If you know me well, you know I love to play poker. If not for a wife, kids, family in general, umpiring and a desire to live outside a cave and have a measurable quality of life, I think I could play cards 24x7x365.
As such, I’d like to think I have a pretty good poker face, but how do you really know? I mean, who do you ask?
That said, I KNOW I didn’t have my best poker face when I arrived in Lithuania today. Nor did my buddy, Sam Griffith. We have decided that this is our last regular trip over here – cite the economy, and/or other opportunities, and/or the fact that we think we’ve done all we can do to help raise the quality and visibility of baseball here.
So when our Lithuanian baseball friends met us at the Vilnius airport and whisked us off to our hotel and then to dinner, what should have been a celebratory mood was tempered somewhat by the reality that all good things must come to an end. And I KNOW it showed on our faces. Even as we were saying hello, it was as if we were saying goodbye.
Oh, we’ll have a great time here, and then in nearby Utena for the 5th Sporto Vilkai Cup, which starts Monday. How can you beat baseball, beer, and umpiring in ANY country, let alone one as beautiful and serene as Lithuania? But moreso than on any previous trip here, this time we’re going to celebrate the people who have made our baseball missions here so fabulous and who have stamped their memories in our minds forever.
Because the fact of the matter is, we may not see these great people again.
Like the Bareinke family. Zilvinas is an umpire, a coach, and a baseball sponge. He coined the call “Safe…Out…Sorry!” in the first Sporto Vilkai Cup, but has since done two European LL Regionals. His prego wife, Lina, is the mate all umpires should have – the one who gets angry when you DON’T have a game to work – because she loves baseball so much, she wants to go with you and watch (ala Mary Caress, who was almost always at her late husband Mark’s side when he umpired). Their daughter, Dominique, has been the official scorekeeper both in this tournament and at the European LL Championships in Kutno, Poland. Their son, Kasparas, is a player and the reason the rest of the family has grown so passionate about baseball.
Like the Neverauskas boys. Virmidas is Lithuania’s national baseball coach and the reason we are here. Six years ago, after learning that I knew Lithuanian basketball legend Sarunas Marciulionis of the Golden State Warriors, he asked Sam and I if we would consider running a tournament here each August. Boy, are we glad we said yes. Among other acomplishments, Virmidas has taken two Lithuanian teams to the Seniors World Series in Bangor, ME. Virmidas’ son, Dovydas, is 17 and just signed with the Pittsburgh Pirates.
Like the Matusevicius family. My parents, Jack and Jan, had a thing with “J,” hence their kids: Jeff, Janice, Jill, John and Jay. The Matusevicius clan has a thing with “Ed,” hence Edmuntas the dad, who is the head of the Lithuanian Baseball Federation, has sons Edgaras, Edvardas and Edis. Edgaras is one of Lithuania’s up and coming stars, having umpired four European LL championships at the age of 24. Edvardas and Edis play the game – 18-year-old Edvardas plays it quite well, in fact.
Like Arturas and Loreta Zinkevieius, whose son Ignas (Iggy) was one of Lithuania’s outstanding players during his teens and whose daughter, Migle, was secretary to the head of the top baseball club in the country, Sporto Vilkai, for a few years. Arturas and Loreta own a flat in town and a farm in the wide-open Vilnius suburbs and have invited us out for dinner and spirits each year we’ve visited.
Like “Eel Man” and his family, wife Ina, son Justas and daughter Ruta. Gintaras is one of this region’s wealthier businessmen, with a summer home on the lake that any of us would die for and a passion for baseball that’s almost too funny for words. Be that as it may, he has hosted extravagant eel BBQs each year we have visited. Justas is an outstanding player; the girls are avid fans.
Like Raimundas Kalanta and his wife, Rita. Raimundas is the president of Sporto Vilkai, he handles all the tournament logistics, and he makes sure we want for nothing when we’re here. He and Rita are omnipresent, ensuring that we’re fed, housed, entertained and otherwise ridiculously spoiled.
Like Arnoldas Ramanauskas and Rimvydas Vaitkus, two of this country’s top umpires and baseball ambassadors. Arnoldas did the LLWS in Williamsport four years ago. Rim, who has done three regionals and a finals plate in this tournament, is the driving force behind all the field prep that goes on before, between and after games.
They’re not the only folks we’re going to miss, but they’re the ones who have been there since the beginning, who are still prominent players on the Lithuanian baseball landscape today and who have made every minute of our stay here exciting, fun and forever memorable.
And they’re the reason it’s going to be so excruciatingly painful as we move toward heading home next week.
If it was just baseball, it wouldn’t be that big a deal. But it’s NOT just about baseball. It never has been. And even the world’s best poker face couldn’t hide what’s so painfully obvious.
UNBELIEVABLE SCENE at the Vilnius airport baggage claim area today.
As some of you know, I was blessed with a large number of donations to bring over – equipment, jerseys, hats, etc. The airlines limited me to two bags at 50 pounds each, and I packed accordingly.
As I prepared to leave the Vilnius baggage area, a security man asked to see my bag tags….then my passport….then my “invoice,” all the while letting EVERYbody else exit the area.
One of my bags had dropped onto the turnstile already open, and California Angels hats, courtesy of Tassajara LL, were loose and making the rounds all by themselves. That’s what got the guard’s attention, and when he opened my two bags and saw all the baseball stuff, he figured I was bringing it in to re-sell.
I tried to get through to him. “Donations, beisbolas,” I said.
“Too much,” he replied.
“I am not selling – I am giving to baseball teams,” I continued.
“Who picks you up? Have them come,” he said, and I summoned Zilvinas and Raimundas, whose faces I could see on the other side of the glass.
The three of them went at it for some time and it wasn’t looking good. The guard kept shaking his head no.
I reached for my wallet.
“No, don’t give him money,” said Z-Man.
“I’m not,” I replied. “I want to show him the business card I have that says I’m an umpire from the United States.”
That card, coupled with the ongoing pleading of Z-Man and Raimundas, led to a truce – 2 Angels hats and 2 Pittsburgh Pirates hats in exchange for everything else being OK’d.
T’was a 20-minute scene that had to be seen – and heard – to be believed.
MLC Worldwide, Inc.
Cell 925 413-9400
Sent via Blackberry on AT&T