Baseball is always considered a North American sport, however, the first recorded game of baseball was in Surrey, England in 1749. Since then America, Canada, Japan and various other countries have become the real hotbeds, leaving Europe behind. With soccer being huge in Europe, it is often hard for baseball to become a first choice. “People in Europe don’t always want to watch a long and sometimes slow game, they would rather watch soccer,” said Klijn, a 2nd baseman for the Haar Disciples of the German Bundesliga.
But now seems to be the time for baseball in Europe to thrive. A steady flow of European players are getting signed by Major League organizations. And it’s only a matter of time until a European born player makes a huge mark in the MLB. With talk of MLB playing a game in Europe by as soon as 2017, this indicates that baseball in Europe could be set to reach new heights.
Euro League Baseball (ELB) is set to kick off in 2016. It will be the first year that a professional baseball league in Europe runs with teams from multiple European countries. There are currently two professional leagues in Europe: the Dutch Hoofdklasse and the Italian baseball league. This ELB however, will be a true reflection of the best teams in Europe. So far, there are three teams from Germany, two from Holland, two from France, one from Italy, one from San Marino and one from the Czech Republic. Philipp Wuerfel, editor in chief of Mister-Baseball.com, a website dedicated to European baseball, says, “The big clubs in European baseball are moving forward with huge strides and would like to make money out of their passion for the sport.” So according to Wuerfel, who lives in Germany, the only way to make money is a professional league.
The best teams in Europe will mostly be made up of homegrown talent, but there will be opportunities for overseas players, if they can pay travel and living costs.
Europe is a very attractive prospect for many foreign players and there are already a number of so-called ‘import’ players scattered around in different European teams. Playing in Europe gives them a different experience and is also beneficial for the teams. The players are often asked to help with coaching local children to help grow and improve the game, which is a win-win situation for all sides.
Zach Stroman, formerly a European player in England and currently a 1st baseman at Waubonsee Community College in Illinois, agrees that Europe can attract overseas players. “If the exposure is there, American players will be interested as they want to travel and play overseas, I don’t think the level will be as good, however,” he says. The idea of a true professional league is one that excites many, and it shows that baseball in Europe is making huge strides.
Another indication that baseball in Europe is on the rise is the fact that the MLB have identified the continent as the next place for a major league game. There are already advanced talks with the operators of the Olympic stadium in London, England, about hosting the first ever MLB game in Europe. Baseball is still the only major American sport yet to host a game in Europe. “That stadium, the way it’s built, actually is big enough for a baseball game. It’s not perfect, but it has some real potential,” said MLB International’s Clive Russell back in 2012 in an interview with the Telegraph. The fact that Europe is being considered for the game is an indication of how much baseball has grown. It also indicates that the MLB feel there would be enough fans to seat a 54,000 capacity stadium. This is even more surprising as there are only three other stadiums with a larger capacity in the world. Philipp Wuerfel is one of the many who feels it is realistic to expect an MLB game in Europe in the not so distant future. He has a great deal of knowledge about the game in Europe; his site has information on everything to do with baseball around the continent.
“I believe it’s realistic to think about MLB games in Europe in the next five years,” says Wuerfel. “Major League Baseball is always looking for new markets and teams have played in various locations in the last couple of years. If they find a great location in a major city, which they can promote easily, they will go for it.”
The MLB European academy is something I have a close connection to, as I was a member of training camp in both 2012 and 2013. The MLB academy is for the top 50 European prospects from across the continent and it gives the players exposure to professional scouts. Many former major league players have coached the camp including; Barry Larkin, Steve Finley, Tom Gordon, Dale Murphy, Wally Joyner and Bruce Hurst. Seventy-five players have been signed by major league organizations since its inaugural camp in 2005. Clearly, the talent is there. In 2013, Italian Marten Gasparini was signed for $1.3 million by the Kansas City Royals. This was the highest signing fee a European player has ever received. Three players from the European academy have also played in the MLB: Italian Alex Liddi for the Seattle Mariners, German Donald Lutz for the Cincinnati Reds and another German born player Max Kepler for the Minnesota Twins. Kepler made his debut this year after having a fantastic season in AA with the Chattanooga Lookouts.
German pitcher Sven Schüller was signed by the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2013 and is currently playing at the rookie level for the organization. He spoke to me during his off-season training and gave his opinion on the chances available for European players to get scouted. “Overall I wouldn’t say it’s more difficult to be seen in Europe but there aren’t a lot of chances, so make sure you don’t get overlooked. I think getting signed out of Europe is a combination of preparation and luck,” he said. Seventy-five players in 10 years is a clear sign that Europe is going in the right direction and has plenty of talented players.
These talented players often play for their home nations. International competition and ranking is a clear indicator of how good a country is doing. Five countries from Europe are in the top 20 of the world baseball rankings, Netherlands are fifth, Italy 11th, Spain 17th, Germany 18th and Czech Republic 20th. This shows that European countries can compete with the top countries in the world. The premier 12 took place in November 2015 in Japan and Taiwan. It was a competition for the top 12 ranked nations in the world; Netherlands and Italy were Europe’s representatives. Netherlands managed to make it into the quarterfinals but eventually lost to the U.S.A. With many players in both the Italy and Netherlands squad playing in their native countries, it was a great showing considering many of the other teams had ex or current pros. Great Britain national team player, Richard Klijn, felt it was a great achievement.
“Both Holland and Italy did Europe proud and proved that they can compete with the best of the best,” says Klijn. “Although they didn’t win it will help grow the sport in Europe.” By European nations competing at the highest level possible and teams being included in the top 12 in the world, this shows that the game is improving and is clearly on the rise.
There are many positives coming out of European baseball. However, the continent as a whole still has a lot of work to do if it wants to compete with the biggest nations. Although Europe is making big strides, Wuerfel, Stroman, Klijn and Schüller all feel that the funding isn’t there. Without the money, there is only so far baseball can go. And since baseball is not an Olympic sport, many European governments do not fund it as much as other sports. But with rumours of the sport being re-instated in the 2020 Tokyo Olympics, it could be just what European baseball needs to develop and thrive.