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In Serbia, Baseball Quietly Thrives Amid Tumult

BY ALEXANDER ZAITCHIK
11.16.2000 | CULTURE

BELGRADE - It's a cool October afternoon, and the shadows are starting to creep toward the infield. The Belgrade 96'ers are rallying against the Vojevode Dukes in the 2000 Yugoslavia World Series, temporarily postponed by the popular revolution that convulsed this country three weeks ago. The improvised diamond overlaps with a craggy soccer field on the Western outskirts of Belgrade. The loose bases are the kind you find in American little league games, the sandlot infield something from an old episode of The Little Rascals: the backstop a converted soccer net, a single umpire in catcher's equipment, the outfield fence a jagged row of bushes and stumps. "Jeden dole," shouts the left fielder after making a catch. One down. To judge from the Balkan intensity of the game, one would think it was a New York-Boston series in front of 50,000 adoring fans, and not a handful of curious onlookers in the tired capital of a country just now emerging from a decade of war, depression and dictatorship. Baseball in the former Yugoslavia dates back to the 1970s, but interest was concentrated in Slovenia and Croatia, both of which declared independence in 1991. The current rump state of the Federal Republic of Yugoslavia is newer to the game.

The first team in Serbia was the Belgrade Partisans--named after Tito's army--formed in 1988 with ten players and three gloves between them. As war broke out and the economy rapidly deteriorated, the team relied upon the help of the US Embassy, where American Ambassador Warren Zimmerman was especially supportive. Along with tapping the US outpost for some coaching, the team channeled equipment through the embassy in order to avoid high customs charges.

During most of the last decade baseball has survived--and even thrived--against the odds. The Yugoslavian Baseball Association, formed in 1993, now boasts six teams with ambitious plans for the future, including a youth league.

"Until this month this country was a closed system," says Aleksander Zonic, Commissioner of the League and third baseman for the Belgrade 96'ers. "We had little access to equipment, no possibilities for ties with organizations, no coaches."

Most of those now playing in the league had no experience when they first put on a glove in their teens or early twenties. Goran Stefanovic, a Serb who played in Croatia during the 1980s, recruited many of those now playing. Returning to Belgrade hungry for the game, he would approach kids playing stickball and teach them the rules. Stefanovic also circulated videotapes of Major League games and organized baseball nights at the homes of the few who could afford a satellite dish.

Zonic was another Johnny Appleseed character in the short history of baseball in the country, and continues to actively recruit young people. Now 28, the lanky infielder came to baseball in the 1980s while living in Tokyo, where his father worked for Yugoslavian Airlines. There, he learned the game and idolized the Tokyo Giants' all-star third baseman Hara Tatsunori, vowing to one day return to Belgrade and nurture the sport. He is hopeful that the recent regime change will make his project easier.

"Under Milosevic, we couldn't get any official help. Firms would link baseball to propaganda and were nervous to support us. It was impossible to get any money. The Windsurfing team got money, the handball team got money, but not us."

Baseball's image problem in the country became especially acute during the war with NATO last year, which fueled anti-American sentiment throughout the country and led to the trashing of McDonald's and the American Cultural Center.

Bojan Vasilyvic, an 18 year-old shortstop for the Belgrade Juniors, remembers the multiple hazards of practicing during the bombing.

"During the war we played ball when it was safe. That was interesting. One day these guys came up to us in the park and started getting rough with us, saying 'How can you play this American game when they are bombing us?'"

One of the teams from Novi Sad is actually called the Shelters, as the team was organized during the air raids and the first furtive practices took place in open spaces around the city as NATO planes roared overhead. They too experiecned taunting.

But most Yugoslavs are happy to separate American culture from world politics, and players see the all-pervasive shadow of soccer as a more serious obstacle to the growth of baseball than nationalism.

"Sports in this country is soccer, soccer, soccer," says Zonic. "Our friends come to watch but they don't know the rules, and nobody takes us seriously because we don't have a proper field. They're like 'what's this?' We played in Slovakia last summer and the infield was as smooth as glass. Beautiful park. Here, the ball takes crazy hops every time. It's discouraging."

But things may be changing soon. An NGO active in the Balkans has recently pledged funds to build a professional field, and Commissioner Zonic, who studied marketing, is already planning a strategy to broaden the appeal of the game--and to commercialize it.

For the moment, however, baseball remains in pure, undiluted form in Yugoslavia. In a country where the average monthly income is 40 dollars, merchandising and contract disputes still seem a distant prospect. The players aren't worried about having fancy uniforms so much as they want a single box of new balls to practice with in the off season. That, and to learn the game that many eat, drink and sleep.

"Coaches. We need coaches," says Bojan, the 18 year-old shortstop and Braves fan. "Maybe when we have a good relationship with America again, they will send us someone to teach us."

About the Author
Alexander Zaitchik co-founded Freezerbox in 1998. He has reported from more than a dozen countries for publications such as the International Herald Tribune, Bulletin of Atomic Scientists, Wired, the San Francisco Chronicle, The Believer, and many others. He lives in New York City.
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