Croatian ball player Damjam Zlatarek has a smile that makes him stand out in a crowd. It was that smile that brought him to my attention in our first 30 minutes at Finkstonball. I turned my camera for an atmosphere shot when I saw his mug, grinning ear-to-ear, pop into my field of view. It was not yet 9:00 in the morning.
That same smile would continue to greet me every day of the tournament. No matter the time of day or what he was doing, Damjam was just happy to be there and he didn't care who knew it. In fact, if someone offered him a $1M to go an hour without smiling, I'm pretty sure he'd lose that bet each and every time as long as he was at the ball field.
During the tournament Zlatarek played short, 2nd, 3rd and even spent two innings pitching. No matter where he was, or what he was doing, he was never without a smile as wide as the horizon. Every inning change, between every pitch, he was nothing but the picture of happiness.
The moment the ball was in play however, he was all athlete. After watching him for a few days, we could see he clearly had a competitive streak to rival his smile. We decided it was time to learn a bit more about what made Damjam, whose team by this time was 0-every game they played, continue to grin.
Damjam plays for Baseball Club Vindija in Croatia. According to Zlatarek the team's current average age is somewhere around 17 years old. By today's baseball standards that's fairly young, and Croatia is not really known as a hotbed for the sport, even in Europe. We decided to learn more about what baseball means in Damjam's world and how that balances against the world in which he lives.
What does the average person your age in Croatia understand about baseball?
"The question I get a lot from my friends, and everyone around, is whether I’m batting or pitching. I say I do both. Baseball is simple to play. You have offense and defense and you switch every inning."
On the day we sat together it was both raining and sunny at once. This created a rocky start to filming. Almost immediately upon seeing the tape I decided I would try to use the written word to communicate what I had experienced. As I started to type Damjam's interview though all of who he is, and everything about what baseball means for him, was lost. I decided that the heart of the man could only be expressed through the man himself so I expose to you my imperfections as a videographer and ask your forgiveness.
Throughout the interview we discussed a myriad of baseball and cultural issues. Take a look for yourself.
A great deal of our chat landed on the cutting room floor - mostly because I kept cutting off the poor guy's head (thanks for slouching for me Damjam ; )! - but I didn't want you missing out on my favorite part of our conversation so you'll find it below in the bonus materials.
What I learned in talking with Damjam is that, that smile of his comes from a passion so deep he can easily sweep you away with his enthusiasm for the sport. There are all kinds of love of the game but Damjam's joy is the type that you see in very few people over a lifetime in the sport. I've previous mentioned a few of the guys who've had it that have come before him. These are the guys that make being a fan of the sport a special experience. I feel pretty lucky to have had an opportunity to sit down with a player of his caliber. Regardless of his stats, he'll always be a standout baseball player. Anyone who gets the chance to watch Damjam play, in Croatia or around the world, should feel privileged to experience the game through him.
Those of you that follow me as a writer know I’m an audiophile in my other life. Damjam was distracted by nearly every song that came over the PA. Recognizing the behavior I figured I might have found a kindred spirit at the festival. Finkstonball combines my two loves – music and baseball. As suspected, that's something Damjam and I have in common.
What do you like most about playing baseball?
Travel is the main reason I play. You meet new people and they’re all just great. Finkstonball is awesome. There’s concerts here so it’s just great.
What’s a standout experience you’ve had on the road?
Virazdin Sport is part of Spancirfest and it’s a lot of good music. I went last year and I really enjoyed it.
You seem like a music guy. What’s your favorite genre?
I like punk, rock and heavy metal.
What’s your favorite punk group?
The Dead Kennedys. I like the Gorillaz too. They last released an album like 7 years ago and this year they’re releasing a new one.
Have you been to any punk shows?
Yeah, actually a lot. In Croatia we have trash clubs with do-it-yourself bands. They self record and sell their CDs for 5€. You buy it, you listen and think, 'Oh cool. I’m going to the show next time.'
Do you play an instrument at all?
Ah, no. Sadly no.