My wife and I are on vacation in Budapest right now. We are visiting my brother, who lives here, and will be looking for our own home as we are considering retiring here. I know you may be saying, “Budapest?”, “Where the hell is Budapest?” Well, they used to say that about my home town as well, in fact you could buy a t-shirt at the airport that said, “Where the Hell is Yakima?” I never owned one, I knew where the hell Yakima was…
To say that baseball in the former Eastern bloc is developing would be a compliment.
As I was looking for things to do while we are here for a month I did a Google, well Yahoo, Google is way too sophisticated for me, search ‘Baseball in Budapest’. I was pleasantly surprised when I found a site for The Euro Interleague Baseball…association? It is a league made up of fifteen teams from Hungary, Croatia and Serbia. And they play baseball. In this land of music and goulash, where Nazis and Soviets have tried to break a people, unsuccessfully, they play baseball
The local team is The Reds. They play at a field near the Ferenc Liszt International Airport. Ferenc Liszt was a famous composer, who probably gets credited as more Austrian because of the various configurations of the country pre-World War I, post-World War II, under Soviet control etc. I assure you he is from Hungary.
My brother had not heard of the Reds, or baseball in Budapest let alone The Euro Interleague Baseball…association? But because he is always up for an adventure we decided to go. He invited a local friend of his, Csaba, who is called Chubby, he agreed to go even though he knew nothing about baseball in his land of very bad soccer, and away we went in a taxi to the XVIII district in Budapest. On the front end of a thirty-day trip to Budapest my ample butt was sitting in a bleacher that had three large steps waiting for the game to start and my first chance to do the wave.
The field is a bit pedestrian to American standards, surrounded by untrimmed bushes that provide double duty as the bathroom for the visiting team…and any spectators who need to go…and as great hiding places for foul balls that are retrieved…by players…because we must have a small budget for balls. The balls salvaged from the bushes are returned to the field of play because…well we talked about the small budget for balls. The players willingly dance into the hole, behind the untamed bush, beside the tree or wherever a ball happens to land. The visiting team unwillingly does their dance trying to avoid having to relieve themselves in the very bushes that may hold the next foul ball. Sometimes they can’t hold it.
I sent an e-mail to the address provided on the Reds Hungarian website and I got a response from a person named Denes Simonyi, who told me about Reds baseball. We e-mailed back and forth a few times, me asking about purchasing game swag for friends, talking about American baseball and if he had ever been to a game in the US. He said he had and asked my favorite team, which I have mentioned in a previous post, is the New York Yankees. That of course peaked Denes’ curiosity given that I live on the West Coast of the US, but my favorite team is a team whose lore is tied up on the East Coast. I mentioned to him that when I was a kid, a little kid developing an interest in baseball, there was only one team on the West Coast, the San Francisco Giants. Yes, the Dodgers would follow but at the time the Giants were the only thing. Well, that would never do.
One of the Yankees great pitchers during the late ‘50s and early 60s was Mel Stottlemyre, and he was from my hometown, you know, the where the hell is…. place. He was a hometown hero and he, Roger Maris, Mickey Mantle, Yogi Berra, Tony Kubek, et.al became my heroes. I’ve been a Yankees boy ever since.
Anyway, Denes and I bantered back and forth a few times and I asked him to make himself known when we were at the game and told him I would be wearing my twenty-year-old beat up Yankees hat. Denes responded with an invitation to visit him in the dugout during the game. At that point it dawned on me that Denes was not only the baseball ambassador to me, but he was also a player, so I looked him up and sure enough there he was, young guy, number 31 in your program…if they had programs. Third base. Awesome it was for me.
The players are a mixture of Hungarians and those from other countries. I met Matt, who is from Canada. I would have liked to ask him more about what brought him to play baseball in Hungary. There is Carlos, who is from Mexico, shortstop and catcher. Good hitter popped a dinger over the center field fence. I would have enjoyed speaking to him as well, but Carlos is all business on game day. Denes plays third base and he launched a home run as well, crack of the bat – goodbye baseball. Denes had some good defensive plays as well.
The first person I met on that hot May day was the fellow who was calling the balls and strikes behind the plate. He was from Cuba originally, and according to him he had played with one of the greatest Cuban pitchers to play the game, Orlando Hernandez – El Duque. A prized Yankee pitcher during their run in the 90s. We talked the game, he in broken English and Spanish, and me in Broken Spanish and English. That minor in Spanish finally came in handy for something besides ordering food at La Carreta.
He of course, was curious about how a fat little dough ball from Vancouver Washington ended up on the hot field in Budapest Hungary to watch a Hungarian baseball team play a Serbian baseball team. Baseball is where you find it I told him. It’s baseball season and here I am.
I met Matt, who I instantly liked because he, like me is a Yankees fan. We talked about a remarkable play Aaron Judge had completed the previous night, throwing out a runner at the plate from deep right field, on the fly. Ball didn’t touch the ground.
I finally met Denes, who seemed a bit hurried, but as ambassador for baseball it was his job to make sure everything was going well. Denes had some friends at the game, and he asked me if I would help them with the baseball strategies employed by both teams and explain some of the rules. I loved doing that. His friends, three fellows and two girls were young, and had never seen baseball. It was like a foreign language to them, but they were polite and seemed to understand the explanations I provided. We taught them the wave and yelling at the umpire for a missed called strike. I wish I cared that much about soccer.
The game ended in a ten-run defeat by the Reds, in the bottom of the seventh inning. By the way, no seventh inning stretch in this league, so no Harry Carey singing Take Me Out to the Ballgame. No one-two-three strikes… I’ll have to explain that sometime.
The Reds, overjoyed, gathered in the middle of the field and whooped it up and congratulated each other with high fives, yips and yells and I’m sure a good meal and a couple of bottles of palinka afterword. For us it would have been burgers and brews. The losing team dejected, gathered their equipment, made a final stop in the bushes before that long road trip home. Such is baseball, a winner and a loser…no ties.
My wife, my brother, Chubby and myself scaled the field behind the bleachers to rendezvous with a taxi that would take us back to reality.
To say that baseball in the former Eastern bloc is developing would be a compliment. There are many good high school teams who could beat the Reds four out of seven in a tournament. An average college team could ten run them by the third inning, but here’s what you need to know. They are passionate about their baseball. They give it everything they have. They are elated to win and disappointed when they lose. Their passion for the game is like the passion for the game that every ten-year old has when they hit their first line drive over the shortstop’s head and round first headed for a double. It’s infectious and the four of us visiting that day felt like we had been let in on a well-kept secret.
So here is my challenge to the people of Budapest. Get to know your team. Find that obscure patch of ground out near a tennis center in the 18th district of Budapest. Cheer for Denes, Oscar Matt and the rest of the Reds. Love them, support them, learn the wave. Your soccer is terrible anyway, so why not spend a lovely afternoon with men who love their sport, who enjoy each other and always put their best foot forward. For those Reds who may read this missive, that is an American term meaning trying hard.
This Saturday is our last Saturday in Budapest before we make the long flight back home to beautiful Vancouver. I miss my kids, I miss my dog, I really miss my bed. I miss the smells around my home and the moderate weather. This weekend I will assume the position on the top level of the bleachers at Reds stadium, I will do the wave, I will scream at the umpire, I will imagine that the Reds are my Yankees and I will watch the real boys of summer play the game they love.