Baseball, Eastern European Style

I will undoubtedly see a better-played baseball game this year. I will most likely see one that’s as compelling. But I won’t have more fun at one.

On Sunday afternoon, I traveled to Whiting, home of Oil City Stadium. I was there to take in the second semifinal of the inaugural International Baseball Challenge, a four-team tournament featuring teams from the United States, Serbia, Croatia and Slovakia.

The game in question was the semifinal tilt between those two historic rivals, in the truest sense of the phrase, the Serbs and the Croats. The Serbian club pushed across two runs in the top of the ninth to eke out a 6-4 win over their former mates back in the old Yugoslav League.
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Serbia’s starting pitcher Christian Bokich delivers a pitch to Croatia’s Matko Dabic Sunday at Oil City Stadium. Part of the BP Refinery that gives the place its name (and the BP cash that made it possible) serves as the ballpark’s backdrop.

Serbia took the lead in the second, fifth and seventh innings, only to see the Croats bounce back to tie the score each time. In the top of the ninth, Serbia’s Bobby Suder reached on a two-based error leading off the frame, then advanced to third on an errant pickoff attempt by Croatian catcher Phil Smith. Tireless pitcher Antonio Horvatic, who went the distance, kept him there by getting a pop-up to Smith and a strikeout. But the Serbs went ahead when Ronald Krsolovic made a diving stop on a one-hopper from Filip Banjac, then fired wide of first, the team’s third error of the frame. Connor Tomasic’s third hit plated the final run.

The tournament was an interesting mix of teams. The Serbian National Team was about half native sons, with the rest of the club comprised of Americans with one or more parents who immigrated to the States, back when that was still allowed. Four of the kids were Northwest Indiana products, including one young lad who was playing in the same park where he played his high school games (and where my youngest son got a start on the bump in the back end of a double dip this spring).

The Croats, on the other hand, were mostly local products, with just a few exceptions. The guys were mostly split between Split and rest of Croatia, though sadly none were from the No. 1 place on my global must-visit list, Dubrovnik.

Interestingly, the Slovak club eliminated from the competition a night earlier (with the Region’s all-time greatest player, Kenny Lofton, in attendance) was comprised entirely of ballplayers who grew up in the back half of the old Czechoslovakia. One player, Jakub Izold, was a resident of Phoenix, but only because he stayed here after his two-run year with Cincy as the first born-and-raised Slovak* to sign with a major league club.

The game attracted a healthy crowd, with a particularly strong showing of Serbian backers. They waved the Serb flag, sported their Serbija jerseys  and, upon victory, broke into an impromptu kolo, a line dance to a Polka (or Serbka, I suppose) tune. There were fewer Croatian-Americans in the park, though some could be seen sporting the country’s traditional Italian restaurant tablecloth attire. They did seem to have the support of the Slovak team members in attendance.

The Serbian singing and dancing was undoubtedly even heartier a few hours later, when the Serbs defeated the U.S. team (which was essentially the Northwest Indiana Oilmen, a local team in the Midwest Collegiate League) 12-5 to capture the inaugural championship. I didn’t catch the title game, though I’m a lock to be back in the stadium when the second installment is contested next year.

*While no native Croats or Serbs have ever played big league ball, Hall of Very Good Pitcher Jack Quinn was born in modern-day Stefurov (then Stefuro, Hungary), while fellow veteran Elmer Valo was a native of Rybnik. However, unlike Isold who did all of his formative baseballing in Slovakia, the earlier gents arrived in the U.S. as children.

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