A Century's Worth Of Progress Is Paying Off
English Historian Norman Davies claims modern baseball’s roots are in a Polish bat-and-ball game called palant. According to Davies palant was introduced in the U.S. by the Polish immigrants at the beginning of the 18th century. That led to the development of baseball as we know it.
“When I meet sponsors and partners I usually say that it is possible that baseball is the descendant of palant,” said Christopher Sweeney, president of the Polish Baseball and Softball Federation, smiling. Palant has been played in Poland since the late 1500’s, and it is still a recreational sport, so many know the game.
Whether Norman Davies’ theory is right or not, the fact is that numerous offspring of Polish immigrants have made it to the MLB over the years. The first of them was the Hall of Famer, spitball pitcher Stan Covelski who played in several MLB teams during his career from 1912-1928. However Covelski was not the first Polish-American in professional baseball. It was Washington-born Oscar Bielaski who joined the first professional league, the National Association, in 1872.
Despite historical connections it wasn’t until 2013 that the first Polish-born player was picked up by a professional US ball club. Pitcher Artur Strzałka signed with the New York Yankees at the age of 18. He spent the last two seasons in the Gulf Coast League. At the moment Strzałka is representing Team Europe in the 2016 Asia Winter League.
Artur Strzałka was born in Katowice, Silesia, located in southwestern Poland and regarded as the historical home of palant. “Artur is a good example that everything is possible if you are talented enough and you are willing to work hard. I really hope he’ll get a chance to play in the MLB. It will be great for him, and I am positive that it will boost baseball in Poland as well,” Christopher Sweeney said. “At the moment he is pretty well-known in Silesia but in the other parts of the country not that many know about his accomplishment. A spot on an MLB roster would change that.”
In addition to successful individuals, the Polish men’s national baseball team is a good yardstick to measure how baseball is doing in the country. The national team has gained steadily in the WBSC rankings during the 2010’s and, at the moment, they’re holding up the middle, ranked 40/69 countries with ranking points. In July Poland won the C-pool tournament and earned a spot in the B-pool for next year. “The team was a good mix of younger and more experienced players. We are looking forward to playing in B-pool. Even though the competition is going to be harder than in C-pool, I am sure that we are going to do well this time too,” Sweeney said.
The season to come will be one of the most challenging ever for the Polish Baseball and Softball Federation. There will be a large number of tournaments in both sports at the national team level. “Our teams from seniors to U12 will participate altogether in nine international tournaments. I think it is a sign that we are doing the right things.” To be prepared for the season the Polish federation announced head coaches for the national teams on Wednesday. Canadian Paul Solarski will continue as the head coach of the men’s baseball team. Ben ten Pas, from the Netherlands, will serve as a head coach for the women’s softball team.
Sweeney became federation president last year and his goal is to make baseball and softball more attractive sports in Poland. Sweeney is aware that it won’t happen overnight and that it demands the federation, and the clubs, be capable of change. Their approach must be open-minded and flexible. “We are aiming high, because if you don’t think big you don’t reach your goals. We are just getting started and are building the foundation for years to come.”
Christopher Sweeney came to his mother’s homeland, Poland, from the U.S. in the late 1990s for business. He had no connection to his Polish roots but found them in Warszawa and stayed for good. “Poland is my home and my heart is here.” Baseball and softball are close to Sweeney’s heart as well. His combination of passion for the sports and, as he calls it, his “Polish stubbornness”, seem good for the development of Polish baseball and softball.