I came to Europe to play baseball for the Attnang Athletics of Austria in 1999 and returned permanently in 2004. Attnang is a small town of 8,000 and yes, during the off days, sometimes I found myself banging my head against the wall because back then, there was no computer or internet available for imports to communicate with family and friends back home. Sometimes it would rain for a week straight so I wouldn’t have the opportunity to even play baseball. When it wasn’t raining, I was very dependent on my teammates to take me to more desirable locations to swim, sightsee, etc. In a big city, one would have many more options during these downtimes and would not be so reliant on others to entertain them. It should be noted that a small town in Canada or the U.S. is a bit different than a small town in Europe. In Canada, living in a small town means being cut off from civilization with no way of reaching civilization without a car. In Europe, often there is another small town 3km away in every direction and the next big city is an hour away, all reachable by train. So if you have a little travel money, it is not that bad.
On the baseball side of things, typically the clubs from larger cities have the money and the talent pool. That isn’t always the case but more often than not, it is. So one might ask themselves why would I go play for a small town club in Europe? I can give you one good reason……..community. Small town clubs are like big families. They know they have to put the time and love into the organization because without it, they would have nothing to do! Once signed on, you will find that the lives of the members of these small town community clubs often revolve around the club more so than those in the bigger cities. This isn’t necessarily because they love the game more, it is more so because they have less distractions and the park is a 5 minute walk from their door.
Another cool thing about small town clubs is that you are Mr. Popular. In small towns, an import baseball player sticks out like a sore thumb. Even before you open your mouth they know you are not from there and often immediately notice you are from overseas. European’s just look, dress, and act different than north Americans and in small towns, that can be pretty interesting. In the big city, you are just another American or Canadian tourist and nothing special. The kids look up to you like you are a superstar and ask you to sign autographs and the fans all want to get to know you after the game. Of course along with that does come with an element of pressure.
More than anything though, it is that feeling of family and community that makes it special. With that being said, let’s jump into this guest post from the father of one of my first members to sign a European contract. He has written this post for the purpose of sharing his story of their visit to Germany to watch their son play, while simultaneously informing those considering a small town German baseball of the experience they can expect. At the end of the story, I have provided 4 tips when negotiating with a small town club.
Notes from a German Baseball Trip 2013 by James Milo.
7 January, 2014
Play Ball! I guess it officially does not matter where you are from anymore. In case you have not heard, baseball is being played almost everywhere on the planet. I could list all the places on Earth that have teams and organizational baseball; however that would take too long and bore you, the reader. Let me fill you in on a German baseball experience I had last year in 2013.
Last year on 2, July, my wife Tamara and I boarded a plane for Hamburg, Germany for about a 10 day stay. Our ultimate destination was a small town about 30 minutes south of Hamburg… Dohren. We were on a trip to watch our son play baseball for the Dohren Wild Farmers. After a successful Junior College baseball run, including the JC World Series, our son Dominic decided to play baseball overseas. The DWF is a team belonging to the Bundesliga North League in Germany. Dohren is a small town of 1,100 people that support the DWF team. The North League is one of two D1 leagues in Germany, the other the South.
Dominic was welcomed into his host family’s home, the Hassenpflugs. As an American import player, Dominic was provided with a place to stay, meals and a bicycle to get around for seven months. And, if you look at it, he was provided with family. Dominic was very lucky to have his hosts take him in and treat him like family from the very start. We are all very grateful to Hans, Georg and Antje Hassenpflug for opening up their home to Dominic. Tamara and I are also grateful for the hospitality shown us on our stay in Germany.
Is playing for a small town club better? Share your story by comment or anonymous form below.
While in Germany, we rented a car. We wanted the ability to see Dominic play at home in Dohren and away games in Solingen. Solingen is south about 3 hours or so… close to Cologne. We also wanted to be able to see some of the sites along the way. Antje showed us around locally and also took us on a day trip that included visiting two castles and some shopping. Shopping is very cool in Germany. Maybe it’s because the shopping is not so familiar. It seems like we visited hundreds of stores from Hamburg to Cologne. The churches in Germany are fantastic and visiting the Dom cathedral in Cologne will blow your mind. The church was built in 1218 and almost was lost in WWII. Drivers are very well behaved and predictable in Germany and driving the Motorway/Autobahn is an experience. Our car was a Ford Mondeo with a diesel engine that I pushed to about 200kph or 125mph. Being able to drive that fast was a treat that got us to the Baltic sea from Dohren in a very short amount of time. It is easy to drive in Germany, but make sure to include navigation in your rental. It will save you a ton of grief.
Back to baseball. I was not prepared for watching baseball in Germany. Before the games begin, played in double header format, preparations are made. It almost seems like the game is a celebration for the fans as much as a sporting event. One crazy thing is that ashtrays were set out. I was pleased to see that smokers were not discriminated against, which was too bad… I had been smoke free for a month and planned to stay that way. Another cool thing is that you can bring in your own alcoholic beverages. If you do not bring any, no problem, the refreshment stand sells beer. Homemade foods, pies and cakes are available too. At the end of game one, everyone seems to be in a good mood. Typically all in the stands and players are good sports. Being a bad sport is frowned upon in Germany. The fans love to cheer and use noisemakers mostly to distract the opposing team.
The level of baseball varies in the two divisions in Germany. The richer teams are better able to train and supplement their players. This results in one or two teams in each division usually taking top awards each year. The outcomes in some of the games are outrageous as the top teams usually outscore the lower rated teams. Some scores are close because of import players pitching on the lower rated teams. If I had to guess, the baseball level could be rated anywhere between D3 to D1 USA college skilled players found there. There was a pitcher who threw for the Solingen team that was hitting about 95mph on a gun mounted behind the screen. Umpiring, what can one say about umpiring? The umps leave something to be desired in Deutschland. The strike zone is about the size of a postage stamp and pitchers sometimes throw about 140 pitches a game because of that.
Another strange aspect to German baseball is that the players are either fulltime students or hold down a steady job. That’s the reason games are only played on the weekends and are double header games. Practices have to be held after work making for a long day for most of these guys. A big part of an import player’s responsibility is training younger players in the organization’s lower level teams. It is very important to the German clubs to begin teaching baseball and softball at a young age. These clubs throughout Europe are considered baseball and softball clubs. The last place clubs are relegated just like soccer.
The Dohren Wild Farmers ended up 5th in the Bundesliga North. Being in an eight team league, they won that spot in the playdowns by beating the 8th place team in the playoffs. Google the ‘German baseball bundesliga’ for more information on rankings. Dominic ended up having the best batting average on the team at 415. The average was good enough to be the 6th best in the Bundesliga North.
Getting to know Dominic’s teammates, hosts and supporters was a great experience for me.
The first time I stopped to fuel the Mondeo, the attendant in the store asked if I was the catcher’s father on the team. Dominic’s teammates were fascinated that I already knew their names, positions and stats, etc. We were invited over to see Jutta’s small farm. Jutta’s daughter Berte is married to an American on the team named Garrett Rogers. At the farm, Dominic made friends with one of Jutta’s prized horses and a chicken named ‘Killer.’ He loves animals and animals love him.
Even though my son would disagree, learn a few words of German before you go. Saying please and thank you in the native tongue can go a long way. Be courteous, say hello ‘hallo’ first and then ask if the person speaks English. Get your Euro/Dollar exchange rate down. Merchants like correct change, get used to using coins. Or, use your debit or credit card for purchases. Make sure to speak with your banker about service charges to your cards before you go. Another good thing, think about making arrangements for calls to the USA. I made voice and video calls using SKYPE. Anywhere there was a hotspot, I could make a call.
Get ready to drink some beer. Germans are very proud of their beers and remember to say ‘Prost’ before taking your first sip. This is the way it is done there and believe me you will enjoy it too. Many beers are local and are always served in the appropriate labeled glass. The beer in Germany has higher alcohol content. Be careful of the Hefeweisen, it will creep up on you!
Have a great time on your trip!
4 tips when negotiating with small town clubs
#1 – This is a bit of a no brainer but make sure internet in your living quarters is worked into the contract.
#2 – Work a train pass into the contract. It does not have to be an Eurail Pass, but at least to the closest big city.
#3 – If there is a gym in the town, work that into the contract as well. If not, have them at least supply some exercises equipment, weights, kettle bells.
#4 – Ask if the the town is on a major train route. In Attnang, I had the luxury of being on the major cross country train line. However, towns in Austria north or south an hour would take quite some time to get to a bigger city. If the club you play for is not a short train ride to a major line, try to negotiate a car into the contract.
For more info on each club within the German Bundesliga and what each of their cities have to offer, click here.