Saturday, August 21, 2004

Proud to be Polish
Kutno Little League eager to represent Poland for the first time in South Williamsport

By Mike Lipka

If someone were to ask you where the center of the baseball universe is, you might say it’s buried in the ivy at Wrigley Field, or in Monument Park at Yankee Stadium. Or you might think it’s in a baseball hotbed like the Dominican Republic or Puerto Rico.

But you probably wouldn’t say it is in Kutno, Poland.

The Little Leaguers from Kutno, who are representing their country for the first time ever in South Williamsport, don’t have any illusions about their baseball background. In fact, they were even surprised people noticed that they showed up in central Pennsylvania.

“I kind of thought it would be different than what it has been,” first baseman/pitcher Mateusz Serafin said through translator Shawn Sombati. “I didn’t think my team would be as well-accepted as we have been. Everything is really great.”

Baseball has been really great in Kutno since 1995, when Polish-American Little League trustee Ed Piszek spearheaded the founding of the first full-service regional headquarters outside of the United States, in Kutno – a city of about 48,000 just west of Warsaw.

When you’re talking about baseball in Poland, you wouldn’t be talking if it weren’t for Piszek. One of the two fields at the complex in Poland is named after Piszek, and he received the prestigious “Polonia Restituta” award from the Polish president in 1998.

“It was one of his all-time dreams [to see a Polish team in Williamsport],” said Ed’s son Bill Piszek. “He passed away five months ago [March 28], and now all of this happened.”

But there is no question Piszek is somewhere smiling down on the Kutno Little League, as is the rest of the Polish baseball nation. Polish-American Stan Musial, a Major League Baseball Hall of Famer, sent signed memorabilia to the players as a token of his appreciation.

Meanwhile, the kids are just trying to overcome the initial shock of their surroundings and appreciate the experience – none of them had ever been to the United States, or even on an airplane until this week.

“Right now it’s hard to say [what the kids are feeling] because they are really impressed and shocked maybe about the whole thing,” said Polish manager Andrzej Petrzak through translator and European Regional Director Beata Kaszuba. “They are anxious to play [today], and probably after their first game they will open up more to the whole experience. They will be more open to have fun and enjoy it.”

Not that they haven’t been having fun the whole time. Poland first busted into the international spotlight in 2002, when Kutno West Little League – a team that Petrzak managed – made it all the way to the Junior League World Series. That team even made it to the International Championship in Taylor, Mich. before falling to Latin America.

But Petrzak said that’s nothing compared to making it to Williamsport, a path the Poles blazed by going 6-0 at the Europe, Middle East and Africa Regional in Kutno, impressively outscoring their opponents 79-10.

“The complex here in Williamsport is like a different world,” Petrzak said. “It’s not just about baseball. There is much more to it.”

There’s certainly more to it for a group of players who say baseball is their favorite sport in a country where soccer reigns supreme. The European Regional, which has been held in Kutno since 1996, piqued the interest of many of the current players, but they say it can be difficult knowing that much of their country doesn’t even know they’re here.

“It is popular in Kutno because of the Little League headquarters, and in the country, it varies,” Petrzak said. “Only people who are interested in baseball [know about this] – not the general populace.”

Petrzak said there are 20-25 baseball clubs in Poland, but that it’s often difficult to start them up because of the lack of interest. On top of that, Sombati (Europe’s assistant regional director) said the NBC Europe station that used to show one Major League game a week stopped a few years ago, and that the only glimpse they get of American baseball is highlights on a German station. A cable television station carries NHL, NBA and NFL games, but the Poles still can’t watch baseball.

That doesn’t stop them from using MLB’s players as role models, though. First baseman/right fielder Adrian Florczak said he is a Cardinals fan and his favorite player is Fernando Tatis, while pitcher/catcher Arek Panasiuk said he prefers Mike Piazza. What these players have is the chance to be role models for all the baseball fans in their country.

“We can’t wait to play, because we are excited and in a way nervous to be on the field and on TV,” Serafin said through Sombati. “It’s all one big excitement for us.”

And it won’t get much harder than their first step: a Pool C opener tonight at 6 p.m. at Lamade Stadium against Asia representative Chinese Taipei, which has won the entire Little League World Series 17 of the 21 times it has been in South Williamsport.

“Considering the fact that I was at the Junior League World Series, the level of play is much lower in Europe than the U.S,” Petrzak said. “[If they knew] that, for example, baseball was at a much higher level back home, the kids would feel more confident.

“I would like to win one game. That would make me happy,” he added. “That way, we could show that we can play baseball as well.”

But really, they already have.

© 2004 Little League Baseball Incorporated