ZAGREB, October 12, 2020 — Croatia is known for excelling in a range of top sport leagues, but baseball is not one of them. This could change in the future, as investments are made for baseball to become a nationally recognized sport in Croatia.
Croatia, no doubt, has a wealth of athletic talent. Whether it is Dražen Petrović and Goran Ivanišević in the 80’s and 90’s, Ivica and Janica Kosteslić in the early 2000’s or Luka Modrić and the National Football team in the 2018 World Cup Finals, Croatia has consistently been represented at the highest international levels of athletic competition. Not bad for a country of only four million people.
However, baseball isn’t one of the sports that Croatia is known for. Whether it even exists in Croatia is a legitimate question. Entire regions of Croatia, including Slavonia (in the East) and Istria (in the West), don’t have any organized baseball clubs to speak of.
Baseball Not Popular in Croatia… Yet
Having said that, it would be a mistake to write off baseball completely in Croatia. It’s conceivable that the foundation for baseball to become a nationally recognized sport in the near future, is present.
Take Baseball Klub Zagreb (BK Zagreb), for example. Founded in 1982, the club has seen several generations of Croats learning the game, competing internationally and producing coaches who are training future baseball players.
Friendship and Game Differences Driving Factors
Coach Goran Planinić started playing baseball when he was seven or eight years old. Although he was a good football player, Goran began practicing baseball in Središće, where the BK Zagreb baseball club started off. At the beginning, it was just an interesting activity in which he enjoyed relative success. But baseball would soon become Goran’s favorite sport. The travel, games and friendships caused baseball to win out against football for Goran.
Today, Goran coaches his ten-year-old son along with other children and teenagers who are part of BK Zagreb. He recalls a conversation with Zlatko Dalić, head coach of the Croatian National Football team. Dalić praised those who coach young athletes. “He told us how he admires those who create players,” Goran told us. “Those of us who coach children and teenagers have the tough job of teaching them the game, how to work together as a team and how to win or lose together.”
The next generation of baseball players is what offers the most hope for baseball gaining popularity. For some of the kids, having friends or siblings in the club is what drew them in the first place. Matej joined the club because his brother plays. “I watched his games and really started enjoying baseball,” he explains. Others came because of how unique the sport is. Several players commented on how the differences between baseball and all the other sports attracted them to baseball.
Baseball Has Difficult Rules and Intricacies for Starters
This has its advantages and disadvantages in Croatia. For instance, in a city like Zagreb with various athletic options for kids, baseball sticks out. The equipment is completely different. The way of playing the game is unique. For Ian, this is one of the reasons he plays. “I love baseball because there are so many rules,” he told us.
But the rules and intricacies of the game are a large part of what makes baseball difficult to gain traction. From putting on a glove, to swinging a bat to the various ways a player is out or safe, takes time to explain and experience to understand. Those who are familiar with the game through television, the internet or smartphones, usually have a better knack for baseball than those who only come to baseball practice.
Still, the fact that players have access to viewing baseball, which wasn’t possible when BK Zagreb began in 1981, is a huge advantage. Coach Goran tells us how the game has already grabbed his son’s attention. “Mateo comes back from the game and watches the Major League Baseball highlights from the night before. Did St. Louis win? And we analyze the game together. I’m glad he turns on MLB The Show (for PS4) before Fortnite.”
Baseball in Central Croatia Is Now Year-Round Sport
However, that doesn’t take away the importance of baseball practice. This is another aspect of BK Zagreb’s growth. The team currently has 4 coaches who have graduated with degrees in kinesiology. The club funded three of those coaches’ degrees. There are other various courses, both within Croatia and internationally, in which coaches are able to boost their knowledge of the game and coaching. The fact that 10-year-olds at BK Zagreb are trained by college educated professional coaches is a rarity even in countries like the US, where the game is most popular.
Nothing is more important than competition though. One of the main reasons players for BK Zagreb have gained so much experience is because there are six other clubs within a perimeter of 100 km. Three of them are in Zagreb and one each in Karlovac, Varaždin and Sisak. In the spring and fall, hardly a weekend passes without a game or a tournament between at least a couple of these teams. There’s a school league during the winter months which sets up tournaments at Velesajam in Zagreb. As a result, baseball in central Croatia has become a year-round sport.
Foundation for Next Generation of Croatian Players
A brand-new field at Jarun has also made both practices and games easier to facilitate. BK Zagreb and BK Medvednica both use the field for practices while the Red Sox, another Zagreb team, have a new field of their own in Sloboština.
As someone who has played baseball most of his life and enjoys teaching the game, Goran is happy to see a foundation built for the next generation of Croatian players. His efforts are backed by outside support. American ambassador Robert Kohorst has provided equipment for some of the clubs in Croatia, for example. Players originally from Japan, Venezuela and the U.S. have also played for various clubs and the national Croatian team, bringing their international experience with them.
“It’s a team effort”, Goran told us, referring to his desire to see baseball catch on in Croatia. “When we’re on the field against Karlovac we’re rivals. But in the end, we’re all in this together. We have the same goal of popularizing the sport we all love.”
With all the investments in Croatian baseball, it’s easy to imagine its popularity will be growing in the coming years.