Poland and Pinstripes

It is a summer night in the Bronx. The concourses of Yankee Stadium resemble New York City rush hour with people looking to get their hot dogs and beer before the first pitch. The chime of the ticket scanner reverberates through the hallowed walkways. The grounds crew sprays down a pristine infield with water to darken its already brown hue. A young boy stares in awe of Babe Ruth’s number and plaque in Monument Park.

Soon after, public address announcer Paul Olden flips on the switch of his microphone and proclaims, “ladies and gentlemen, it is time for tonight’s starting lineups.” The chorus of boos for the visiting team soon turns to cheers for their beloved Yankees.

Before he switches off the microphone Olden says, “making his Major League debut, pitcher Artur Strzałka.”

As the fans in attendance try to figure out how to pronounce the starting pitcher’s name, Strzałka will know that all of the hard work he has done in his life has paid off. He will be realizing one of his childhood dreams. His home country, Poland, will be behind him with each pitch he throws.

Like most baseball players, Strzałka began playing the game at an early age. At a primary school in Boguszowicach, he played for a team coached by Mr. Krzystof Fojcika. Originally a first baseman and an outfielder, his pitching career got its start from some words from his coach.

“After my first year, my coach Krzystof Fojcika said to me, ‘go to the mount (mound),’ Strzałka said. “After a few trainings, I played my first game as a pitcher.”

It was this piece advice that put Strzałka on the right track.

Soon after, his parents moved to Rybnik, a city in southern Poland. It was there where he began to train under Mr. Gregory Mularczyk. During these times, Strzałka began to attend various tryouts spread throughout Europe.

In 2011, at the age of 16, he traveled to Prague where he along with other European baseball players tried to realize their dreams and get discovered by Major League Baseball scouts and former players. His pitches were clocked at 81 mph, but this was not good enough to catch the eyes of Major League scouts.

The next year, Strzałka returned to another tryout in front of scouts and former players, but this time something different happened.

“Artur entered the hill (mound) and he was very loose,” teammate Przemysław Paluch said.

His first pitches registered at 70 mph on the radar gun. When scouts saw this, they decided to move onto see other pitchers in the bullpen, but one coach took an interest in Strzałka. That coach was Bruce Hurst, a member of the 1986 American League Champion Boston Red Sox.

Hurst asked if Strzałka was ready.

In response, he then went on to throw pitches that registered on the radar gun at 89 mph.

“Then all radars were directed toward Artur,” Paluch said. “It was already clear that he drew the attention of many clubs.”

After traveling to different camps around Europe and throwing bullpen sessions for more scouts and former players, Strzałka was still without a contract from a Major League team. This was despite the fact that he increased his velocity on his fastball, bringing it to 91 mph.

Just before leaving to go qualify for the European Championships, Paluch received a phone call asking if Strzałka could come to Prague to throw at a tryout arranged by the New York Yankees.

“It was just me, my parents and two scouts,” Strzałka said. “They checked my abilities. After that, they invited me to a restaurant, and we talked for an hour about a contract.”

The Yankees gave Strzałka one day to think about the contract. He could sign on the dotted line, or say no.

“Of course I agreed,” Strzałka said. “The next day, I signed the contract.”

The marriage between Strzałka and the Yankees seemed as if it was meant to be.

“It feels great to be a Yankee,” Strzałka said. “They were my favorite team. I could not imagine a better team. Nice players, nice coaches, communication and professionalism are all we need to achieve victory.”

Friends and teammates of Strzałka could not be happier with the good fortune that has come to him as well.

“It is an honor to have someone in your circle of friends who plays for one of the best teams in the world,” friend Mariusz Paprocki said.

Ever since that contract was signed in July of 2013, Strzałka’s life changed forever. He recently returned back from the Dominican Republic where he played in the Dominican Summer League.

In January, he will travel to Tampa for Spring Training where he will compete for a spot on the 25-man roster.

As a left-hander with a fastball, curveball and changeup in his pitch arsenal, it will be tough to leave him off of the roster.

Although he is excited to be in the United States, it will be tough for him to be away from his home, but he has a way to cope with the distance.

“I am going to request Polish food,” Strzałka said. “I love it. I cannot imagine life without pierogi or gołąbki.”

Major League Baseball is like a fraternity. It is a fraternity that not many get to associate with. Strzałka is different than any other addition to the Major League Baseball fraternity. He is the first man to be signed by a team who was born in and started his baseball career in Poland.

In one to two years, a man with a last name that is not commonly seen on baseball cards will hopefully make his debut in Major League Baseball.

When that day comes, Artur Strzałka will not be the only one making his professional debut. His nation, Poland will be making its debut right alongside him, pitch-by-pitch, game by game.

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Should’ve, could’ve, glad you didn’t

Imagine you are sitting on your couch and you are tuned into NBC watching the closing ceremonies of the 2018 Winter Olympics in Pyeongchang South Korea.

You just saw a ceremony filled with larger than life animation, 1,000 dancers dancing in perfect harmony around the Olympic rings and images of athletes and spectators with tears streaming down their face as if they were a child.

The Olympic flag with its five, colored rings is billowing in the winter breeze has been lowered from its perch and handed to President Park Geun-hye, and she then hands it to the host nation of the 2022 games, Poland.

It is time to step back into reality. That scenario will never happen, at least not for a long time. It is merely your mind playing tricks on you.

Seeing the Olympic flame burn bright in Kraków could have been a reality if the residents of Kraków voted differently than they did on May 26, 2014.

Of the voters that turned out to exercise their right, 70 percent voted no to hosting the Olympics in 2022.

Why would people vote no to this? Why would a country with as much pride as Poland has vote no to having all eyes on their country for 17 days in the winter. This would have been the first time the country has hosted the Olympics.

There must have been some reasoning behind this. I cannot help but think of the scene from Indiana Jones where the man chooses what he thinks is the Holy Grail. Once he makes his choice, he withers away to nothing, and we are left with the famous quote, “he chose poorly.”

If the 2022 Winter Olympics were the Holy Grail, Poland chose wisely.

Off the bat, hosting the Olympics seems like it would be a huge economic boost for a country. The number of people that watch the event around the world is over 3 billion and, over 13,000 members of the media make the journey to the host country to cover the event.

In recent years, Barcelona, Atlanta and London were viewed as success stories for places hosting the Olympics. The 1992 Summer Olympics in Barcelona has made the country created close to 300,000 jobs and has turned the country into a tourist destination.

The Summer Olympics in London helped the city see a 12 percent increase in tourism after the Olympic flame was extinguished.

So what seems to be the problem? These numbers should make countries jump at the chance to host the games. But, they always say that the numbers do not lie.

The most recent Olympic games in Sochi were tagged as the most expensive games in history. The final price tag of the games was $50 billion. This is $38 billion more than what was originally planned.

Even though Poland is considered to be a model of economic success in Europe, they are in no position to pay that amount of money in order to host the Olympic games. If you look at their economy compared to the rest of the world, Poland is not that financially prominent. As of 2013, their Gross Domestic Product per capita was slightly over $21,000, which ranks 69 in the world.

Now is not the time for the country to spend that type of money. Instead, the country needs to focus on improving their labor market, and product market reform.

Leading up to and all throughout the Sochi games, every other story about the games was how venues for events and living quarters for athletes were far from completion. The stories seemed quite comical, but after the games, the last laughs can be heard from one end of the Olympic village to the other as they are abandoned.

Vancouver, Athens, Sarajevo are all the same: abandoned.

Do you really want to put an insurmountable amount of money into constructing venues that will house events for 17 days, and then house dust and animals for the rest of their days and become an eyesore?

Abandoned stadiums and villages serve no purpose in a landscape that is called a jewel in the country. That would ultimately take away from the beauty of the city that it prides itself on.

In February of 2022, I will be sitting on my couch, watching the games taking place in Pyeongchang. I will wish them the best of luck, but I will be glad the Olympic flame will not be above Kraków.

Polska at the Bat

Being Polish and a baseball junkie, I wanted to take the chance to tell the story of the Polish National Baseball Team. This was a true treat and showed what makes the game of baseball so great.

It is the only sport where someone can fail seven out of ten times and still make it into the Hall of Fame. It has its own anthem that people boisterously shout out as if they were in a bar with 50,000 of their closest friends. Hot dogs, beer, soda, peanuts and Cracker Jacks are the meal of choice. In this sport, there is no clock or time limit. The stadiums where games are played are cathedrals with grass the greenest of greens and pristine as a blanket of snow.

If Mother Nature does not let the first pitch be thrown, the teams make it up to you by playing two games the next day. In your life, is there someone who consistently makes it up to you when things go awry? Most likely, the answer is no.

By this point, trying to figure out which sport this is should be coming clear. If another hint is needed, try this one on for size: it is commonly called “America’s Pastime.”

It is baseball.

With millions of children around the country playing little league baseball and Major League Baseball stadiums averaging over two million fans a year, it is safe to say that the game has a strong foothold in the United States, but what about around the rest of the world?

When baseball connoisseurs think of baseball outside of the United States, the first countries to come to mind for being baseball hungry are the Spanish speaking countries such as the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Venezuela and many others.

An area that not many people think baseball is prevalent is in Europe. Many think of Europe as a breeding ground for soccer, but the game of baseball has a surprisingly large presence.

One of the many places in Europe where the game is being played is Poland.

In a country where majority of sports fans are talking about the Polish National Soccer Team upsetting Germany in the European 2016 Championship Qualifier, a select group of men are talking about bringing baseball to the forefront in the country.

Twenty-one men with last names that either end in Ski, Czyk and Ocki just to name a few and even the best public address announcers would most likely stumble over wear their country’s name proudly across their chest while on the diamond.

These are the men that take the field for their country. Twenty-one men with one common goal:

“It is an opportunity to represent my nationality,” pitcher John Dobkowski said. “However, the main goal is to improve baseball in Poland.”

Their task is harder than hitting a 100 mph fastball. One of the reasons why is that not many people outside of the team know they exist.

“I was at a Polish festival last month with one of our pitchers,” manager Paul Solarski said. “We wore our jerseys to promote the cause. As you would suspect, many were shocked that Poland had a team.”

To their chagrin, they do have a team. They may not be ready to put on a Major League uniform, but they are a group of guys that love to play the game. The style of play is open to improvement.

“The players know how to play the game, but do not have an understanding of the nuances of the game the same way North American players do,” Solarski said. “For example, with a runner on first, they will always try to turn a double play. Even if the chances of getting the lead runner are impossible. They attempt to turn it because, ‘that’s what you should do.’”

When the lack of notoriety and key fundamentals seemed to be tough enough, the team is also facing difficulties due to the fact that the International Olympic Committee dropped baseball from Olympic competition after the 2008 games in Beijing.

With the sport out of the Olympics, baseball in the Poland is taking a backseat to sports that the country still competes in at the Olympic level. The downgrade of the sport in favor of Olympic sports means less funding for the team. With this, the team knows only one way to try and fix this problem.

“If we can do well next year and make it to the A pool, the powers that be will grant us more funding,” Solarski said.

In European Baseball, countries are divided into three pools. There is an A, B and C pool. Poland currently sits in the B pool. The winners of the pools move up to the higher pool, and the losers move down. When the championships come around every two years, the outlook for the team remains the same.

“The national team is always seen as one of the contenders for the championship,” infielder Mariusz Grzanowski said.

Recent progress made in terms of player development and new coaches to the staff hopes to be what Poland needs to win their pool, but there is still work to be done.

While it is an uphill battle for the team and nothing comes easy for them, the team manages to stay relaxed and remembers that they are playing a game that they all love. But, like every team, nothing beats a win on the field.

“For several years, we have won more games and the joy of the team has been huge,” former manager Arkadiusz Żurkowski said. “Each victory has a great effect on the players that is very visible.”

When the average baseball fan hears the date July of 2015, they may think of the All Star Game in Cincinnati, but to the men who wear the red and white of their country proudly, they think of the European Baseball Championships. This is their chance to make history. It is their time to make their country proud. In the end, it is their time to play the game they love: baseball.