It was a moment that made me pause and reflect. “How cool is this?” I thought to myself.
Dutch umpire Bobby Gumbs and I were standing alongside the Utena Racetrack. In the racetrack infield is the only 90-foot baseball field for 300 miles in any direction.
A group of 13-year-olds from Dublin, California was playing Moscow, Russia. Warming up to play the next game were teams from Brest, Belarus and Vilnius, Lithuania.
Four teams from four countries and an umpire from yet another. In the Middle of Nowhere, Eastern Europe.
The world gets smaller.
“How cool is this?”
And all because I got the opportunity to know Sarunas Marciulionis.
I was a sportswriter for the Oakland Tribune when Marciulionis, who is from Vilnius, played for the Golden State Warriors. We got to know each other quite well in his years in Oakland.
Fast forward to 2002 when I first visited Kutno, Poland and crossed paths with Lithuanian coach Virmidas Neverauskas. I introduced myself as someone who knew Marciulionis. That was the tie that binds, apparently, because here we are.
It’s Year 2 of the Sporto Vilkai Cup, and the tournment has grown from five teams to eight, from one American team to two. The Lithuanian field that needed so much work one year ago has undergone major changes, and amenities now abound.
They have a scoreboard, a table and umbrella for scorekeepers, bleachers, covered dugouts, a snackbar, music between innings, computerized statistics, a nurse and medical supplies and, most notably, subtle little changes to improve the playing field itself.
These folks are serious about putting together the best baseball tournament of its kind in this part of the world, short of the European Junior LL Regional in Poland. And if they keep drawing more teams from the U.S., they’ll keep attracting European powers like Russia and the Czech Republic, both of whom passed on the opportunity to participate last year.
(The Czechs were anything but powerful Friday, being 10-runned by Irvine, California, 13-1. In the two Pool B games, Russia beat Dublin 9-5 and Vilnius handled Belarus by the same score)
Short of adding lights here in Utena, which is an expense that would have to be underwritten by some corporation, most likely Utenos Brewery, they can only play four or five games a day on this field. That limits the tournament field to 8-10 teams.
As such, some consideration is being given to playing one pool in Belarus, where they built a new 90-foot stadium a year ago, and a second pool here in Utena, with the championship game rotating between the two locations each year.
On the one hand, that possibility seems light years away. On the other, such tremendous strides were made between the first and second year, anything is possible.
WE GOT OUR first real look at Lithuanian umpires Friday. There are five of them working this tournament, and we saw the whole spectrum of ability levels.
Arnoldas Ramanaskas, a 10-yeat vet who did the Juniors World Series in Taylor, MI, last year, was outstanding. Edwardas Matusevicius is a 20-year-old in his first year, and he was very good as well.
As for the other three, including 64-year-old Edmundas JusciusN the first Llithuanian umpire going back 19 years, we’ll reserve judgment until Saturday, when all have their first plate assignments.
But this is as much a tournament for Lithuanian umpires as it is for anyone else. Sam Griffith, Bobby Gumbs and I have been offering to give an umpire clinic here for years and, in essence, we’re giving it during games, as we are working three-man mechanics, with one of the three of us working with two of the five of them each game in pool play.
KEVIN GILLMORE, please know that the 5 pair of umpire slacks, 2 shirts, 2 jackets and 2 pairs of shoes you gave me all have new Lithuanian homes now. The Lithuanian umpires wearing all the new gear looked great Friday and, according to Arnoldas, “now, we all look like umpires.”