The European Championship C-Pool games have begun. This year’s events take place in Miejska Gorka, Poland and Ljubljana, Slovenia. One team from each location will earn a spot in the B-pool for next year.
There are five countries in each group. In Ljubljana, the teams competing are: Finland, Ireland, Norway, Serbia and host Slovenia. In Miejska Gorka: Estonia, Georgia, Hungary, Romania and host Poland are playing to win.
The Finnish National team traveled to the European Championship C-Pool in Ljubljana, Slovenia with only one goal in mind: to win the tournament. Team manager Antti Kumpulainen told EBSM that the goal is challenging. He says playing against hosting nation Slovenia is difficult. “They have a good domestic league and most of the players have played hard games in the Euro International Baseball league (EIB),” said Kumpulainen. Most of the players from team Hungary and team Serbia, who are competing in Poland this week, have also been playing in the EIB.
Baseball in Finland struggles to compete against the nation’s own pastime, pesäpallo. Pesäpallo is a Finnish national sport and it is a combination of traditional ball-batting team games and baseball. It is the third most popular ball game in the country after ice hockey and soccer. The men’s highest league has 14 teams and the top players are full-time professional athletes.
Invented by Lauri “Tahko” Pihkala in the 1920s, the game has its roots in baseball. In 1907, a 19-year-young Pihkala saw his first baseball game in Boston. He didn´t really understand the game but found it fascinating. He also found it a bit boring.
Pihkala thought that baseball was too slow, and the pitching too difficult for the Finns to hit so, he developed his own version of the sport. Key amongst the differences Pihkala invented were the base path running and the vertical pitch. Players run the bases in a zig zag pattern beginning with home to third on a baseball diamond and returning from second to score. In a vertical pitch, pitcher and batter stand face-to-face. The pitcher throws the ball up and the batter hits the ball when it comes down.
Despite differences between the games, the basics translate between the sports pretty easily. In Slovenia, suited up for team Finland are two former pesäpallo players, Ismo Ankkuri and Marko Nygård. Both retired from pesäpallo and were willing to try something new. “We are using them as relief pitchers. They throw hard and that give us a chance to have different strategies,” Kumpulainen said. Smiling he adds, “Batting is another story. The guys are allowed touch a bat only on the way back to the hotel.”
Many European national teams rely on players with dual citizenship. In the C-pool for example Ireland, who has already beaten Finland once in the round robin tournament, have four players with both Irish and North American citizenship.
Finland also has one dual citizen, outfielder Timo Muro, who was born and raised in the US. “It is good to have a player like Timo on the bench. He’s a young guy in good shape. Timo was raised with baseball and he breathes the game. He works hard and that means a lot for the whole group,” says Kumpulainen.
Norway’s Bendik Eugen Johansen was injured in the first round
Norway, which has had a great tournament so far, has a good mix of experienced players, many who were part of the 2014 C-pool team, and new guys. Among the new players is 16-year old Gunnar Henriksen who is making his national team debut in the tournament. Also having an impressive outing is RHP and infielder Steffen Torgersen who has gone 1-0, striking out 11 and pitching a complete game in his only appearance on the mound. Behind the bat he’s had 2 home runs, 2 doubles and 8 RBIs in 11 at bats for a .636 tournament average.
On the roster for Estonian is RHP Matti Emery. Emery has played for the Stuttgard Reds in German Baseball Bundesliga, one of Europe’s premiere leagues.
Team Poland has a young roster with most of their players having been born in the 1990´s. Amongst them is 17-year old Mateusz Szustek who, having already won the Polish National Championship with his U15 team, is currently awaiting college admission to play in the states.
Antti Kumpulainen is a veteran Badger. He has been with the Finnish team since the beginning of the century, first as a player and then as coach/manager. According to him the level of the baseball has risen significantly in C and B pool. “Nowadays teams are playing good baseball. This is not a playground any more. I have to admit, things were different back in the day. Today there is no room for fooling around.”