This is going to be a bit of a departure from the free agents/recaps/trades cycle we've been used to seeing the last few weeks. I started reading a bit about the WBC qualifiers that were going on in Germany a few months ago, and thought about the game over there. As Reds fans, we've been blessed to see talented Europeans like Donald Lutz and Didi Gregorius enter our ranks (and less talented ones, like Alexander Smit, Luca Panerati, and Matteo Pizziconi). It seems to me like this is a market that for whatever reason, our team likes to look at, and it would be interesting to get a perspective on the game over there.
Enter Joey Kamide. Joey's an American baseball coach, running a team in the Czech Republic. I came across his blog and figured he could give us some neat insight on the game over there. I was correct, he was tremendous. Enjoy!
RR: First of all, congratulations on winning the league playoff this year, and securing promotion to the Czech Extraliga. Can you tell us a little about your background, and how you ended up in Prague, of all places?
Joey Kamide: Thank you, it was a great season for the club, which was a member of the Extraliga from 1993-2009 and has been striving to get back since their demotion. As far as my coaching background, I spent seven years coaching high school ball in Virginia before being recruited to coach with the Hungarian Baseball and Softball Federation last year. While coaching there, I was based out of Budapest, which I would recommend as a tourist destination for anybody. I then took the position here with Tempo and started in late January with our winter program. The city of Prague is probably better-known to Americans than Budapest because it’s more of an International business hub and tourist destination, and I’d also recommend a visit if you’re ever traveling in Europe. The history, architecture, cuisine and nightlife are really incredible here.
RR: What's the language barrier like for a foreign coach in Europe? Does that affect your effectiveness as a coach?
JK: It’s really not as difficult as you might think. When coaching with the senior team (ages 18-and-over), most if not all the guys will speak English, or at least have a good enough understanding of it. Some issues you can run into are when you’re trying to express an emotion, which sometimes can be taken the wrong way, and sometimes they don’t understand the baseball humor that those involved in the game are accustomed to in the U.S.
RR: What's the learning curve like for players in Europe? Do the players and fans typically grow up knowing the basic rules of the game?
JK: It really depends on what country you’re in. They’re more advanced in the game here than they were in Hungary, but that’s because they’ve been playing the game twice as long here and have four times as many players. I tell people there is really three tiers of baseball played in Europe. You have your first tier, which includes countries like Holland, Italy and maybe Germany. Then you have countries like the Czech Republic, which are in the second tier and competitive when they play in competitions against those first tier countries. And then there are countries like Hungary, in the third tier, which generally have been introduced to the game within the past two decades or so. Those countries haven’t had the exposure to foreign coaches, have not committed the financial resources, and don’t have the equipment available to them to help grow the sport. Give Europe another 20 years though, and baseball here will be very competitive across the continent as these other countries invest time, money and energy in the sport and start to catch up.
RR: How does baseball fit on the European sports landscape? Obviously, soccer is king there, but where does baseball register on the sports scale for most Czechs?
JK: Well, it’s obviously well behind soccer, and in most countries, hockey as well. Here in the Czech Republic, there are over 4,000 baseball players in a country of 10 million. Hockey is king here, followed by soccer. Basketball is popular here, but not as much as in European countries like Lithuania or Spain. And rugby is popular, but not like it is in Ireland, France or England. So there is definitely a window of opportunity here for baseball to take off, and they have the athletes here for that growth to be possible.
RR: What are the aspirations of most of the players you've coached? Are they largely content playing in the Czech Republic, or are they playing to get noticed by a MLB organization?
JK: There are a decent amount of guys who have been signed out of the Czech Republic, and a few who are currently playing low-level minor league ball. The issue with them has been advancing past that Rookie Ball or Single-A level. A lot of that is that they don’t get the same reps here as players from the U.S., Central and South America or Japan get, so they’re automatically behind other players their age. The highest level here, the Extraliga, plays a 35-game regular season, just two or three games each week. So your starting pitchers are topping out at around 100 innings a year, and your hitters are maxing out at 150-200 plate appearances. The other issue is with homesickness. It’s one thing for an 18-year-old from Georgia to get drafted and then sent up the East Coast to the New York-Penn League or Rookie Ball. It’s another for a 16- or 17-year-old Czech kid to get signed and then sent 5,000 miles away from home for the first time and then be expected to excel in a very new environment in a foreign country. So most of the time, you’ll have a kid get signed, go over and play for a year or two, and then come back and play either here or maybe in one of the other top European leagues.
RR: Though the rules are the same everywhere, we often see subtle stylistic differences between baseball in the US and Japan, for example. How does the style of European baseball differ from that of baseball in the US?
JK: Wow, well, I don’t want to get myself in trouble since I’ll be coaching here again next year! But there are certainly some differences. They like to play small ball here as often as possible. You see a lot of bunting guys over in the first inning here, where back home you let your guys swing it early on and then use the sacrifice in the later innings of a close game. I’ve also noticed that they’ll get guys thrown out more often here trying to steal third base, no matter how many outs there are in the inning. I’ve wanted to thank a few coaches for getting guys thrown out there for the first out in an inning, or to end an inning. So it’s been a bit confusing for me at times. On one hand, coaches will play it conservative by bunting early in games, but then they will get over-aggressive at times by getting a guy thrown out at third base when a base hit would have scored him from second base anyway. It’s all part of the growth of the game though, and I suspect the coaching style here will evolve the longer the game is played.
(ed. note: Dusty Baker would freaking love coaching in Europe.)
RR: How much exposure do Czech players have to the American game, as far as following the sport in its current form and having an understanding and appreciation for historical figures in the game?
JK: They have a good understanding of the present-day game, but not as much with the history of the game. They might not know that Joe DiMaggio had two brothers who also played the game, or that Babe Ruth started out as one of the top pitchers in the game before hitting all those home runs. Just the same as Americans might know who Messi or Ronaldo are now, but couldn’t tell you a thing about the history of soccer. Guys here at my club all tune into games on MLB.tv or ESPN America whenever they can, especially when there are afternoon games back home that start in the evening here. And I always see my Facebook stream full of videos or photos that they’ll post, so that tells me they’re all checking out the various sites that cover baseball back home to see what happened the night before. It’s also cool that I see hats from other teams besides just the Yankees or Red Sox here, which means they’re more than casual fans that are jumping on a bandwagon.
RR: The World Baseball Classic is fast approaching, with Italy, the Netherlands, and Spain all qualifying for the upcoming tournament. How much attention is this event getting there so far, and will fans of national teams that didn't qualify still pay attention to it?
JK: The WBC has a very good following in Europe, especially in countries like the Czech Republic and in Germany, which has an opportunity to play in the qualifier in September, and then obviously in the countries that qualified for the event. I think they’ll all continue to pay attention to it, but a big topic of conversation here is how these countries keep loading their rosters full of American players who are able to attain some kind of passport or citizenship based on family heritage. It’s definitely an issue that needs to be looked into. You’re not going to maximize growth of the game in these countries when domestic players have roster spots taken from them; for example, an American minor leaguer who’s grandfather was born in the country before migrating to the U.S. gets a spot over a guy who grew up playing in that country, earned a spot on the national team and will likely never again play on a platform like the WBC again. I know the same thing is the case for a team like Spain, which has a roster loaded with players from Central America. Maybe you put a cap on roster spots for these kinds of players, and then I think the fans in those countries will have even more pride when their teams do well in the international competitions.
RR: You attended the WBC qualifier last month in Regensburg, Germany, where you saw our own Donald Lutz play. Despite his team not qualifying for the finals next year, what can you tell us about how he looked there?
JK: I tell you what, that guy pulled a ball foul down the right field line that might have landed in Munich. The guy I’m sitting next to leans in and says, “If I’m the pitching coach, I go out there and tell the pitcher, ‘Better 500 feet foul than 400 feet fair!’.” He’s got a big bat, a Major League bat. It’s his defense that you could tell needs work. He made a couple errors that Joey Votto doesn’t make over there at first base. I’ll be interested to follow him, as well as Max Kepler, a German outfielder who signed with Minnesota for $800,000 a couple years ago, and see what they develop into.
RR: The Reds have had a few European minor leaguers the past couple years, with high-profile prospects from Germany and the Netherlands, as well as others from Italy. Do you tend to see the same teams concentrating on bringing in European talent, or do all MLB teams have a presence on the European market?
JK: I think all of the clubs are scouting in Europe. It’s not expensive to hire associate scouts and have them attend games and tournaments over here and pass names along to their regional scouts to look further into. It’s a low-risk, high-reward mentality, and they will want to build in-roads with domestic clubs and coaches over here as the game continues to grow and more prospects start to spring up.
I want to sincerely thank Joey for coming on and doing a great interview and for his excellent insight into the European game. You can keep up with his team's progress at his excellent blog, and as soon as MLB.TV comes up with a channel for the Extraliga, you can bet we'll be finding a way to cover the Titans in depth.