by Julian Spivey
I’m reminded on this very early Friday morning of a great quote from Brad Pitt’s portrayal of former Oakland Athletics general manager Billy Beane in the terrific 2011 film “Moneyball.”
“It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.”
It feels this way to those of us who love the game because it feels like more than a game. Many baseball players play for the multi-million dollar contracts offered by the bright lights of the major leagues. They play for the championship rings and the accolades and the hopes of one day being cast in bronze in Cooperstown. Every so often they get to play for the name of their country on their chest, not the one on their backs that belongs solely to them.
Players from 20 countries are doing just that this week in the World Baseball Classic, which began on Wednesday. Some of them have been there before – coming from baseball hotspots around the world like the United States, Japan, and many Caribbean island nations. And then there’s the Czech Republic, not exactly known for baseball, which qualified for its first WBC tournament this year (Great Britain and Nicaragua are also making their WBC debuts).
Many teams in the World Baseball Classic have a handful of Major League Baseball players. Some teams, like the United States roster which looks like an All-Star team have an entire squad of big leaguers. Then you have Czech Republic. They have one big leaguer on the squad – Eric Sogard, a 36-year-old infielder who played parts of 11 seasons with five teams but hasn't played in MLB since 2021. The rest of the team is filled with normal guys (or normální chlapi in their native language), most of whom have full-time jobs outside of baseball and suit up with Česko across their chest to represent their homeland or at least their family’s homeland, a landlocked Central European country bordered by Austria, Germany, Poland and Slovakia.
There’s Martin Schneider, a combination shortstop/relief pitcher, who is a firefighter forced to miss one out of every three games in the Czech ExtraLiga due to his 24-hour shifts. There’s Marek Minarik, a combination pitcher/outfielder who once played in the Philadelphia Phillies and Pittsburgh Pirates farm systems, who’s now a real estate agent. There’s Arnost Dubovy, the team’s center fielder, who is a high school geography teacher who according to MLB.com gives his students extra credit when they can name the weekend’s ExtraLiga scores. The captain and designated hitter of the team is Petr Zyma, who’s a financial analyst by trade. Pitcher David Mergans is a magazine moderator, outfielder Matej Mensik a sports manager and third baseman Felip Smola an auditor for KPMG.
Maybe most impressively? The team’s manager Pavel Chadim isn’t just some high-profile baseball coach. He has a day job too – he’s the leading neurologist in the city of Brno, the country’s second-largest city after its capital Prague.
As you might imagine in a tournament featuring rosters filled with professional baseball all-stars, the Czech Republic team isn’t expected to go very far in the tournament, which might be a good thing for the citizens of their cities needing fires put out and brain doctors (!!) but it’s already been a Cinderella story for the team and they just finished their first game within the last 90 minutes of this writing.
They faced China in their first game of the pool round of the tournament in Tokyo late Thursday night into early Friday morning here in America. The Czech pitchers, which included Schneider the firefighter, held China hitless through the first five-plus innings of the game. The team would end up giving up some hits and five runs to the Chinese team, but with a home run from Mensik, the sports manager, in the third and more importantly a go-ahead one from first baseman Martin Muzik, who played college baseball at Wake Tech Community College in Raleigh, N.C. from 2016-2018, in the ninth to seal the nation’s first WBC win in its first-ever WBC game. Minarik, the real estate agent who once had big league dreams, pitched the final 2.2 innings and got the win.
The Czech team will play again at 4 a.m. (CST) on Saturday against Japan, where they will have to face Major League Baseball phenom Shohei Ohtani in the lineup and most likely Nippon Professional Baseball (Japan’s pro league) pitcher Roki Sasaki, who nearly pitched back-to-back perfect games last year, on the mound.
Whatever happens the rest of their time in this year’s World Baseball Classic nothing will ever change the fact that the Czech Republic team are WBC game winners. They’ll go back to their day jobs as national heroes.
It’s hard not to be romantic about baseball.