• Sam Gilman

An Example To Follow

Zagreb pitcher Jasmin Hodzic-Hrsak PC: Ivica Drusany

Zagreb, the capital of Croatia, has a baseball story to tell. To many ball communities across Europe, it will hardly sound unique. That is reason enough for it to be told.

A city of 790,000, Zagreb is home to three of Croatia’s eight top-level baseball teams: Zagreb, Novi Zagreb and Medvednica Zagreb. Between these teams, and their little leagues, 250 players share one field.

EBSM sat down with the president of the Zagreb club, Tomislav Špehar after a story trickled down to us concerning the end to their 2017 season.

For those familiar with the European baseball and softball landscape, it is a story little talked about though far too often experienced.

It was the final week of games in August when Tomislav received a call from the local government. The team had 14 days to move off the land their teams had called home for the past 35 years. While the request was not unexpected, the timing most certainly was.

Špehar says the land was given to the new international school in a recent agreement with the city. The team was told they would have three years to relocate, that they would receive assistance from the government when the time came and that they would be given new land nearby to make up for their losses.

After negotiations between the city and school were complete, the school wanted to take over 100% of their land immediately. The land where the ballpark currently resides will be the new home of the school’s own athletic fields which, naturally, cannot be used before the school is complete. That construction is schedule to conclude in 2020 so the immediate request was a shock.

According to Špehar, despite that three-year timetable being sped up to under a year, the city is making good on their promises. However, in addition to the already expected issues, there are new problems that could not be avoided given the accelerated timeline.

The new ballfield land, which the city is calling an interim solution, is 6.2 miles (10km) away. That makes the new field closer to the next town over than Zagreb’s own city center. While they are being given architects and a promise for another relocation within that original three-year planning time, Zagreb’s baseball community now faces several unexpected, and additional, struggles.

First, how will they continue to convince parents of neighborhood kids to make the longer commute for the next several years? Second, what will happen to their youth programs, and their pro team fan bases, through all the moves? Third, when they are given their own permanent space how are they going to afford the costs, never mind the time, associated with building two parks in three years time? Every minute any team spends away from the field is a huge loss in Europe. Games happen just twice a week, on average, and practices sometimes less frequently than that. Considering the Olympics are back on the table now, every minute away from the field for a team hoping to make the A-pool is time they simply cannot afford.

As locals struggle to write a future surrounding their new field(s), the changes in Zagreb are also a huge loss for European baseball history. The park, after all, is a testament to the way baseball and softball grow and thrive across Europe in spite of the innumerable challenges.

In 1982, when Zagreb was awarded the opportunity to host a European Championship, it was the players who spent the next 28 days building the field, from the ground up, by hand.

One of those players was Bojan Koprivica. On September 14, 2017, along with a “feeling sad” emotional tag, Koprivica shared the field’s beginnings on his Facebook feed writing:

“"You’re not going to need the gloves or the bats today.”

Instead we would get the shovels and the wheel barrels and would spend the next few hours grudgingly trying to make the couple of acres of thick mud and scarce grass in a city block, whose name no foreigner could ever pronounce, resemble a baseball field. Hell, any field!

Looking back, there’s no doubt in my mind that it was baseball, both building the field and playing on it, that helped me stay sane, something by far not a given in Croatia in the early nineties. I left after we won the championship in ’96, and although I would later call other fields my home field, none of them would be home. This one was, and I kept coming back to, watching with pride how the new generations took our place, how they played the game with the same zeal we did, and how the field itself grew and became more beautiful with time.

Today the mayor of Zagreb and the American ambassador to Croatia were on my field and, they too, had shovels. There was groundbreaking and celebratory rejoicing, but there will be no more baseball in Središće.

The field officially belongs to the City, which relinquished the property in favor of the State, which in turn donated the land to the American International School who, in turn, will construct new buildings there. The fine irony of an American institution killing baseball.

This was the only baseball field in a million souls capital of Croatia. The place where Jamie Moyer once came to teach us the finer aspects of the game. The field that played host to a World Cup Qualifier. Zagreb, the official seat of the Confederation of European Baseball (CEB), is now the city with no baseball fields.

For Zagreb kids who love the game and pursue it against all odds, it’s back to the roots, quite literally, on some new neglected meadow nobody wants now. The days of not needing the gloves or the bats are ahead of them, and here’s to the hope they find as much inspiration on their journey of building their home as we did with ours.”

This was just the first of hundreds of personal histories forever altered by this one field. In speaking with Špehar we learned that the field’s final day was perhaps even more memorable than it’s first. The story that follows will show you the quality of player they are raising in Croatia. In our estimation, it stands as a testament to the sentiment, for the love of the game.

Jasmin Hodzic-Hrsak, the man pictured at the start of this article, is a pitcher for Zagreb. When he learned he’d have the ball on the final game of the park’s history, he was prepared. Jasmin is 30 years old and listed as a catcher, shortstop and pitcher for Zagreb.

At Finkstonball this season he hit .545 over 11 at bats with 2 doubles and 7 RBIs and finished the tournament with a .905 fielding percentage. On the mound he took the loss in 4.2 innings of work after racking up a 6.00 ERA giving up 5 runs off 7 hits including a double, triple and a home run. Still, he struck out 8 and walked just 2.

As life has shown, we can all have a bad inning every now and again. Unfortunately for Hodzic-Hrsak, that would become a reoccurring truth right through to his very last pitch, not just for 2017, but for the rest of his playing career.

During that final game at Zagreb’s home field this past August, Jasmin broke his thumb during a play but continued on. He was determined to pitch a complete game in his last game at the only park he had ever known.

With one out remaining in the game, he threw the ball to the plate. Throwing around the pain of the broken thumb for a few innings changed his delivery. When he released that final pitch, it caused a spiral fracture straight up his arm instantly ending his career. Still, the way he tells it, he wouldn’t have wanted to go out any other way.

This is the heart and soul of our game. It’s not about money or glory or even victory. It is about pride. The pride in calling a field your own. Pride in the work you put into being part of a team. Feeling proud when your community admires the changes your sport is making to the local landscape. When you give back with the best parts of who you are, everyone wins… or at least that’s what baseball and softball teach us to be true. Maybe its time to invite our local governments out to our fields and teach them a thing or two about the lessons we've learned from the games we love.

We may be a small community but we are a strong one. It is the resilience and determination with which these, and all teams across Europe, for generations now, exhibit that let you know Zagreb’s journey is far from over and that we should be thankful for their example.

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