Hungary For The Game
by Sam Margolis
The biggest concern for those in the vicinity of a Bosarkanyi Egyfejuek-Bekescsabai Villamok baseball match is not so much the current score nor even how many runners are on base for the opposing team, but rather that a foul ball should not shatter the dining room window and disrupt a second helping of Sunday goulash. Nevertheless those living near some of Hungary's makeshift baseball diamonds have had to deal with this worry since the Hungarian National Baseball Federation was established in 1992.
"Fortunately we have not had to deal with anyone seeking damages for broken windows or dented cars," said Attila Borbely, President of the Hungarian Baseball Federation, about playing fields still prone to taking some wicked if not highly imaginative bounces.
Since "The Mad Hungarian" Al Hrabosky, blew away batters when he pitched for the St. Louis Cardinals and led the National League with 22 saves in 1975, there has not been much of a Magyar flavor to America's national pastime. (Hrabosky, was renowned for intimidating batters towards the late innings of a game with his ritualistic preparation before each pitch.)
Now that access to information and equipment are much more accessible in recent years in countries like Hungary, more exotic sports such as baseball have entered into the picture in this sports-minded country which despite having only 10 million residents can usually be found high on the list of medal winners during any given Olympics.
Strolling down the main streets of Budapest, one would think that the following baseball has in Hungary is much more significant than it actually is. On any given day, one can see scores of caps, jackets and scarves with the insignia of famous American teams, though the person wearing them may not care much about Roger Clemens' present ERA. Baseball attire in Hungary is still more of fashion statement than a sign of support for any major league team.
While baseball may have some way to go before it gains a similar popularity to that of soccer or American fast food restaurants, there has been a remarkable growth in interest amongst Hungarians in the sport compared to a virtually non-existent curiosity a decade ago.
"When large American companies such as General Electric and Ford, along with business from Japan, started to set up offices in Hungary, then interest in the sport began to sprout," said Borbely.
"Little was known about the sport ten years ago here in Hungary," Borbely added, "Now a fan in Budapest can work at a local firm but keep track of the recent American standings through wider access to the Internet in Hungary and English-language cable stations which broadcast games."
When the Hungarian Baseball League was started over six years ago, there were only two teams. Currently there are 28 men's teams and seven women's softball teams. Teams can now be found not only in Budapest but in some of the smaller villages throughout the country. The Otto Semmelweis Medical University in Budapest even fielded a team which consists exclusively of recently-trained doctors.
"I have been fascinated by the game for the past few years," said Szabolcs Garai, a cameraman for a national television station who also plays with the SOTE Kutyautok. As one of the few individuals in the Hungary who understands all the intricacies of the rules of baseball, Garai often doubles as second baseman and umpire during games.
There are now over 1000 players involved throughout Hungary. The league is divided into three divisions. Crowds of 200-300 people are no longer a rarity at some first division games. As the rules of the game were not as easy to follow as in soccer or basketball, copies of the official rules of baseball are handed out to spectators. Beyond the uniqueness of baseball to a Hungarian sports fan, one would also be struck by the length of which games and the entire season last in Hungary.
The sport follows the American model. Games are a full nine innings, which, in a league that has not fully come to terms with hitting a curveball or staying down on a grounder, means that games can take the better part of an afternoon and early evening. The season also begins in April lasts until October, when it is not unknown for there to be a slight shroud of snow on the ground.
"The hope is to have camps started during the summers so that youngsters in Hungary can learn the fundamentals of the game at an early age," according to Borbely, whose organization hosted the annual European Baseball Conference last year.
Borbely's own interest in the sport began after his son, a judo champion, returned to Hungary after participating in a high-school exchange program in Phoenix, Ariz., singing the praises of baseball. The Hungarian national team, which is trained by a Japanese coach, now competes in the second division of the European league.
"Our hope is to have a team ready to compete in the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens," Borbely asserted.
Sam Margolis is a former Peace Corps volunteer and Yankee fan who is in Hungary as a journalist.
Photos of the Ajka Blackbirds by Szabolcs Garai.