This is a great time to be a fan of Lithuania athletics.
Men’s basketball is the No. 1 sport here – there is no close second – and Lithuania’s Olympic team is 2-0 with a dramatic last-second win over Argentina and a rout of Iran at 4 a.m. Tuesday that most Lithuanians we know got up to watch. Next up for Lithuania is Russia on Thursday at 11:45 a.m. – ask ANY Lit, they all know the schedule.
The Lithuania Senior Little League team is playing in the World Series in Bangor, ME, this week and even though they are 0-2, they have played more competitively against U.S. Teams than last year, when Virmidas Neverauskas led Lithuania to the European Seniors title and its first World Series berth at any level since the ’90s, when Utena went to the Big League finals in Arizona.
And Utena hammered Brest, Belarus 17-2 Tuesday in first-round play of the 4th Sporto Vilkai Cup and looks as though it may be around all the way to the final game Saturday.
OK, so Utena’s resounding win over Brest won’t make USA Today, or even Lithuania Today. But it was as impressive a showing by a Lithuanian team in this tournament as anyone could remember. We’ll know for sure how good this Utena team is Wednesday when it faces Ladera Ranch from SoCal, although Ladera dropped its opener 11-7 to the Czech Republic Tuesday.
If the first day of pool play is any indication, and it usually is, there are three very good teams in this tournament (the Czechs, Americans and Utena), two that have trouble getting out of their own way (Brest and Vilnius, although the former beat the latter 7-4 Tuesday) and one more no-show (Minsk’s visas were delayed two days, so they were told to stay home and we re-drew a new schedule)
If it’s true that men’s basketball is No. 1 here, then it’s also true that baseball’s star is rising faster than anyone else’s.
Virmidas’ passion and willingness to put baseball before all else is a huge piece of the puzzle. I’d like to think that Sam Griffith and I have had a hand in it too, having hosted Lithuanian baseball traveling parties in California, coordinating donations of equipment and jerseys, and being a major part of the Sporto Vilkai Cup, serving as co-tourney directors, co-UICs, doing umpire scheduling and training, and screening U.S. teams to participate.
All those efforts have manifested themselves in the form of more kids playing baseball here than ever before, participation in more international tournaments, more success in events like this, a couple of EMEA (Europe Middle East Africa) championships, hosting its first EMEA tournament and Lithuanian umpires we have trained from scratch having been selected to work EMEA regional tournaments in Poland.
It’s a pretty cool thing to have seen grow from that chance meeting Neverauskas and I had when he brought a ragtag Bad News Bears group of 12-year-olds to Kutno, Poland in 2003. I mentioned to him that I knew Sarunas Marciulionis from my days as a sportswriter for the Oakland Tribune. He grabbed my shoulders, kissed me on both cheeks, and a lifetime of memories began for the both of us.