Born in Montana, Kris Richards spent most of his life in North Carolina where he grew up playing baseball. After high school he remained in North Carolina as he signed on with the NCAA D1 University of North Carolina at Greensboro where he played ball from 2008 to 2012. In his senior year he hit .342 in what is regarded as one of the best college conferences in the country, the Southern Conference.
Richards was drafted by the Orioles where he spent two years as a shortstop in A ball before being converted to a pitcher at the age of 23. This quickly led to a elbow injury and a year on the sidelines recovering from Tommy John surgery. Upon recovery, Richards decided to not continue to chasing a career as a player, and turned his focus to coaching.
While coaching at an academy in North Carolina run by Mike Griffin, a former Czech National team coach, Richards was introduced to the possibility of jumpstarting a coaching career in the Czech Republic.
“I had no idea where the Czech Republic was to be honest with you. I still thought it was called Czechoslovakia.”
Next thing he knew he was on his way to the Czech Republic in the winter of 2014-2015 with Griffin and his academy coaches and had the opportunity to experience the country before committing.
“It was a little bit of a shock at first, but I think I adjusted pretty well. In Prague they speak English well but outside of Prague it was difficult to communicate.”
At that point Richards decided to take the opportunity and signed on with Kotlarka Praha (Prague), a young up and coming team who had only been in the top Czech league for four years entering the 2015 season. Despite being young, the club had reached the playoffs three times in those four years and the Czech championship twice. Richards also quickly found himself in the role of the Czech U21 national team hitting coach in addition.
“Prague is unbelievable. Sometimes I look around and can’t believe I am coaching baseball and living here.”
Richards not only enjoyed the city, but also enjoyed the success his team was having on the field. At the end of the season, his team was second in the standings at 23-12, second only to the mighty Draci Brno (29-6), probably the most dominant club in it’s respective league semi-pro or pro baseball around the globe. Draci, translated to Dragon in English, is based in the city of Brno and has won the Czech championship in 19 of the last 20 years. Kotlarka, based in Prague, is one of three teams based in this popular European city and one of three Prague teams that has never won the Czech championship. So need less to say, Richards had his plate full in his coaching debut.
Prague is unbelievable. Sometimes I look around and can’t believe I am coaching baseball and living here.
However his team was poised to upset Draci as they led the league in most offensive categories including extra base hits where they dominated. Despite two of their young Czech pitchers leaving the club to go play in the Pirates and Orioles organizations, the team still managed to have the second best era in the league.
With their impressive record, Kotlarka got a bye in the first round quaterfinals and eventually met up with IBC member and international baseball veteran, Alex Lee and the Ostrava Arrows (20-15) in the semi final. Despite the efforts of Lee, Kotlarka was too much for the regular season third place team as they cruised to a 3-0 series win.
This led to the showdown with, surprise, surprise, Draci Brno in the finals.
Going into this final series, the storyline is as follows:
- Kotlarka pitching ace Marek Červenka has never lost a playoff game
- Draci was looking for their 20th Czech Championship
- No team from Prague has ever won the Czech Championship
- Kotlarka got their two young pitching studs back, Marek Minarik (Pirates) Jan Novak (Orioles) back from affiliated ball in the U.S. just in time for the final series.
- The first two games are at Draci’s ball park
In game one Červenka continued with his winning ways and defeated Draci and their ace Petr Minarik (brother of Marek) and 8-5. Brother and Indians prospect Martin Červenka supported his brother by going 3 for 5 at the dish.
“Being able to win that first game was, whew, we can relax and breathe a little.”
Game 2 saw Kotlarka young pitching prospect Marek Minarik take the mound against Czech pitching legend Martin Schneider. Going into this second game with a 1-0 lead in the series and their young affiliated pitcher on the mound, it looked promising for Kotlarka to take a 2-0 series lead. However being the competitor that he has a reputation for, Schneider stepped up to the challenge and led the defending champs to a 7-2 win, tying the series at 1-1.
Going into game three Kotlarka was confident they were in a good position to win. They were at home and they had Červenka back on the mound who was still undefeated in the playoffs. However as anyone reading this post knows, nothing is every certain, especially when up against a club with a track record such as Draci. Draci not only handed Červenka his first playoff loss, they one convincingly by a score of 8-3 to take the series lead for the first time.
Game four saw Minarik (Pirates) back on the mound up against Schneider once again. At this point you would have to say that the odds were now stacked in Draci’s favour when considering that they had won the previous time these two pitchers were matched up. However on this day Minarik owned the mound and used his four years of minor league experience to dominated a team that has dominated the league for so many years in what was his first complete game shutout in the league as he went 8 innings, while striking out 8 and allowing no walks in a 3-0 win to tie the series once again.
In the fifth and deciding game, Kotlarka gave Orioles prospect Novak the ball and he ran with it. In what Richards described as “everything coming together” he watched his club play great small ball while Novak went 9 solid innings in a 3-1 win to claim their first title in the club’s history.
Something tells me that is not the last we will hear of both Richards and Kotlarka on the international baseball scene.
Listen to Richard’s story in this podcast episode and detail on the Czech Extraliga and the opportunities within for pro import players.