Last autumn 19-year old Interleague Baseball was rebranded. Premiering in April of this year, Euro Interleague Baseball (EIB), which is comprised of 15 teams, divided in two pools, from Hungary, Croatia, Slovakia, Serbia and Slovenia, debuted.
The idea for the new format came from Slovakia. “After last season Pavol Teslik, my teammate from BK Apollo, said ‘Something has to be done. The Interleague Baseball we play is okay baseball, but no one knows about it,’” said Martin Brunegraf, a co-founder of EIB.
According to Brunegraf, if you’re going to talk the talk, you’ve got to walk the walk. After discussions between the clubs, Pavol and Martin got to work creating the new brand. They started with the name and added a website that includes standings and statistics. Social media was then created to help foster an online community comprised of all the individual baseball communities throughout the league. That’s how, in April 2016, Euro Interleague Baseball began its first season.
Brunegraf says the goal behind the changes is to make baseball more visible, to modernize communication around, and about, the league, and to develop a league that is based on a professional structure. “We don´t want to be just a bunch of teams that play against each other. We want to be more.”
The next step for the EIB is to start discussions with the Confederation of European Baseball (CEB) about becoming a recognized baseball league included within the CEB system. “The first step would be that the winner of the EIB gains the right to participate in the CEB Federation Cup”, says the EIB´s Commissioner, Krunoslav Karin, who also serves as General secretary to the CEB. Brunegraf remarks, “Hopefully we can organize the All-Star Game in Zagreb at the same time CEB has a meeting in Croatia.” The plan would be to invite the CEB to a show-and-tell of the league.
The baseball club Nada SM Split, from Croatia, is one of the founding teams and continues on in the EIB. “Back in 1998 we decided to join Interleague Baseball, to get more games against teams that were, at that time, much better than us,” explains team manager Goran Supraha. “At the beginning we were terrible but, over the years, we have become one of the best teams in the region. That is why we continue to play in the EIB.” The Croatian manager is not alone in his belief that more play equals better performance.
The Angels Trnava, from Slovakia, is another team that has made the transition. Igor Jankovic, player and Board member of the club says, “For us the main reason to join the league was to get more quality games. For example, playing against strong Croatian pitchers who are playing in the A-pool of the European Championship is a great way to develop our guys. Playing on different fields, and in varying conditions, improves our baseball as well.”
EIB A-pool has six teams: two from Croatia (Nada SM Split, Olimpija Karlovac), two from Slovakia (Apollo Bratislava, Angels Trnava) and two from Hungary (Obuda Warriors Budapest, Reds – Sleepwalkers Budapest). The teams in the A-pool have already finished a 20-game round robin.
B-pool has nine teams: two from Serbia (Beograd 96, BC Vojvodina), two from Slovenia (Zajcki Ljubljana, Jezica Ljubljana), two from Hungary (Rascals Janossomorja, Aeros Erd) and three from Croatia (BSK Medvednica Zagreb, BK Zagreb, Vindija Varazdin). In round robin format, the teams are playing 16 games. The season has not yet finished. At the moment the two top teams are the Zajcki and the Medvednica.
The Final Four tournament of the A-pool will be played in late August with teams from Croatia and Slovakia. The Reds and The Warriors will play in relegation games against the top two teams from B-pool.
When the Interleague Baseball was founded in 1998, it was Krunoslav Karin’s idea. “From the start the goal has been to improve the level of the game. One of the problems at that time was, and still is, that most domestic leagues play only 4-6 teams and usually one of the teams is much better than the others. They needed more tough games to develop.”
Interleague Baseball started with eight teams, four from Croatia and four from Slovenia. The league expanded rapidly. By 2005, Interleague Baseball was comprised of 14 teams from five different countries. According to Karin, behind the success of the league is a laid-back, flexible attitude and love of baseball. “It has been great to work with all the clubs and federations. We all have same goal and most importantly, we all love playing the game.” Now, it seems, he’s passing the torch to a younger generation under a watchful eye.
To run a league with 15 teams from five different countries is not always easy, said Martin Brunegraf: “Of course, sometimes we have hard discussions and we don´t agree totally, but most of the time we are on the same page. We all have the same goal: to improve baseball in our countries and in Europe.”
Besides coaching the BK Apollo, and being the president for the club, Martin Brunegraf works for the Slovakia Baseball Federation. According to him, the federations of Croatia, Hungary, Serbia and Slovenia are in favor of the EIB. “I think everybody agrees that, if we play only, for example, 12 games in the season, we are not getting better. Now, when the teams have a chance to play many tough interleague games, it improves the domestic league. If you want to have a strong national team it is the essential pre-condition. In most of the participating countries the government financing is dependent on the level of the national team.”
Krunoslav Karin sees the effects of the interleague play on the level of the national teams. “Croatia is playing in the A-pool in European Championship. Slovakia is a top team in the B-pool. Serbia plays B-pool next year. I am sure that playing interleague games has helped develop these national teams.”
To have the right to participate in the EIB, a club has to pay a 200 € fee to the league. “With that money we mostly cover the costs of the webpage and the administrative costs. Other costs are on the teams,” Martin explains.
Karin has served as a commissioner to the league from the start. He knows the challenges the teams are facing with finance, travel, fields and baseball gear. Despite all that, he says that during these 19 years only one game has ever had to be cancelled due to a no-show of the team. “Every team knows how difficult it is to create a schedule for so many teams from different countries, and what happens if we need to change it. As I said before: We are doing this because we love the game.” Jankovic adds, “We like to travel. It gives us a chance to spend more time together as a team.” And that’s what creates every baseball community.
Martin Brunegraf says that the league is open to discussions with teams across Europe. “We don´t have any restrictions. We are happy if other team wants to join the league. Of course we need to discuss whether they have to start in B-pool and how we handle the process, in practice, but they are welcome.”
Euro Interleague Baseball is a good evidence that it is possible to play interleague games during the regular season in Europe. It only needs the right people, with the right attitudes.