Taking on the Alligators: Lars Anderson in Germany

Former MLB player Lars Anderson will play baseball in Germany in 2018. (via Michael Kramer)

I’m back at it. Another year of professional (the term “professional” is becoming more and more vague these days) baseball on yet another continent, my fourth in 20 months. This time, it’s Europe, and more specifically, Solingen, Germany.

Playing baseball in Germany came from daydreaming while I was finishing up my season in the Australian Baseball League in January, 2018. I’d had my fill of playing in Asia, and felt a desire to explore another part of the world, so I looked toward Europe and Mexico. I contacted teams in Holland, Italy, and Mexico, but none of them panned out. There was an opportunity in France, but I was on the fence about it.

Enter Wayne Ough, my former teammate with the Henley and Grange Rams in Adelaide. While he plays shortstop and pitches in Australia in the American winter (Australia’s summer), the 39-year-old former Double-A pitcher’s real gig is managing in the German Bundesliga.

Essentially, Wayne pulled me off the fence and into Germany. “Mate, I’m managing again in Germany this year. I’d love to have you out here for the season. The pay is pretty modest, but we can throw you a few Euros, an apartment, and a bus pass. I think you’ll love it out here. It’s chilled.” I relished the thought of playing for Wayne, as he would be more peer than manager. I spent a couple days considering his offer before calling him. “Okay, mate, I want to come to Germany. Let’s make this happen.” I was about to embark on another year of baseball abroad.

Just as a fateful conversation with a former teammate had made me aware of independent leagues in Japan, I did not know professional baseball existed in Germany until speaking with Wayne. As in Australia, baseball is not hugely popular in Germany (soccer and handball run the athletic show), but there is a 16-team team league called the “Bundesliga” (top league) that covers the country. I am playing for the Solingen (pronounced “Zolingen”) Alligators.

The Alligators are one of the top teams in the northern division, which is considered weaker than its eight-team counterpart in the south. The Alligators are a “club” in the truest sense, made up of five teams of varying ages and levels of competence. The youngest team in the club consists of 6-13 year-old players (hard to see the logic or safety in that, but I digress) and the oldest and highest level is the team I play for, where the ages range from 18-32. At 30, I am now a dinosaur.

Most of the Bundesliga players have civilian jobs, relegating the schedule to just two games per week, a doubleheader on either Saturday or Sunday. When it’s all said and done, we will have played only around 40 games in a six-month season. In contrast, seasons in the minor leagues, which I am most accustomed to, are made up of 140 games in 150 days.

In short, there will be some down time this year (about five weeks of “official” holiday break, which I plan to use for more European exploration). “Mate, you can just have a little walkabout when we’re off,” said Wayne when he was detailing the schedule for me. Could he be any more of an Aussie?

Ordinance in the Outfield

After a week of baseball with the Alligators, a few things became clear. First, I enjoyed my teammates and felt confident that playing for Wayne would be excellent. Second, the facilities and the field itself were most decidedly not Yankee Stadium. Third, the list of “stuff I’ve never seen before” grew longer than a northern European winter’s night. There was also another Lars on the team, another first.

The field was just a 10-minute walk from my apartment. I stumbled upon it by accident on my first full day in Solingen. I was walking to town when the yellow foul poles peeked through the canopy of green on my right. “Oh, there’s the field!” I thought. The street where I stood was perched above the third base line while wooded hills extended above the first base line, giving the field a cozy, damp, quiet vibe. A baseball field seemingly carved out of a European forest.

While the infield, cared for by Wayne and the players, looked playable, the outfield, tended to by the city, looked more like a wild pasture; an unintended benefit of their lack of care, however, was that dainty  white flowers popped up in clusters out of the sea of green grass. The downside was that home plate for the “junior” division was located in the foul territory of our left field, with the pitcher’s mound inside fair territory. I would be playing left field for the Alligators, and was not relishing the thought of chasing down a fly ball, only to face-plant from a fall caused by the pitching rubber for seven-year-old players.

I soon discovered that co-existing with the little leaguers sometimes caused us to amend our practice habits. When practicing at home with the juniors present, hitting balls to left field was forbidden so as not to hit any of the youngsters. During the first week of practice, whenever a righty pulled a ball or a lefty took one the other way, they were reprimanded with a chorus of players shouting, “Hey, watch out for the little ones over there!”

The consequences of simply standing in left field were far more grave prior to my arrival. Before the season had started, I received a message from Wayne, “We might get the start of our season pushed back as they recovered a bomb from WWII in left field. They tore up the field pretty good, so we’re waiting for the city to fix the grass in the outfield.” He continued, “The city did some investigation of old aerial photos and information about bombs that were dropped back in those days and they found one out in left (field). It was ten meters underground, right under where our little guys play and train! Only in Germany….” Tripping over the pitcher’s rubber in left field was now the least of my concerns.

The equipment was sometimes laughable. When we started batting practice the first day, I wasn’t sure if Wayne was throwing me clods of dirt or actual baseballs. “It’s such a novelty hitting the same balls that Shoeless Joe hit!” I said between swings.

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New baseballs were a rare commodity: Whenever one of the new “pearls” gets fouled off into the woods, the batter gets heckled by his teammates. “Ah, come on! That was a new ball!” But when one of the balls from the Taft Administration gets knocked into the forest, the players are more lackadaisical: “Ah, who cares? That was an old one!”

The contrast between practice in Germany and my experience of baseball in Japan was stark: Gone were the days of the eight-hour practices accented by yelling and screaming throughout. It was laid back and brief under Wayne’s reign and I loved it. A bit of stretching, a bit of running, a bit of fielding, a bit of throwing, a bit of hitting, a bit of cigarette smoking (Did I mention everyone smokes? That dynamic, come to think of it, actually does align with Japanese baseball.) and we call it a day. I enjoy it, despite hitting balls that were probably dug up with the ordnance in the outfield.

Bodies

My first game as an Alligator was an away tilt against vaunted rivals, the Bonn Capitals. Bonn is about an hour’s drive south of Solingen, and we caravaned there en masse to face our foes (the players in the Bundesliga carpool for the shorter road trips to save on fuel). I soon discovered my teammates try to shorten the road trips even more: I hopped in Other Lars’ car, and we promptly hit the autobahn and topped out at 180 kph (roughly 112 mph).

The first game of our double header began at 1 p.m. and we took a full batting practice session and did infield/outfield drills beforehand. I hadn’t played a baseball game since the conclusion of the Australian Baseball League in late January, so the prospect of two nine innings games was daunting, but the anti-inflammatory pills I took worked wonders. That is, until they didn’t.

Midway through the second game, the drugs had worn off and I started to feel everything. As I was sliding into second base — my body moaning — I had the clear realization that I no longer had any desire to run the bases or play defense. Like, ever. If I could spend my remaining days purely as a batter, I would be content.

I started both games in left field, however, and despite the aches and pains, it was fun playing baseball again. The day was immaculate and the fans were out in full force. It wasn’t the Rose Bowl, granted, but when the ballpark  seats only about 500 people, 450 screaming Germans create a certain energy. It was heartening to look around the stands and witness a certain amount of freedom (or perhaps lawlessness) as cigarettes were chained smoked and beers were disappearing at an unsustainable rate.

We lost both games, completely outclassed by the men of Bonn. Unfortunately, the losses extended beyond the record column. In the second game, our starting catcher, Joe, took a foul tip off of his glove-hand thumb. He immediately walked off the field and into the dugout, and when I looked at his thumb between innings, it resembled a George Mallory extremity: purples, blues, and disfigurement. “Ya, it popped out,” he said, with a bizarre calm about him. “How you call it in English? ‘Dislocated?’”

The local emergency medical team (we don’t have a team trainer) arrived while I was in the outfield the next inning. They walked through the gate behind home plate and onto the field. The fans in the stands began clapping and the spotlighted medics nodded and waved to the adoring crown. When they exited with our catcher, there was even more applause, approaching an ovation. This time the game stopped, and the medics took bows! A dislocated thumb is not good, but Joe was walking off the field under his own power, and the medics were acting like they had just pulled him from a collapsed Chilean mine.

Two innings later, when the game was well out of reach, our relief pitcher, Murph, gave up a three-run homer. After the inning, he threw a right cross at the dugout’s garbage bin. Bam! But the thin metal bin didn’t put up enough of a fight, so he punched the cement dugout wall next to it. The wall won, and he broke his hand. It was not a good day for Alligator hands.

This probably goes without saying, but in the words of Crash Davis and cooler heads everywhere, if you’re going to punch something, don’t use your pitching hand. This certainly goes without saying, but cement is undefeated against flesh and bone.

I understood his anger. Baseball has made me more frustrated than I thought possible. I’ve demolished bats on dugout steps, exploded helmets on the dirt around home plate, and upended countless buckets of gum and seeds out of sheer disgust with myself, the umpire, and the universe. But as furious as I’ve been, and as much as I have wanted to, I’ve never punched a cement wall. There’s always been that little voice of reason that cut through it all: “Dude, you don’t wanna do that! It will end badly!”

After the game, Wayne addressed Murph’s right cross in the post-game meeting. “Mate, I know you’re frustrated about your outing, but you have to be smarter than that.”

“I know,” he replied. “I can’t believe how dumb that was!”

Our second series came a week later against the Paderborn Untouchables. It was another road trip, but this time, Other Lars and I shared the backseat while starting first-baseman Dustin drove. He was a bit more conservative than Other Lars on the autobahn, but we still reached speeds that would have gotten points deducted from my licence back home. Our roster was thin, especially at pitcher. Our aforementioned catcher, Joe, was out with the dislocated thumb, Murph was done with his broken throwing hand, and Bruno, a right-handed starter, had a pesky test that he needed to study for.

To complicate things further, Nils, one of our best pitchers as well as our starting second baseman, was at the hospital to be with his family, as his wife had given birth the day before. That kid must be destined to be a soccer fan.

Due to our shrinking roster, it was going to take some managerial finagling, luck, and witchcraft to get through the first game with enough pitching to complete the second. In the Bundesliga, to keep the league German-centric, there are strict rules for imports (players without a passport issued by Germany or another European country; i.e. an American). For each team, only two imports are allowed on the field at once, unless there is an import pitching. If that is the case, the team is allotted three slots for foreign-born players. In the first game of doubleheader, however, imports are not allowed to pitch. Consequently, imports are fairly ubiquitous as game two starters

The monkey wrench for the Alligators against Paderborn was this: Wilson Lee, an Australian, our weekly game two starting pitcher and one of our best hitters, usually plays right field in the first game before starting the second. But since our starting catcher, a German, was out with the dislocated thumb, we had to use our backup catcher, Naoki Abe.

As you could probably ascertain from his name, Naoki is not European, and burned one of our import slots. I used up the other, rendering it impossible for Wilson to play right field and hit in game one, making us even more shorthanded.

The fate of the first game, therefore, rested on Giovanni, a young right-handed pitcher from the Netherlands. The day before at practice, I overheard Wayne discussing our pitching options for the first game with an Aussie compatriot, Wilson Lee. “We kind of need Gio to pitch a complete game. We really don’t have much else in the way of bullpen support.” Wayne then laughed and leveled with Wilson, “And we need you to throw a complete game for game two!” Wilson didn’t even blink, “Oh, I’m going all nine! I’ll throw 150 pitches if I have to.”

To provide a bit of context: In my entire minor league career, I saw about five complete games in affiliated baseball. But whereas pitch counts in the states often limit a pitchers ability to last the entire game, a starter’s pitch count seems to be largely an afterthought in Germany. Wilson Lee’s proclamations would prove almost prophetic, except it wasn’t him who threw 150 pitches: Giovanni the Dutchman pitched the game of his life, allowing three runs over nine complete innings. He ended up throwing 135 pitches, something I have never seen in professional baseball. The Alligators won 7-3.

Stranger (Baseball) Things

EXT. BASEBALL FIELD
(With Lars up to bat, the pitcher delivers. His pitch was so far outside it would’ve gone behind a right-handed hitter.)
Umpire: “Strike three!”
Lars (walking away): “That ball was outside.”
Umpire: “No!”
Lars: “Yeah.”
Umpire: “No!!”
Lars: “Yeah.”
Umpire: “No!!!”
Lars: “Yeah.”
Umpire: “Knock it off!”
Lars: “Okay.”

As any baseball player can attest, our beloved game is an almost relentlessly humbling one. A week after hitting for the cycle against the Dorhen Wild Farmers, I went 1-10 against pitching that I would’ve eaten alive as a 13-year-old; it was that slow. I didn’t feel capable of processing my failure against such competition, just like I had no idea how to hit a 50 mph fastball.

Before the second game of the doubleheader (after going 1-5 in the first game), I told Ben, our starting third baseman and my roommate, and Father Lil’ Wayne Ough, “I’m either going 5-5 this next game or 0-5; there’s no in between with this pitching.” Sure enough, I went 0-5. What do they call that? A self-fulfilling prophecy?

“I’m a man of my word!” I told Wayne afterwards. The opposing team’s manager started the second game on the mound, and even he got me out in three straight at-bats. He was maybe pushing 50. Hell, they could’ve brought in the town drunk, who could be seen wolfing down beers and cigarettes at every game and practice, to pitch and Lars would have found a way to fly out to the left fielder or ground out to the second baseman.

The slow pitching hasn’t been the only thing that I’ve had trouble with on the field. For reasons both clear and opaque, I cannot seem to coexist peacefully with the German umpires. We are a square peg and a round hole. The following are some examples of our contentious relationship:

During an away game against the Hamburg Stealers (I do love these team names), I peed in the bushes behind our dugout on the first base line. I have this weird pathology where I can’t focus on hitting when I have to pee. It’s been like that for my entire career, and if a camera stayed on me for the duration of a baseball game, it would probably leave the viewer wondering why I have the bladder of a well-hydrated Methuselah. Suffice to say, trips to the dugout toilet are frequent. The issue in the German Bundesliga, however, is that there are never toilets in the dugouts, and one could often find Lars scampering to a variety of “outhouses” during the game.

I was batting second this particular inning, so instead of running to the portable toilet behind the right field fence, I just dove into the bushes. When I returned to the dugout and starting putting my batting gloves on, I heard the umpire’s voice speaking to someone in a stern tone. It was in German, leaving me to pay little heed, until Dustin, a fellow teammate and a German, tapped me on the shoulder. “Hey man, you can’t pee in the bushes,” he said. “Oh, really? Why not? I’ve seen other guys going there.” I asked. Then the umpire, now speaking English, admonished me, “What happens if someone hits a foul ball where you pee?! Then we have to pick it up!” “I’m sorry,” was all I could muster as I walked to the on-deck circle. And with that, my uneasy relationship with the umpires began. I haven’t been able to right the ship since.

Japanese umpires were the nicest game officials I’ve ever shared a field with. While often incompetent (as a player, all umpires regardless of nationality are inherently bad at their jobs), they would smile, bow, and make conversation as best they could. They were gentle stewards of the game. American umpires, while similarly incompetent, can be friendly as well. The same goes for Aussie umps down under, although they are a bit more vulgar. While Aussie and American umpires are more brash and ego-driven than their Japanese counterparts, they can be reasonable and even forgiving when it comes to innocuous players infractions; in my experience, Japanese umpires are fairly fastidious about such things.

For example, if an American umpire sees a bat weight out of place, he’ll take his mask off and address the offending side. “Hey, can you guys please move the bat weight? Thanks.” Quick, easy, nothing to it. In Germany, for the same infraction, the umpire will take of his mask, roll his eyes, lumber over to the misplaced bat weight, pick it up, relocate it, and then say, “I don’t know what the matter is with you guys! It’s not that difficult! Use your brain!” That happened, verbatim, leading to a incident playfully known as Bat Weightgate (more on that in a moment).

Situations such as Weightgate popped up seemingly every week, with me as the repeat offender. The umpires were out of position on the bases on a regular basis, with no thought to how many outs/strikes there are, or whether they were about to make absurd third strike calls, but damnit, the rules that had zero impact on the game had to be observed.

As I’ve learned the hard way, the rules and tasks for the players are different here and the demand is substantial: In Germany, when you are on the on-deck batter, you are expected to be as much a ballboy as you are the guy preparing to have an at-bat.

During my first game against Bonn, I was in the on-deck circle near our third base dugout. Ben, who was hitting, fouled a ball straight back. It hit the screen behind home plate and the ball ricocheted towards the first base dugout. Now, in the States (and every other place I’ve ever played), it’s not the responsibility of the on-deck batter to grab the ball especially when the ball is not on his side of the field. That job usually falls to, well, a ballboy. If no eager 12-year-old is present to scamper over to retrieve the ball, usually a player not in the lineup is tasked with grabbing it. After all, they’re just watching the game.

I stood on the on-deck circle, waiting for someone to pick up the ball, when suddenly, the umpire took off his mask, pointed at me, and screamed, “Hey! That is your job to go get the ball! Pay attention!” I spun in a circle a couple times to see if he’s talking to someone behind me until my teammates started laughing and said, “He’s talking to you, Lars!”

When Ben’s at-bat ended and I made my way to the plate, I turned to the umpire and said, “Hey, man, I’m sorry. It’s a little different back home.” He just scoffed, “Well, you need to pay attention.”

From that point forward, I sprinted from the on-deck circle for each and every foul ball. “You’ve really improved on your ball fetching, Lars,” my teammates would joke. All kidding aside, I was assimilating and things were looking up, until we played against the Wild Farmers.

It was the 10th inning. There were runners on first and second and Ben was at the dish again. We were winning by one run as I made my way to the first base dugout’s on-deck circle to ready myself for what was sure to be an important at-bat. Since we had just given up a six-run lead in the ninth inning, a one run advantage didn’t feel like nearly enough. We needed more.

The pitcher delivered a high, inside fastball that glanced off Ben’s back for a hit by pitch. The ball ricocheted off Ben toward the third base dugout, away from where I was standing. Ben dropped his bat and trotted to first.

The table was set: Bases loaded in a crucial part of the game. I walked to the plate, collecting myself for my immediate future. But before I could dig into the box, the umpire started scolding me:

Mr. Umpire: “Why don’t you get the ball?”
Lars (dumbstruck): “Wait, huhwaahhh? What are you talking about?”
Mr. Umpire: “The ball! I had to go get the ball! That’s your job!”
Lars (dumbstruck): “I was walking to the plate for my at-bat!”
Mr. Umpire: “I don’t care! That’s your job!”
Lars (heating up): “I’m sorry, man, but just talk to me like a human — I don’t need to be yelled at by you. I’m just trying to prepare for my at-bat. I’m not from here…I didn’t know.”
Mr. Umpire: “Well, you played little league right?! You should know!”
Lars (boiling over): “Yeah, and I’ve also played 12 years of professional ball and I’ve been to the big leagues. And I’ve never had to pick up a ball on the walk to the batter’s box!”
Mr. Umpire: “Okay Mr. Big Leaguer!”

I flew out on the next pitch. We didn’t share any more words for the rest of the game, instead resorting to non-verbal communication, mostly in the form of death stares.

The following week, I got into it again with yet another ump. It happened on the on-deck circle, again. While Ben was taking his first at-bat of the day (it’s all Ben’s fault, I think), I was standing near the on-deck circle timing the pitcher. Suddenly, the umpire yells, “Timeout!” At this point, my experience with past umpires led me to reflexively look up, flinch, and whimper, “It wasn’t me!”

But it was me. The umpire said I was standing “too deep” in the on-deck area, meaning I was too close to the back screen and too far from my dugout. He said I was affecting his peripheral vision. The thing is, unless he had eyes in the back of his head or mirrors on his face mask, it would have been literally impossible for him to see me.

But scarred as I was, I moved towards the third base dugout and into his actual peripheries. Between innings, he walked over and drew a line. He commanded our team, “You can’t cross this line when you are on-deck!”

Fast-forward two hours. I was leading off the eighth inning, swinging my bat with a weight attached to it. As the defense was throwing the ball around, I tapped the weight off my bat and walked to the plate to hit. But when I arrived, the umpire huffed and puffed. He sauntered over to the weight, which was near the line he had drawn earlier, picked it up, and moved it six inches to the right. He returned to his position behind the plate, audibly complaining and shaking his head.

Lars (knowing he was in trouble): “I’m sorry. I’m not trying to piss you off.”
Mr. Umpire: “You guys just don’t get it, do you?! It’s not that difficult! Use your brain!”
Lars (to himself): “I just can’t win.”

When I reflect on my baseball experience in Germany, a quote from a trainer that I worked with years ago comes to mind. I was in the midst of a hellish workout when he said, “Remember, Lars, it doesn’t have to be fun to be fun.” Whenever someone asks about my time with the Alligators, my answer is usually the same. “I dig it. Sometimes it’s fun and easy, but even when it’s not, the downturns are usually so bizarre that I am entertained. It’s a win-win.”


Lars is part owner of Birdman Bats, a wood bat manufacturer. He also makes electronic music under the name LARS? (https://soundcloud.com/larsamusic). Follow him on Instagram at lars_eric_anderson.
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Jim
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Jim

Hast Du Deutsch gelernt? Ein bischen?

jimbo22s
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jimbo22s

It is common in amatuer ball where I am from that the on-deck hitter would grab most balls that get loose and return them to the umpire. In high school or small college, for example, the on-deck batter would not retrieve any balls that kick toward the other dugout but would not leave any balls laying on the ground on the way to the plate.

ItsPoPtime
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ItsPoPtime

Thats how we do it in Naba. DC wood etc. I’m sure it’s similar, although we never get 50 mph guys, and otherwise great pitching performances are ruined whenever the ringer (usually a guy who flamed out at single A) comes up and bombs you like it’s the derby.

K-Man
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K-Man
It’s nice to see an article on German baseball here. I have played in the Bundesliga myself, and often on the same fields as Mr Anderson (though not at the same time) — a teammate of mine was once ejected in the first inning of the first game of a DH for pissing in the bushes in Hamburg. It is something they take very seriously there. I have to say though that the attitude Lars displays here reminded me negatively of a few import players I’ve played with, the often diva-like attention they command, and their lack of interest in… Read more »
ItsPoPtime
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ItsPoPtime

Vielleicht ein bisschen relax bro

ItsPoPtime
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ItsPoPtime

I find it weird that umps would be so… Not chill. Every experience I had playing baseball native Germans who played or coached would basically be in awe of anything college or Major league. There were German fans who know who Troy Oleary was and this was 20, years ago. Maybe Lars man, maybe it’s you :/

Jetsy Extrano
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Jetsy Extrano

More Lars writing, yay! These are a lot of fun.