When I think about the state of Lithuania baseball when we were first introduced to it in 2002, and then compare it to what it is today, we can take pride in knowing that we have made a difference.
And so can many of you.
You have helped this cause in so many ways – some of you reading this were host families when the Lits visited in the U.S. on one of their three trips. Others of you have coordinated the gathering of equipment from local leagues to ship over. Still others have actually handled shipping logistics, or made a donation, or supported Sam Griffith and I in other ways, some of which we don’t even know about.
What it all translates to is that baseball has risen to be the third-most popular sport in this nuts-about-athletics country, behind basketball and soccer.
Here are some facts about the sport’s growth and success since 2002:
* Lithuania baseball teams have visited the U.S. the spring of 2006, 2007 and 2008, staying with host families, playing baseball and sightseeing.
* Thousands of pounds of equipment, uniforms and clothing have been donated.
* Sam and I have coordinated U.S. teams coming to Lithuania to participate in their August invitational tournament since its inception in 2005, and then we have run the tournament, trained umpires and umpired ourselves.
* We have umpired adult league games in Lithuania, providing as many as four umpires to games that sometimes have none.
* Three Lithuanian umpires worked Little League regional tournaments this summer.
* Lithuania sent its first two players in history to the Major League Baseball tryout camp in Italy this summer.
* Lithuania now has indoor batting and pitching facilities in Vilnius to facilitate year-round training.
* Lithuania hosted its first Little League regional tournament in July, won that tournament and represented Europe at the Seniors World Series in Bangor, ME, for the second straight year.
* Three Lithuanian players lived and trained this summer in Illinois, and others have spoken to Sam and I about doing the same thing in California next summer.
* Some parents of Lithuania baseball players even spoke to us about what it would take for their sons to go to high school and play baseball in CA.
* Land has been earmarked for new baseball complexes in Vilnius and Utena., and the Lithuanian military, which already lends financial support to the Sporto Vilkai Cup each August, will play a part in ensuring those new facilities get built.
* Four times more kids are playing baseball in Lithuania since 2002, and they have a tremendous amount of equipment and uniforms from all that we have sent over, but there is now a coaching shortage. In fact, Lithuania Baseball is considering running ads in the U.S. looking to recruit coaches – they’ll even pay lodging and living expenses, in addition to a coaching stipend.
These are all new developments since Sam and I first laid our eyes on ragged-looking Lithuanian baseball players in sweatpants and t-shirts at the European Regional in Poland in 2002.
Through the efforts that all of us have made, Lithuania has had measurable success in European tournaments, and now the government and military are getting behind the program in an even greater way than before.
The whole thing is pretty cool to witness first-hand.
WE HAVE EATEN everything BBQ has to offer – eel, salmon, chicken, pork, steak and hamburgers. We’ve seen more pizza than Papa Murphy. We have consumed more than our share of beer, wine, moonshine and coke. We have seen enough cucumbers and tomatoes to last a lifetime. It’s been 11 days – time to go home.
To our growing list of Lithuanian friends, see you next year.