Forget multi-million-dollar salaries, commercial endorsements or plush clubhouses. Without a proper field, uniforms or even other teams to compete against, players on Georgia’s one and only baseball team are motivated purely by passion for the game.
For spring training this year, Georgia’s national baseball team didn’t head to Florida or Arizona. Instead the players went underground, holding some workouts in the boiler room of a Tbilisi sports club. Lacking a proper baseball diamond, the team held outdoor practices at Tbilisi’s old horse track, or in a vacant field in the Tbilisi suburbs.
The lack of a home field doesn’t mean the players don’t have a feel for the game. Many members of the current squad – who range in age from 15 to 30 -- have distinguished themselves in international tournaments. At one junior competition in Italy in 2009, the Georgian team managed to beat some more experienced, better financed European squads.
Italian translator Rosy Alfinito, who worked with the Georgian national baseball team in Italy, remembers that the players’ enthusiasm stood out. “To be honest, at the beginning, some teams considered them as ‘underdogs’ because [of] their uniforms and equipment,” Alfinito recalled in an email interview. The team’s “great pleasure to play baseball” gave it “something special … that maybe other teams, with better uniforms and equipment, did not have,” she added.
These days, with no other teams to play against, the national team can only hold intra-squad games of six-on-six – a format the means lots of hits and running. The season opener is scheduled for this weekend. “Of course, it is a minus, but we don’t have any other options,” said Coach Nugzar Kapanadze. “We will manage; we always do.”
The team has not played another team in over a year. But this July, the players are slated to compete against some of the strongest baseball clubs in Europe in qualifying games for the European Baseball Championship. The games will be played in Tel Aviv, Israel.
Kapanadze, 55, is described by some as the “father” of baseball in Georgia. He was among the first to sign up to play in Georgia’s Soviet-era baseball league, which started up in 1986. A swimming coach by profession, he has coached the national baseball team for 15 years for free.
Together with Gela Chikhradze, the former head of the Soviet Baseball Federation who had founded Georgia’s baseball league, Kapanadze spent two stints in the United States, in 1993 and 1995, trying to raise awareness and gain support for baseball in Georgia.
In the years immediately after the collapse of the Soviet Union, it seemed as though baseball might take root among Georgian youth. Under a sister city arrangement involving Atlanta and Tbilisi, a local chapter of the YMCA tried to develop a Little League in the Georgian capital. Working on behalf of the YMCA chapter, Randy Brown, a pitcher who played in the San Diego Padres minor league system during the 1970s, visited Tbilisi on multiple occasions to help start the Little League and conduct baseball clinics.
“They were playing in the middle of a horse track. They had two bats, balls older than me, gloves they had from Cuba – real, real thick leather,” Brown said, speaking to EurasiaNet.org by phone from Chattanooga, Tennessee. “The kids were having a blast.”
The Little League initiative eventually stalled due to a lack of financial support. According to Brown, Kapanadze’s and Chikhradze’s “passion” for the game has kept baseball alive in Georgia. “They respect baseball – they respect how hard it is to play and they respect how much work it takes to be good at it,” he said.
Kapanadze lamented the lack of money for the team, but he remains upbeat. Enthusiasm, he maintained, is the primary ingredient that goes into making a good ballplayer.
“And so far,” he stressed, “enthusiasm has not died here.”
Molly Corso is a freelance reporter based in Tbilisi and editor of the American Chamber of Commerce’s Investor.ge magazine.