Ahoy, lusty wanderers! Since setting out some weeks ago on my bold and gastronomically reckless circumnavigation of the baseballing world, I have endured great hardship, engaged in hilarious and poignant miscommunication, and witnessed America’s pastime thriving in the least likely of settings. In a felt-lined yurt in the heart of the Gobi I sipped fermented mare’s milk and debated lineup optimization; on a rice barge on the Malabar coast I swapped hot-stove rumors over the roar of the monsoon; amidst flower-strewn meadows on the high slopes of the Karakoram I gasped my way through pickup games, the cheerful taunts of the Tibetans ringing in my wind-whipped ears. Step by arduous step I conquered Asia, and now I find myself on the grey shores of the Baltic, where baseball has a rich history.
According to scholar Josh Chetwynd:
Latvia had a brief flirtation with baseball in 1920, according to the October 10th edition of the New York Times that year. The paper recounted a game in Riga featuring members of the American Red Cross Commission of Western Russia and the Baltic States that garnered high-level political attention. “During the third inning,” the paper wrote, “the Prime Minister of Latvia drove onto the field. [The fielding team] whooped with joy, thinking that here was a worthy player to match [the other club’s star]. Instead, the Minister-President took our first baseman away with him.”
With such deep roots in the sport, it’s no surprise to find baseball still thriving in this land of zithers and pierogis. The nation’s amateur league, the Latvian Baseball Federation, consists of eight clubs with such names as (if my translation is correct) the Valmiera Cartridges, the Miami Devilbats, and the Legends of Light. The official website of the LBF includes a helpful and thorough overview of the history of baseball, as well as its professional format in the United States:
“World Series” is the MLB finals, where competing teams have passed the play-off round. Although the name sounds like that should participate in the tournament teams not only from America, it is not. Americans think that the team that produced the MLB championship, produced the world’s strongest team title. Admittedly, however, they are true.
The site also features an excellent tutorial on the rules of baseball, with some of the better explanatory graphics I have seen:
As to the particular character of the game as it is played in Latvia, I can perhaps best convey it with a typical snippet of action from a recent game recap:
Perhaps the outcome of the game was the key Moot Arthur Knopkena shot in the air to catch Andra Gutman addition to some fly-ball figure of Christ, at a time when there was a similar outcome of the game and the kick nenoķeršanas would bring in several points.
The Latvians’ firm grasp on the fundamentals of the sport, and their obvious natural creativity on the diamond, have not, it seems, translated into great success on the global stage. In qualifications for the 2012 European Championship, the Latvian national team finished last in their group, losing all four of their games while being outscored 57-8. One particularly disappointing outing saw the team rather thoroughly outclassed by the Belgians, giving up 17 runs in five innings, while committing four errors, going completely hitless at the plate, and striking out eight times in 16 at-bats. Though this country seems to face long odds in living up to its proud baseball heritage, the spirit of its people remains undiminished, as the following picture affirms. Join me in wishing a hearty Veiksmi! to the good folks of Latvia — and join me, at some highly uncertain later date, for the next chapter of my suspense-filled journey — Around the Horn!