Lithuanian umpire adventure Day 11

August 20, 2008

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.

I’M OUT!!!

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Lithuanian umpire adventure Day 10

August 19, 2008

Virmidas Neverauskas, the Lithuanian national baseball coach, returned from the Little League Senior World Series in Bangor, ME, on Monday with a mixed bag of emotions.

On the one hand, he knows it was a feather in Lithuania’s cap to have qualified for the senior series for the second straight year. And to play competitively, never being 10-runned, was an accomplishment as well. It was the first time in the last 10 years that a European representative had gone to any of the Little League series (majors, juniors, seniors, big league) and not been mercied even once.

But Virmidas also knows that life (in his case, baseball) is all about timing. And he knows that if he’d had two of his best players, his son Dovydas, a catcher, and Edvardas Matusevicius, a pitcher, things could have been different. Those two players were integral in Lithuania having won the European title a few weeks earlier.

But this is where bit got a little tricky for Virmidas the father and Virmidas the coach.

Dovydas and Edvardas were among the 50 players invited to Major League Baseball’s European Tryout camp in Italy. Virmidas asked the MLB folks if there was anything that could be done about the schedule conflict, but it was fish or cut bait.

So Virmidas headed off to Maine and two of his best players headed off to Italy, the first two Lithuanian players ever invited to this tryout’

The Lithuanian senior team went 0-4, but two of those losses came to the two teams that made the championship game.

“And we played seven innings in every game,” Virmidas boasted.

As for Dovydas and Edvardas, they report that things are going well at the 3-week-long camp, which ends Aug. 28.

“Every MLB team is there,” Virmidas said, “and so far, it sounds like the Twins are the most interested in both boys. They really like the strength of Dovydas’ arm, and Edvardas is simply an outstanding overall player..”

And what are the prospects that one or the other might sit across the negotiating table from an MLB team in the next week or so?

Well, about 20%, if you’re a believer in stats. In the first three years of this tryout camp, MLB teams signed 5, then 7, then 9 players.

Players age 16-over can agree to and sign their own deal. Edvardas is 17, Dovydas 15.

I’M OUT!!!

******************


Lithuanian umpire adventure Day 9

August 18, 2008

I used to umpire adult baseball. I did it for two years.

I quit because I got tired of players screaming at each other. And screaming at umpires. And fighting.

I remember a game at Amador Valley High in Pleasanton where the runner for one team barrel-rolled the catcher, a play that left both players injured and in a heap.

Before I knew it, the benches cleared, words were exchanged – things like “Hey M-F, we all gotta go to work tomorrow!” – and punches were thrown. I remember it like it was yesterday, and it wasn’t. I swore that very minute that I’d never umpire another adult game as long as I lived.

And then I started visiting Eastern Europe each year to umpire. Two years ago, on my second trip to Lithuania, I was asked to umpire an adult league game between Brest, Belarus and Utena, Lithuania. I did the plate and had a blast.

On this trip, I’ve done two adult games – one last weekend between Brest and Vilnius, where I had 3rd base, and another Sunday, where I did the plate for Vilnius and Kaunas.

I didn’t even know anything about this most recent game until Saturday night, when two of our Lithuanian umpires, Z-Man and Edgaras, mentioned they were scheduled to work the game and wanted to know if a couple of us could join them.

So, I had the plate, Sam Griffith had 1st, Edgaras 2nd and Z-Man 3rd. Vilnius beat Kaunas 10-2 and it was a pleasure to do it.

First, these adult league games are lucky to get ONE umpire (there are only about 10 legit umpires in the country), let alone four. So the players appreciate the fact that you are there. Right from the first batter of the game, each player coming to bat shook my hand before stepping into the box. Kinda cool.

The game was competitive, but not over the top. No throwing of equipment or slamming bats. No one tried to take out the catcher – in fact, if the ball was already in the catcher’s glove, runners coming home simply allowed themselves to be tagged.

When the game ended, the Vilnius catcher turned, shook my hand again and said thank you. Players from both teams sought us out as we left the field and said “Good umpiring.”

It was nice to see that some guys in the 20-over crowd still play the game for the fun of it.

I’M OUT!!!


Lithuanian umpire adventure Day 8

August 16, 2008
It was a final game to end all final games – a pitching duel, followed by a late-game rally in the bottom of the last inning to tie, and a walk-off, two-out steal of home to win it in the 9th.
This is the way tournament championship games are SUPPOSED to be, but rarely are.

I’m only disappointed that it was the Czechs, and not Utena, that prevailed 5-4. I say that for three reasons – the son of one of our closest friends in Lithuanua, Eel Man, plays for Utena; Tomas Kviklys, the Utena coach, is one of the hardest-working people we’ve met in this country, and the Czechs have the player everyone dispises, Marik Vykoukal (see Day 7).

Alas, Tomas’ team scored three runs in the first inning and led 4-1 going to the 7th, but Eel Man’s son gave up the tying runs, and then Marik, of all people, stole home to win it in the 9th.

The game was filled with numerous tense moments.

We gave the plate to a relative newcomer, Zilvinas Bareinke. And he did a fine job. In retrospect, a more senior umpire might have handled a few situations better, but Z-Man’s trial by fire was hardly a bust.

 
 

The first “uh-oh” came when Z-Man told the Czech catcher that he called a pitch a ball because the catcher had moved his glove after catching the pitch. That led to the Czech manager coming out to discuss balls and strikes, and led first base ump Bobby Gumbs to come down and break up the discussion.

Then came a discussion with the Utena coaches about a play at second base where Eel Man’s son took out the Czech second baseman on a steal attempt. The Czech player lay injured and the ball was loose and in center field. Z-Man called time, echoing second base ump Sam Griffith’s call, but the Utena coaches felt that call was premature and kept the runner, who was also on the ground, from advancing to third.
There was also discussion with both coaches about a Czech player squaring to bunt and getting hit in the hand while bunting the ball into fair territory. Czech coaches wanted hit by pitch, Utena coaches wanted a fair ball and an out, but umpires ruled correctly that the ball had been bunted off the batter’s leg and into fair territory and was merely a foul ball.

Later, Czech coaches wanted to know why umpires let Utena’s starting pitcher go over the 95-pitch limit, and they weren’t happy with the answer that under Little League rules a pitcher can finish that batter, but pitch to no others.

He insisted upon seeing that rule in the book, so as the co-tournament director and UIC, I showed him as the game continued. After the game, my last LL game this year, I gave him the rulebook. “I’m going to read this before I see you next year,” he said.

Oh, and how could I forget the Czech batter and coaches having a cow because they felt a balk should have been called when the Utena pitcher stopped just short of throwing a pitch? Z-Man had called time, albeit quietly, because the Czech hitter had requested it, and the Utena pitcher, seeing that, stopped.

So there was angst, drama, stoppages, frustration on both sides, the worst heat and humidity of the week, and the best game. It all added up to a memorable title game, and discussion about Sporto Vilkai Cup 2009.

LADERA RANCH beat Belarus 9-4 in the 3rd place game and then gave the Bellarussians all their jerseys and equipment before heading to the airport to fly home Saturday night.

AWARDS: Michael Janko of the Czech Republic was MVP after batting .600 with 8 RBI, and having both a good ERA and fielding percentage…Nick Pufpaf from Ladera was the top pitcher with a 0.00 ERA and only 4 hits allowed over 7. Innings…Sam Hunter of Ladera hit .653 with 8 RBI to win the batting title…Utena shortstop Evaldas Sinkunas won defensive honors for going errorless over 20 plays.

SUNDAY, we’ll go back to Vilnius and umpire the 20-over game between the Vilnius Vikings and Kaunas Lithuanians.

I’M OUT!!!

 

 


Lithuan umpire adventure Day 7

August 16, 2008

He’s No. 15 on your scorecard, No. 1 in your heart if you’re a Czech fan, and Public Enemy No. 1 if you’re an umpire or opponent.

He’s Marik Vykoukal and he’s drawn the ire of just about everybody not wearing a Czech uniform at this week’s Sporto Vilkai Cup.

I dare say if he pulled his antics in the states, guys would be headhunting him from the time he gets off the bus.

When he pitches, if a close pitch is called a ball, he stares in at the umpire and/or throws up his arms. When he bats, he’ll turn and stare if an umpire calls a strike. If someone makes a nice play against him, he stares the fielder down on the way to the dugout. His sarcastic applause and the rest ofthe show make me sick.

He thinks his feces are aeromatic.

And, apparently, Eastern European umpires agree, because I was appalled at how much they let him get away with this week, even after saying that they wouldn’t or don’t allow such antics.

Personally, it galls me to see the kid act out as he does. And to see his teammates and the Czech fans excuse it is equally appalling. It’s the worst I’ve seen anywhere in Europe.

It won’t change until umpires warn the kid and toss him a few times. Or until some pitcher headhunts the kid and he gets the message. And neither of those things are going to happen anytime soon.

Although there are now at least two American teams who have witnessed his act in the last few weeks and who will be looking out for him next time.

I can guarantee you that Ladera Ranch’s players won’t forget this kid. And the traveling under-16 team from North Carolina that saw him two weeks ago probably won’t, either. The baseball community is very large, but it gets very small when there’s a rooster in the hen house.

The Czechs beat Belarus 9-1 Friday to reach the championship game. They had hoped to meet the Americans again, and no doubt the Americans were looking forward to a rematch, too. But homestanding Utena beat Ladera 5-3, setting up final-day games of Czech Republic vs. Utena for the title and Ladera vs. Belarus for third.

I’M OUT!!!


Lithuanian umpire adventure Day 6

August 14, 2008

When I first started umpiring in Europe, my objectives were much different than they are today.

Initially, it was all about the intrigue of the unknown, traveling and doing something I enjoy.

It didn’t take long for that to change. The moment I arrived in Kutno, Poland in 2003 at the Little League Regional there and saw the state of the teams from Eastern Europe – Lithuania, Moldova, Slovenia, Bulgaria, Poland, Romania, Kazakhstan, etc. – it became more and more about figuring ways to address humanitarian needs, and less and less about baseball.

Sometimes that meant feeding a needy team or raising money. Other times, it meant coordinating a shipment of equipment or clothing to a sports organization or orphanage (many thanks to Robin Van Galder at FedEx!).

And now it’s turned toward teaching – training European umpires mostly, initially how to actually umpire and, most recently, working with experienced umpires on some of the finer points.

Thursday, as pool play ended and assignments were considered for the Sporto Vilkai Cup’s semifinals and finals, Sam Griffith and I agreed that the umpires who had improved most significantly from last year should be awarded the games on the final day.

Zilvinas Bareinke from Lithuania (aka Z-Man) will work the plate for Saturday afternoon’s championship game, Martin Suri from the Czech Republic will head the crew for the third-place game, and Rimvydas Vaitkus and Edgaras Matusevicius from Lithuania will handle Friday’s semifinals.

Considering where Z-Man was as an umpire just three years ago (lost), having improved to this extent – with no formal clinics and only one week a year of hands-on from us – is staggering.

His performance Thursday brought a smile to my face because all I could think of was Year One of this tournament in 2005 when Sam Griffith, Bobby Gumbs, MacFarland and I umpired every game, and the only help we received was from Z-Man when he could manage to get off work. His “Safe…Out…Sorry” call from that tournament is something we still chuckle about today.

But, again, that was then and this is now.

This is Z-Man’s turf, and being selected over his peers, who are formidable competition, is a noteworthy achievement. In this part of the world, the Lithuanians acknowledge that the Czechs have the best umpires, but the Czechs acknowledge that the Lithuanians are closing fast. And Z-Man is one of the reasons why.

Earlier this summer, both he and Edgaras were selected to umpire the European Junior Regional in Kutno where their work was stellar, according to our buddy, Danville’s Russ Ruslender, who was the UIC there. Rimvydas worked the Senior Regional this summer here in Utena. Arnoldas has previousl done a Juniors World Series in Michigan. Another Lithuanian umpire from this area worked the much-celebrated Czech junior championships this summer.

These guys are serious umpires who would fit well into any officiating environment I’ve ever worked in. But for now, they’ll have to setle for being big fish in a small pond.

FINAL POOL PLAY STANDINGS: Czech Republic 4-0, Ladera Ranch 3-1, Utena 2-2, Belarus 1-3, Vilnius 0-4.

FRIDAY SEMIS: Czech Republic vs. Belarus; Ladera Ranch vs. Utena.

PREVIOUS tournament championship plates have gone to Barry MacFarland from the U.S., and Arnoldas Ramanaskas and Rimvydas from Lithuania.

Z-MAN-SAID he was only a little nervous before the first of his two plate assignments at the regional in Poland. “I was more worried about the lineup cards than the game,” he said. “We don’t generally keep lineups here.”

THURSDAY marked the start of the party season for Sam Griffith, Bobby Gumbs and I as we ventured to Eel Man’s summer house by the lake for BBQ’d eel, pork, chicken and sausage. Friday, which is a national religious holiday in Lithuania, , is a BBQ at a local resort and floating cocktail party put on by Lithuania Baseball. Saturday is yet another party in Utena, Sunday is a celebration at a Sporto Vilkai player’s parents’ summer home in Vilnius, and Tuesday is a welcome-home party for the Lithuanian team that has been at the Senior World Series in Bangor, ME.

I’M OUT!!!


Lithuanian umpire adventure Day 5

August 13, 2008

 

Sights, sounds, musings and statistical anomilies from the first two days of action at the 4th Sporto Vilkai Cup in Utena, Lithuania:

* This 5-year-old stadium finally saw an over-the-fence home run Tuesday when Hamza of the Czech Republic golfed a hanging breaking ball from Ladera Ranch’s Dillon Diaz some 365 feet over right-center field fence. Approximately 210 games had been played here without an over-the-fence home run.

* Host Sporto Vilkai (Vilnius) has the only 2 girls in the tournament (Monika and Laura), but the Czech Republic’s Mic Kovar has the longest hair – and a beard. And 3 kids, for all we know.

* Speaking of Kovar, he was part of a small controversy during Tuesday’s game against Ladera Ranch. One of this tournament’s rules is that you must bat every player on your team, although only nine play in the field. That rule was lost on the Czechs, apparently, because they had no intention of batting their 10-11-12 until we saw their leadoff hitter come up again after #9. When we informed the Czech manager what he had to do, he responded, “These 3 players are not hitters – they are pitchers,” to which I responded, “Coach, they are players, so they must bat.”

As it turned out, those 3 “pitchers” finished the game 1-for-2 with 2 walks, 4 times hit by pitch (Kovar was hit 3 times) and an on-base percentage of .875 in the Czechs’ 11-7 win.

“We couldn’t get those guys out,” said Ladera manager Joel Hunter. “That was the difference.”

* Utena shortstop/catcher/pitcher Yusef Sadaunykas, son of Eel Man (you know who that is if you’ve been following this blog over the years) just returned from a 2-month baseball camp in Peoria, IL, that he called “the toughest thing I have ever had to do in baseball.” The kid runs like a deer and is a wonderful catcher, but dislikes the position in favor of shortstop or pitcher.

* Standings after 2 days of pool play: Czech Republic 2-0, Ladera Ranch, CA 2-1, Utena 2-1, Belarus 1-2, Vilnius 0-3. After Thursday’s action, the 5th place team (Vilnius) will be eliminated and the other four will advance to Friday’s semifinals.

* Considering they have no real equipment here, the field prep done by Utena coach Tomas Kviklys and Utena umpire Rimvydas Vaitkus is fabulous. They literally sweep the ground brick dust infield smooth after each game, chalk the lines and work the mound and plate areas with bottled water and push brooms. It’s not as archaic as it used to be here, but you’d never see anybody in the states doing it this way.

* New enhancements to the tournament this year: a digital-looking scoreboard that you can read from 200 yards away, sponsorship banners on the outfield fence, portable toilets, a garbage dumpster and cleaning personnel who sweep the grandstands and remove debris each day.

Now, you might say to yourself: portable toilets and a garbage dumpster are a big deal? And the answer is yes – especially when you didn’t have them before now.

Don’t ask!

* When this field was constructed, organizers had 20 tons of red clay (the same material used at most claycourt tennis facilities) trucked in from Latvia. Over the years, it got packed down pretty far, so in advance of the European Seniors championships 5 weeks ago, they had another 20 tons brought in and had it machine-compacted.

The result? With the wild winds we had Tuesday, some portions of games were played in an orange duststorm.

The answer? Tournament organizers ordered a water truck Wednesday morning and they put down 5,000 liters of water and re-worked the infield.

* The brains behind all the logistics for this tournament is Raimundas Kalanta, a Lithuanian trucking mogul who leaves no stone unturned when it comes to tourney organization and details. This guy really knows how to throw a party. He would normally have the logistics support of Virmidas Neverauskas, the national baseball coach, but Virmidas is in Bangor, ME, with the European champion Lithuanian seniors team.

* Watching the Olympics in Russian is disconcerting. Even the Lithuanians think so.

* What was Edmuntas Matusevicius thinking when he named his kids Edgaras, Edvardas and Edis? Edmuntas is a sweetheart of a guy who works for Lithuanian Ministry of Sport and has umpired in this tournament in previous years, but he’s off to Beijing Thursday to scope out China’s various stadiums. Alas we do have his eldest son, 22-year-old Edgaras, who is one of Lithuania’s shining stars, having just recently worked the European Juniors Championships in Poland.

* I am on a losing streak at Lithuanian restaurants. Wednesday I ordered ribs right off the menu and was told they didn’t have any. Two nights earlier, the same thing happened when I ordered a Greek salad. And the night before that, I ordered fish and was told “sorry, they’re all dead.” I felt like the aflac duck with Yogi speaking.

* One of the dads traveling with the California team, Jay Buckey, is the Umpire In Chief for Ladera Ranch Little League. He wasn’t part of the original umpire rotation for the tournament, but we slid him onto the plate for Utena-Vilnius Wednesday and he had a blast, as anyone would umpiring a game in which you can’t understand a word being said by either team.

* If you’re interested in any player stats from this tournament, go to

 

www.beisbolas.lt/sportovilkaicup

I’M OUT!!!