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.