In naming a team of the year EBSM has traditionally named teams, one in softball and another in baseball. 2018 however proved to be an unparalleled season for one European team.
One of their players accomplished something on the hill we could find no record of in any of baseball’s annals and the team’s undefeated record is unmatched in any professional league’s history. To do their journey justice, we’ve decided to name a single team this year.
Allow us the pleasure of introducing to you the 2018 Bonn Capitals. They are the German Bundesliga I Champions and European Baseball & Softball Magazine’s team of the year.
A Storybook Season
The Capitals went 40-0 in the regular season. To put that into perspective, the longest MLB win-streak is 26 games, a record held by the 1916 NY Giants. In the MiLB it was the 1947 Ports who went 26-0. In August 2013 the Eagles Tanaka had 21 straight wins to set Japan’s league record. The Capitals completed their regular season undefeated.
In the first round of the playoffs, down 2-1 in a best of 5 series, Bonn fought their way out of elimination with a 19-inning win at home. When the championships came around, the series extended to the full five games and culminated in another home win as the team captured the first Bundesliga I championship in their history.
“If I end up writing something about this it would seem like a fairytale, like it wouldn’t be real.” That was the response we received from the Bonn Capitals former head coach, BJ Roper-Hubbert, when we contacted him about their year.
We’d love to see this past season recreated on the big screen so we’re memorializing it here for all the proof that may be needed at a date yet to come!
As with most great endings, this past season started with strife.
Setbacks and Struggles
The Capitals lost their fans for much of the season. Because of construction plans to accommodate the 2019 European Championship, the Capitals field was out of commission throughout most of the year. The team played nearly all their home games before the end of May and did not return to Bonn again until two weeks before the playoffs. That means 20 road wins for the team, 14 of which were consecutive. With nearly half the clubs in their division more than 2 hours driving distance, many fans were dependent on livestreams and apps to keep abreast of the team’s progress. Bonn lucked out with unseasonably warm temperatures throughout April and May, and a returning crowd that had not found more enticing activities to entertain them as summer ended.
To understand the impact injuries had on the team’s success, you have to look back to 2016.
One of the biggest ways Bonn consistently capitalized on the competition’s mistakes was in base running. Coach never once shied away from sending a guy or letting the players run their bases. If someone took a chance and it didn’t pan out, they’d come right back and try it again. It wasn’t until injuries to one player in 2016, and again this season, really changed how that approach became an assist the team simply could not live without.
In 2016, Max Schmitz, a regular starter on the mound for both the Caps and the national team, injured his plant ankle and was out for the season. He rehabbed but he never left the field. During his off-time Schmitz kept busy learning about coaching. He assisted the Caps throughout the year. When he returned to the field in 2017, Max started in the outfield taking the mound in relief and learning to rely, once again, on his plant. By 2018, Schmitz was ready for the ball.
During the start of the season Max was in the regular rotation as a reliever. He pitched 13.1 innings over 5 games racking up a win and 2 saves, striking out 28 while giving up just 1 earned run off 3 hits. He had a .675 ERA and a .450 winning percentage. His plant foot seemed to be working just fine. On the field, he was also posting a perfect fielding percentage with 6 putouts and two assists in right.
On April 28th, Schmitz took the mound for his 3rd inning of work. As he tossed one over the plate it kept going, straight over the fence and out of the ball field. Max’s natural motion continued and didn’t stop until he was twisted on the ground and laying in a heap. He was not alone. As the release happened, Roper-Hubbert jumped out of the dugout screaming and hitting the ground and Eric Brenk, over at short, fell to his knees as well. Schmitz season ended that day with a clean fracture to his pitching arm.
When Schmitz suited up the next week and took over 3rd base coaching duties full-time, it was expected. BJ had often turned to Max throughout the previous two summers. This season however, Schmitz found his calling according to our Editor-in-Chief Sam Gilman. The Capitals are her local club. She told EBSM, “I think the biggest tool Bonn had available, that they often capitalized on, was their base running. They were never afraid to send somebody and Max learned how to do that in a way that was literally poetry in motion.”
Undefeated But Beatable
Shortstop, and sometimes relief pitcher for the Caps, Eric Brenk, also a national team teammate of Schmitz, had this to say about the season,
“I’d say we definitely had a different year than any other since I’ve been in Bonn. It felt like we had to overcome a lot, losing Max early in the season to a bad injury, a tough loss in the championship game in Ostrava in the CEB Cup. Even though we went 40-0 in the Bundesliga North, it felt like we hadn’t always played our best baseball. The turning point was probably when we showed resiliency and won the 19-inning game against Regensburg. The club, and all the fans, supported us so well. I think we knew then that we had something special.”
CEB Cup Loss
As Eric mentioned, Schmitz’s injury was not the only setback the Capitals faced throughout the season. Picked to play in their first CEB Cup in several years, the Capitals had a strong showing. They entered the finals 3-1, falling to the Squirrels of Belgium for the Cup, 2-0.
Their first loss came at the hands of Biotechkomanda KNTU, winners of the Ukrainian Baseball Cup for 2018. Heading into the championship round, the Squirrels had the same 3-1 record having fallen only to the Capitals. Their prior meeting, three days earlier, had ended 11-8 in Bonn’s favor.
Undefeated in their league heading into the championship rounds it might seem that the Caps would sail onto victory but that would not be the case.
The Bundesliga North is notoriously less competitive than their brothers in the southern division. Think NL v. AL back in the ‘80s. That means come playoffs, Bonn not only faced a new crop of opponents but a group of contenders much more accustomed to challenging match ups.
The biggest difficulty the Capitals faced year-after-year, both in the playoffs and the regular season, was the team’s overriding habit of playing to their opponent’s level. Coach Roper-Hubbert remarked,
“I still think we really played down or up to our competition. We’re confident. We would sometimes play down until it really mattered, until it got down to the nitty gritty, and we needed to squeak out a win. We also allowed the other team to help us out. They would make mistakes and we would be able to capitalize on them.”
Anyone who has played a competitive sport knows the best game plan is to remain on offense, to play your game no matter what your opponent does. The ability of this particular Capitals team to do so, or to even know what their game looks like, has often been called into question by fans and experts alike.
Game 4 of the playoffs between the Bonn Capitals and the Buchbinder Legionaire is a prime example. During the 19-inning game there were many great performances but one man's efforts stood out from the rest.
National team player Maurice Wilhelm, who would go on to be named MVP of the championship as well as the Bundesliga’s Northern Division for 2018, had nothing short of a perfect game.
He started the day at DH before taking the ball to start the 8th inning. On top of the hill he pitched a perfect game in relief but he wasn't done yet. To start the 19th inning he hopped on the bag at 1st defensively, then hit a single in his at bat come the bottom of the inning. Maurice would finish the game by scoring the winning run. Now that's what we call a solid day's work.
That’s a lot of accomplishments in a single paragraph so let’s take a moment to focus on that perfect game. In pitching you have no hitters and you have perfect games. A no hitter means no one reached base as the result of a hit. The MLB averages about 2/year.
In a perfect game the pitcher gives up no hits, runs or walks over 9 innings of work. In the 140-year history of MLB record keeping, only 23 perfect games have ever been pitched.
Wilhelm, who is the team’s regular 1st baseman, did it in the middle of a game. He then stepped off the mound and headed back over to cover 1st for whatever would be the remainder of that game. At the next opportunity, he was the difference on offensive as well.
That win was a must for the Caps who entered the game behind 2-1 in a best of 5 series. It would not be the first time they found themselves in this very spot during 2018’s playoff action.
They pulled out the win only to be right back in survival mode in the very next round. When the championship series left Bonn the Capitals had secured the first win of the series. Away from home Bonn dropped two making every game on the return to Bonn a do-or-die situation.
On October 14, 2018, the Capitals handed Heidenheim their hats with a 7-5, Game 5 victory that was decided by the end of the 7th. So, four years of battling and finally the cup was theirs… except that it wasn’t.
During Game 4, Heideköpfe’s coach protested a solid call by the umps. With runners on 1st and 3rd for Heidenheim, the runner on 1st went on the pitch. The player arrived safely at 2nd. With the ball still in play at 2nd, the guy at 3rd headed home.
Here is where the interference took place. Based on momentum and positioning, the umpire covering the infield play could not remove himself from the path of the defensive player attempting the throw home. He called umpire interference on himself and ordered everyone back to where they had started.
The coach for Heidenheim filed an official protest claiming that umpire interference could only be called when the ball was hit, not while in the player’s possession.
A glance at the MLB rules, which is what all leagues in Europe play under, shows he was mistaken. Each year the European teams play under the rules of the previous MLB season so, in this case, we need to look to the 2017 MLB Rule Book.
While there is no rule outlining these specific circumstances, taking all the umpire interference rules into account, as well as the overriding angle of fair play that baseball rules, in general, lean toward, the interference call is solid.
Section 6.01 (d) (3.15) of the 2017 MLB rules states: “In case of unintentional interference with play by any person herein authorized to be on the playing field (except… an umpire) the ball is alive and in play.”
When a team is adversely affected by an unintentional interference, the call goes in favor of the team disadvantaged by the interference. In this case, that would have been Bonn as they were attempting to throw the player out at home for the 3rd out of the inning.
According to the Umpire Bible under section (c) Umpire interference occurs (1) when an umpire hinders, impedes or prevents a catcher’s throw attempting to prevent a stolen base or retire a runner on a pick-off play…
In this instance the word catcher refers to the player’s position but you can see how the same rule would apply in the reverse, from fielder to catcher, for the same purpose.
When umpire interference occurs in an instance like this, the umpire calls interference, the ball is dead and everyone returns to their original base. That is precisely the call the staff made in game 4.
Though there is no specified rule dealing with this precise issue, there is a rule to cover that loophole as well. MLB rule 8.01 (c) in 2017, states: "Each umpire has authority to rule on any point not specifically covered in these rules." In this instance the umpire intuited a similar logic to the one we've just used ourselves and ruled accordingly.
Of course Heidenheim’s coach was in the moment and doing what he felt was in his team's best interest according to the rules as he understood them. However, Game 5 was a full 24-hours after this play. By then he’d had time to review the livestream and consider his protest. When they were outplayed in game 5, the choice to continue the protest was his.
Though they celebrated their long-fought climb to #1 on game day, Bonn would have to wait until October 24th to officially hoist the trophy. This left a taint on the celebrations.
Despite the cancellation of the awards ceremony, the team did manage to hoist the cup in the privacy of their locker room before DBV officials packed it away. The moment was captured by the team’s long-standing photographer Thomas Schönenborn.
The Caps would have to wait an additional week for the final decision from the commission. The decision to uphold the call on the field was handed down on October 23rd.
Heidenheim then waived their right for appeal on the 24th and that is when the Bonn Capitals became Bundesliga Champions for the first time in the team’s 29-year history.
With the game under protest however, Bonn’s fans were denied the opportunity to fully celebrate with their team.
No team is complete without their fans. A few of the Capitals’ regulars agreed to speak with us about what made this a rewarding year, despite the setbacks, and why they are dedicated to this team in particular.
Borris Barschow and his family are new fans to baseball. Boris shared with EBSM how they became fans of the sport.
“The Bonn Capitals are the Team of the Year for us not only because of their outstanding season and their championship, but above all because the atmosphere in the stadium in Bonn's Rheinaue is an indescribably special one. There is no separation between the spectator and the team. You feel like their 12th man.
The mood in the stands is very friendly. Experts help baseball novices understand the game. My daughter Carla and I have gone from novice to small rules experts.
My 4-year-old daughter now wants to become a catcher. A lot of the Capitals favorite stars have contributed to that desire including Bradley (BJ), Kevin van Meensel and Kevin Lambertz whom she calls "Kevin 1" and "Kevin 2".
Baseball fever has gotten us; probably forever.”
Brian Lainoff also has a special relationship with the club. He’s a fan today but spent years on the Capitals bench, remaining with the team through the 2016 season.
“I joined the Bonn Capitals Baseball Club in 2013 after moving to Germany without knowing a single person in the city besides my colleagues at work. The Capitals took me in and, for four years, I played with my brothers with an aim of becoming German Champions. I left Bonn for London in 2017 not having achieved that goal, but with a family I will never forget.
I have followed every game online since, but I was weary of returning to watch a game in person. I feared I would miss my teammates and the Bonn Capitals family too much.
After watching the 2018 season week-after-week, I couldn't help but fly over to watch my boys compete in the championships. And I was right; I miss those guys and the Capitals family beyond expression. They showed the gut, grit and determination that I remembered, and more.
There was no team, no club and no family in Germany more worthy of being German Champions. I am so proud of my friends - my family - for being named Team of the Year.”
In addition to the team’s first Bundesliga Championship trophy, individual members of the Capitals took home several additional awards.
The European Baseball Coaches Association (EBCA) named Roper-Hubbert their Coach of the Year for 2018. This is the highest award a coach can receive in Europe.
Markus Solbach was named the Bundesliga Northern Division’s Best Pitcher.
Maurice Wilhelm was named the MVP of Bundesliga North and MVP of the Bundesliga Championship.
Through all the struggles and successes, it was also a season of lasts. Outfielder, and sometimes pitcher, Jan Jacob said goodbye at the end of 2018 along with Caps coach, and team member for 8 years running, BJ Roper-Hubbert.
Fear not though, for a new crop of champions is on the rise. This season marked not just an undefeated year for the top team but for Bonn's youth team as well. Their Little League Majors (10-12 years old) won their third championship in as many years following their own undefeated season of 21-0.