amsterdam on a lazy August Saturday on his way back from a movie theater in another part of the city, he heard activity from a sports field nearby.

“I knew it couldn’t be soccer,” he said. “There was a summer break and back then, it really meant that nobody was playing.”

Instead, it was baseball, a strange game Jan didn’t know a thing about. In the ’50s, it was common for soccer players in Netherlands to play baseball during summer league stoppage. Almost every soccer team had a baseball department, and such great names of European soccer as Johan Cruyff of Ajax could be seen crouched in the catcher’s box or swinging the bat.

Jan watched the game for a while and he liked it. Soon after, he practiced for the first time and learned that he could throw the ball exactly where he wanted, albeit not very fast. He worked his way through the system for years, rising through the ranks of the juvenile teams first, and the senior competition later. By 1958 he played for the second team with occasional starts for the first team.

“We had a much better pitcher,” he laughs, “but he could go only once a week. So I got to pitch a lot of midweek games.”

Nobody confused van den Berg with an all-star caliber player, least of all he himself. But his talents were immense, nevertheless. Jan was a brilliant organizer, a persistent builder and an enthusiastic teacher. When a lovely lady he met in 1960 on Lake Constance turned to be the woman of his life, and when love made him move to southern Germany and spend the rest of his life there, the ground was set for Jan van den Berg to do what he does best—proselytize baseball.

* * *

By late April, Jimmy settled down. He had traveled to Rome for a tournament and played another one in Split, seeing beautiful European places he hoped to get to know. The team was finding the groove, winning the latter tournament against an ex-major league pitcher in the finals. They were doing well in the league standings and Jimmy himself was pitching well.

Then came May 1 and the Croatian Cup home game against Varaždin. Jimmy was the announced starter. It was a public holiday and there were to be festivities on the field after the game. He was psyched, wanting to show the home crowd what he was capable of. Kruno and Damir walked over to him and stopped his warm-up routine.

“We are going to be bombed in 20 minutes.”

There were no smiles and no fooling around this time. They dressed in silence and rushed off the field.

* * *

By the time Simon Gühring was born in 1983, Jan van den Berg had already founded or co-founded several teams around Simon’s birthplace and he was showing no signs of slowing down. He would hold seminars explaining the rules, he would help set the training programs, he would play, he would bring equipment from Holland in his old car. In short, he would do anything except take no for an answer.


Baseball always in the foreground – Jan van den Berg.
Photo Iris Drobny

His bouts with the city of Tübingen, another place where he co-founded a baseball team in 1985, are legendary.

When the city claimed there were no available fields for baseball teams to use, as they were all used by soccer teams, he divided the city in regions and sent his players on bicycles to check every single field on every weekend for a month. He then appeared in City Hall with a thick folder proving that many fields were not used to their full potential.

“The sports deputy was amazed that there were so many fields in Tübingen to start with,” remembers van den Berg with a smile.

When the city still declined to offer a dedicated baseball field, he devised a rotating plan and hosted a game in a different place each week. “Our opponents would come to the same place every weekend and then we would drive together to the field that was available for the day. Backstop, bases and everything else was in the car. We got pretty skilled in quick-building the field.”

When the city declined to make a gym available for baseball training during the winter, he organized practices in an abandoned theater. “I put the pitchers on the stage. These guys always wanted to be placed higher than anyone else and they craved for the spotlight,” he laughs.

Whatever problem arose, van den Berg had an answer. By the time Simon was starting to delve deeper into the game and Jimmy was scrambling for his life, Southern Germany had a pretty robust league structure already in place.

* * *

Jimmy and the brothers entered Karin family house just as the bombing began. For the second time they were sharing a basement, only this time there was neither a bar in it nor a Ping-Pong table. Kruno’s kids were with them and they were crying. So was his wife and so was his mother. They got the kids wrapped up and put them in a bathtub, trying to protect them as much as possible.

And then, Kruno walked over to the corner, turned on the TV and put a tape in the VCR.

Jimmy couldn’t believe it: “We were in the middle of a heavy, heavy bombardment. And there he goes, and plays a recording of the 1986 World Series.” Not that seeing that really helped improve the spirits of the Red Sox fan Jimmy was. But it did help cover the noises from the outside and only when Kruno would rewind a tape would they hear the explosions.

After a while, Damir slid over to Jimmy and said: “Let’s watch. C’mon let’s go upstairs and have a look what’s going on. But when we pass by the window in the hall, you have to walk quickly. A bomb just fell in the backyard. They might hit there again.”

Suddenly, NFAB Championship, KFC job and every other memory Jimmy had seemed as distant as if they were from another person. This was an utterly surreal dream and he was not about to wake up anytime soon.

* * *

Simon shot through German league system with ease. By the time he was 16, he was already on the junior national team, and by the time he was 18 he was so invested in baseball that he took up the offer to play in Winter League ball in South Africa. He did well and as he was staying in the apartment of Chris Miller, who was a scout for the Brewers, the question came. So did an answer. Just as with Jimmy, financial details didn’t matter much to Simon. The opportunity to play baseball professionally did, and a tiny signing bonus later, he was a member of Milwaukee Brewers organization, and he was about to play in Rookie ball in Arizona.

And just like Jimmy, he was a pioneer, one of the first to take that path into the unknown.

* * *

The next day Jimmy found himself trying to find some positives while giving the first-hand report to his family over the phone.

“Mom, the good thing is that Zagreb wasn’t bombed at all and it’s only half an hour away. So, if things get any worse, they promised to move me to Zagreb. Everything is under control, seriously. You can relax a bit.”

Mrs. Summers was not relaxed at all. Her son was in an unknown world, thousands of miles away, being shot at, and he was barely old enough to legally drink. Of course, it didn’t help that Zagreb was bombarded on the next day.

While Jimmy was trying to sound confident and in control on the phone, he was anything but. Everything his mother was thinking was going through his head, too. So, it was Kruno’s turn to try to put things in perspective. He patiently explained to the young American that this was an anomaly, that things were not really as bad as they seemed to be. That many people, including himself, would have already been drafted to the Croatian Defense Forces if it were to get any worse. That he hadn’t been drafted and that he was still right there, talking to him, now wasn’t he?

It did make some sense, and Jimmy went to sleep a bit more at ease, if only a tiny little bit. Then, in the morning, Kruno woke him up to say goodbye, wearing camouflage from head to toes.

* * *

When Simon arrived in Arizona, there was a familiar face. His countryman and soon-to-be roommate Mitch Franke was repeating the level, so he helped Simon ease into things. The first year in the pros was a challenge for Gühring, as everything was new and the competition was tougher than anything before.

It also gave him an inside look at how tough a life in organized baseball can be outside of the diamond. “Anything and everything can change in a heartbeat. Today you are playing, tomorrow you can be cut or called up—you never know when you will need to move.”

Getting fully invested in such a lifestyle presented perhaps even a bigger challenge to Simon than nasty sliders and speedy baserunners trying to steal against him.
“My present wife and I had been together for a while back then already. Slowly, I started getting the feeling that family and baseball might not get as much hand in hand as I had envisioned.”

Regardless, Simon returned in 2003. Having worked on his game hard, he saw his OPS rise by more than 100 points in his second go at the Arizona League. Even more importantly for a catcher, he was a bank behind the plate, cutting down more than 40 percent of potential base stealers, leading the team in that category.

Still, he was struggling for playing time. Just like Jimmy, Simon didn’t care much about the money, but while Jimmy’s playing days in Europe were made possible because he could fit into the tight Karlovac budget, Simon’s almost-nonexistent signing bonus demands were detrimental to his potential career.

* * *

You will not find many Americans who know as much about European baseball as Josh Chetwynd does. He played in the UK and in Sweden, and he compiled a very thorough and entertaining book, Baseball in Europe, covering the origins and history of baseball in 40 European countries.

He is also, as one scout put it, the reason European players became more expensive. Josh laughs, “I’m flattered to be mentioned like that, but I don’t know if I would go that far.”

His involvement with European baseball started in 1996 when he went back to his country of birth and became a member of Great Britain National Team. He later worked for the MLB office in London. During his playing days, he got to know European players better, a trend that continued after his playing career. Soon, he put his law degree to good use and started advising young European players who were about to sign with major league teams.

“The thing that many youngsters are not aware of,” he says, “is that in most organizations the playing time and the willingness to be patient with the player are proportional to the amount of the signing bonus. And the players don’t really have any feel for what someone of their talent is worth. ”

Josh helps some negotiate a contract, but some get a scholarship to a university or a junior college, something without any financial advantage to him. And as for signing bonuses, he feels that they now much better represent true market value.

“I know of a situation where a kid was taken to a back room after a good showing in the MLB Academy in Italy and handed a phone. The voice on the other side said ‘We’ll take you for $15,000’ or whatever and that was basically it. The kid did not have any leverage, did not know whether it is a fair value or not. This is where I try to help.”

The other reason that signing bonuses in Europe have evolved so much (solid six-figures are not uncommon nowadays) is a much stronger scouting presence in Europe. While the Twins, the Reds and the Mariners were among the first to invest significantly, now every team covers the region, with either a full time scout or a combination of several part time scouts concentrated on specific countries.

Installment of the MLB Academy in Tirennia back in 2005 was a huge push, both for players’ development and their visibility to the scouts. For two and a half weeks every year, the most promising teenagers selected from European and African national team programs train under the careful eyes of talent evaluators. These were several great breakthroughs for European players, but they all came too late for Simon Gühring.

* * *

Jimmy didn’t get bombed again that year, neither by artillery nor by opposing hitters. By the time playoffs came around, the rosters around the league were full again, baseball uniforms replacing the military ones, and Karlovac marched to the title, beating Zagreb in the finals.

The war was over in Croatia and Jimmy didn’t feel like going home just yet. Using a law provision for successful athletes, he became a Croatian citizen and a starter on the national team. For years he would keep playing and coaching, both in Croatia and Holland, enjoying every step of the way.

***

After a 2003 season in which he had only 63 plate appearances, Simon knew his days with Brewers were over. On one side the team had Bryan Opdyke playing his position; they had invested more than $200,000 in the fifth-round draft pick. On the other, it was not only that Gühring was not representing a significant investment, it was also that he was—a foreigner.

“I never had any problems being from what is an exotic baseball country. All the coaches and teammates treated me great. But, I needed a visa and they didn’t have any left for me.”


Simon Gühring in Berlin with Mike Piazza. Photo: Uwe Toelle, uwetoelle.de

In the post 9-11 era, major league teams saw their visa contingent dramatically reduced. Each organization had 40 visas for all the levels together and Simon knew the reality: “Why should a team give one of the coveted visas to a 20-year-old German, when they can give it to a 16-year-old Dominican?”

The timing for him could not have been worse; the Brewers shut down their teams in Dominican Republic and Venezuela in 2003 to keep costs down. That meant that the best players from those leagues got moved to the U.S. in 2004, further reducing the possibility of a spare visa for Simon.

It was time to go home and Gühring had no regrets.

“I gave it a shot. I’ve seen what it was like and those two years were very valuable to me. But, I’m not looking back and thinking ‘if only they had another visa,’ ‘if only I were born later and signed for a bigger bonus.’ Things in life happen for a reason.”

Simon exchanged the 100-degree heat of Arizona for Heidenheim, Germany, where games can get snowed out in late April and never looked back. Every now and then he gets approached by players or scouts who say that they can’t believe he is not playing in the States, but he just shakes it off.

“I have my family with me, I have my home. I play good, competitive baseball and I have great fun doing it. Looking back, even if the alternative might have ended in the majors, I wouldn’t change a thing.”

***

It was in 2004 that the roads of the two baseball players crossed for the first time. Jimmy was pitching coach at ADO in Den Haag, Netherlands, when the club signed Simon. The two teamed up in giving clinics to Dutch baseball youth, many of whom are now a part of that national team that won the World Championship last year.

Jimmy kept postponing a return to the States, but when his wife got pregnant in 2007, the couple decided it was time to go home. He now splits his time between the family construction business and a Play Ball Sports Academy, a baseball academy he runs in Stow, Ohio. It’s exactly the wealth of experience of playing overseas that enables him to offer unique teaching style that resonates extremely well with local youth.

“Not only have I seen different styles of play, but lot of the kids that I taught how to play didn’t speak English well. That forces one to be very methodical and instructive.”

He hasn’t lost his competitiveness and still has one big goal—to pitch for Croatia in the World Cup opener against Mike Piazza’s Italy this year. He says, it’s that exact thought that gets him out of the bed in the morning.

Looking back on that fall afternoon in 1994 and asked if he has any second thoughts about having chosen to go to Europe, Jimmy briefly pauses and speaks smilingly.

“None whatsoever. The only second thoughts I had were about going back to the States. My buddies who stayed in the States and played ball here were riding buses through Iowa and Indiana. I got to play in Rome, Amsterdam and Barcelona. I learned so much about life, but also about baseball. I’ve seen baseball grow over there, and not without some pride can I say that I was a part of it.

“I’ve seen a Croatian team beat the Pirates’ Single-A affiliate, the Dutch one beat the Braves’ Triple-A team. I’ve seen some of the kids I taught end up in the pros. There is no question in my mind—put me back in that cellar in 1994 and I’d do it all over again.”

* * *

Jan van den Berg stands next to the long line of people waiting for autographs and he can’t hide a smile. Long gone are the days in which he had to beg for an occasional usage of a soccer pitch. There are some great new baseball facilities and baseball boarding schools around now. The game between German and U.S. national teams during the World Cup qualifier in Regensburg was attended by more than 10,000 people. And now, during the European Championship in his Stuttgart, on a brand new field, people are lining up to get an autograph from—baseball players.

The German national team, captained by Simon Gühring, has closed the gap to traditional powerhouses Italy and Netherlands and played some close games against such teams as Cuba. Max Kepler-Rozycki of Berlin was signed by the Twins for $800,000. Kai Gronauer, with the Mets organization, made it to Double-A last year. Germany was added to the World Baseball Classic 2013 qualifying field. Things are looking up.

But much more than the success of its best, the essence of European baseball remains the one of unspoiled enthusiasm. Its most defining stories are not of its stars, but of thousands of others, who play because they love the game, perfectly aware that they will never in their lives enter a major league stadium without paying admission, yet hustling and caring and giving the game all they have just the same.

In a sense, it’s baseball how it used to be.


The fields might be scarce, but Daimlers are not. Memmingen, Germany


10,000 people gather in Regensburg, Germany to watch the home team take on U.S. in a World Cup qualifier.
Photo: Walter Keller, walterkeller.de


Team Germany gathers before a bronze medal game against Sweden. European Championship, Stuttgart, 2010

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Comments

  1. bucdaddy said...

    Cool story, well written. H/T to these two guys and everyone everywhere who plays the game.

    Thanks for sharing.

  2. Chris Waters said...

    This article is wonderful! This is what baseball is, what it means top any and all of us who played through pee wee ball or whatever, who dreamed about playing ball.

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