Baseball Grows In Unlikely Places
Troy Williams provides a personalized tour through European baseball’s more recent history.
Tell us a little about yourself.
I grew up on a farm in Terre Haute, Indiana. My father and mother both had a great love for sport. We watched sports. I played every sport growing up, loved it. I played all the sports available except my parents were wise enough to keep me out of American football because I probably would have been broken in half.
I remember New Year’s Eve 1981 I was playing football. I wasn’t supposed to be. My parents had left. I had friends over. No you can’t play. But of course we went outside to play. I got tackled and wound up injured and had to have emergency surgery. In the hospital I was watching ESPN. We didn’t have it because we lived in the country, no satellites. I’m lying in the hospital going, I don’t want to go home! That’s how much I love sports. Playing sports put me in the hospital and three days later I don’t want to leave the hospital because I’ve got a 24-hour sports channel.
When you grew up there were only three TV channels and once every four years, for three weeks in winter and summer, the Olympics were all you could watch. Do the Olympics feel different for you now that they’re on a two-year system amid hundreds of cable stations?
When I grew up, for better or worse, it was USA against USSR, I don’t want to call it romantic but you had a feeling of good vs. evil. If you were a Soviet you probably thought you were the good guys and vice verse from an American point of view. Traveling all over the world, and being involved with sports, I appreciate the fluidity of it now but, at that time, the 1980 Olympic hockey team, that was so special. Now, many athletes have dual citizenship and are playing for countries outside of their residency. You see so many people crossing over and that’s okay, and I don’t have a problem with that. It’s not a negative thing but the boarders aren’t quite what they used to be. Traveling Europe now you don’t have to get your passport stamped. 20 years ago you could have a nice souvenir of all the stamps in your passport. These days there’s all kinds of overlaps so I think that’s part of it too.
A guy on my university team traveled around Europe playing for a summer. He said you know, I think you’d like it over there. I said well let’s see how it plays out. Finishing up college in 1990 I realized my limitations. I just did not see myself having a chance to make the big leagues. The winter of my senior year I decided okay, I’ll go over to Sweden and play.
I came right after the fall of the Berlin Wall and the Iron Curtain and the Eastern Block and all that stuff so I got to see a lot of things just after it happened. A few years earlier would have been really cool but it was a very interesting time.
There were so many things different back then. You know you’ve got family, everybody’s concerned about you. I can remember trying to telephone it’s so much different now. It’s never easy for anybody when you leave your family to go overseas for five or six months.
What was the experience, in terms of concerns?
You have a different point of view when you’re a husband and father than you do when you’re young. When I’m out on my own I don’t tend to worry about things. I’m not going to stay in the worst area of town but I’m pretty much oblivious to things that would be a fear if I had my family with me. I’ve always kind of been that way.
I played in Cape Town, South Africa and just went back on a scouting trip. I saw the Amy Biehl Memorial and I thought wow, I haven’t thought of that name in years but that was back around the time I was there. Those things kind of make you step back and think. Part of it is when you’re young, you’re single, you’re a male, you’ve got a little bit of an aura of invincibility about you.
My great grandmother, she was always worried. The bottom line is I just don’t want to look back and have regrets in life. I don’t want to not live life, enjoy life, because of fears and honestly there are dangers anywhere you go. If there’s adventure out there and I can do it, I’d like to be able to experience that.
You’re playing in Sweden and…
The first year I was in Sweden I left at the end of the season. I really loved the experience and was looking to come back but I was really anxious to go home. I thought I’m missing Dr. Pepper, peanut butter and jelly, all those things, and so I went home. Then you get the itch to go back so I went back to the same club. After my second season some guys I’d met introduced me to people in the Romanian Baseball Federation. I spent a couple of months working with them to try to get baseball off the ground.
At that time baseball was a new Olympic sport is that why the interest?
Yeah, I think it was also a difficult sport to play in Eastern Europe because it was frowned upon. Romania was back behind the Iron Curtain, so a lot of the sports in the West had the advantage in Western Europe over Eastern Europe because it was not a sport that was either allowed or encouraged by the government. The Czechs, Romanians, Hungarians, East Germany, Poland, all those countries were behind.
Once it became an Olympic sport obviously the Soviets became very interested, much like they did with ice hockey. It made a big push. Most people say they weren’t very successful but I don’t think that’s true, it takes a while. Eastern European teams, outside the Czech Republic, have not really fared too well except if you go back to the 2001 Russia’s Silver Medal and that goes back to the foundation and groundwork they started in the mid-late 80s. All those kids started playing and that parlayed into 2001’s silver medal. I think that goes back to that commitment they’d had a generation earlier when they were really trying to push baseball.
To see the game continue to develop without it being in the Olympics is amazing. It is a game that’s fun to see played the right way. It can be played the right way in a lot of different circumstances, professional or amateur. It’s really nice to see the combination over here and to see the level getting better. Hopefully it gets reinstated and spikes even further.
How did you end up in Germany?
It’s contacts, meeting people, hopefully doing a good job, not burning bridges, making friends in places. Building a resume with people that they see and know about. I was actually just getting back from Romania and got a call to go play ball in South Africa. At the end of the 1992 season I was invited to come down and coach in Germany.
I was in South Africa a couple of times. I went to Niba of all places, an old German colony and played for a year. I went back to Sweden in 1997. I got contacted to come to Heidenheim and played/coached in Heidenheim in 1998.
That’s been my main European club since so really Heidenheim is home. I love being here, near the organization I’ve been part of for many years. I coached in 1999 when we won the 2nd team championship. It’s nice to be with a club like Heidenheim. Love the club, love the city, love the people of Heidenheim. Even today, with my job scouting, I work with kids and youth so I’m able to help out.
I loved coaching, I still do. I don’t want to say I’ve progressed past that but, obviously, playing you kind of age out. You can’t do what you could do before. Your body, your mind or somebody else is telling you you’ve got to get out. I enjoyed coaching, I still like doing it, but it got to the point where I think I just really loved scouting more than anything else.
The opportunity to take this position with the Yankees opened up just right so I’m limited in what I can do coaching-wise but I like to help. I do a lot of work in schools to grow the game of baseball locally. I enjoy that. I get a kick out of introducing the game, grass roots level. I love being involved. I just don’t have a much time as I used to.
How did you start scouting?
I picked it up early on. I wanted to have advantages. I figured if I wasn’t going to be as good as somebody else as a player, if I didn’t have as much innate talent, I thought I’m not going to be outworked. I learned early on scouting was valuable. I did a lot of work early in my coaching days to scout my opponents, try to figure out advantages for my players, to put us in a position to be most successful.
I love watching athletes compete. I like to watch people strive to succeed and be the best they can be. I strive to succeed myself. I had friends in scouting back in 2003, talk to me about working with the Pirates. I said yeah, I’d love to do this and so one thing led to another.
It’s developing a lot of relationships and trying to put yourself in a situation to succeed. Hope your body of work speaks for itself and opens doors for you. Thank god it’s happened for me. It’s been a blessing to be able to do what I’ve done. I can’t imagine anything I’d like to do more.
Since this article first appeared in February 2916 in European Baseball Magazine Williams has been named pitching coach for Germany’s national baseball team. He continues his scouting duties for the NY Yankees European division. The Olympics have also reinstated baseball for the 2020 Games in Tokyo.