How the Czech Republic baseball team became big stars in Japan

January 4th, 2024
Design by Tom Forget. Photos courtesy Czech Baseball Association.

If the most memorable moment of the World Baseball Classic was when Shohei Ohtani faced Mike Trout with a world championship on the line, then the second-biggest moment may have been its most unexpected.

For who at home could have predicted that Ohtani -- the massive 6-foot-4 slugger with arms like pythons and shoulders made for hefting the world upon them -- would strike out when facing Czech electrical worker Ondrej Satoria? But there we were: The introspective and bearded Satoria, standing 5-foot-9 and throwing a fastball that barely brushed 80 mph, had worked the count to 0-2 against the most talented ballplayer ever to walk the planet.

The Czech hurler then tossed his best pitch -- his changeup, which he calls "The Worker" because, well, it works. The ball came out of his hand wrong and before the pitch reached the plate, Satoria was already regretting what he thought would be a wasted effort. But the pitch was just funky enough and Ohtani was already so locked into swinging, perhaps ready to blast another pitch into the bleachers, that he whiffed. The world's most famous ballplayer spun in the box, his helmet tumbling off his head.

"When I saw the pitch was going down, I thought 'Oh, [expletive]. It's a [bad] pitch,'" Satoria told me while the Czech Republic hosted the European Baseball Championship earlier in the fall. But after the slugger whiffed, I went, 'Let's go! It was Ohtani!' Man, in the moment, I couldn't believe it was him. I just watched our dugout and it's going nuts. It was an awesome moment for me."

While that one pitch quickly took off around the globe, its virality cresting on a wave of astonished baseball fans, this wasn't the only moment that would stand out to the Tokyo fans.

Because this Czech Republic baseball team, consisting of firemen, electricians and schoolteachers -- with a manager who doubles as a neurosurgeon -- found an audience and an opponent that respected both their play on the field and the efforts and sacrifices they made off of it.

"It started before the game even," Czech national team captain Petr Zyma said. "Already it was a packed house for our [batting practice]. People didn't have to come so early, but they still did. They just watched our [infield practice], our batting practice and after we were done, they started cheering. We didn't know if maybe Shohei showed up in right field and was warming up. There was nobody else there! They just cheered for us."

When the game ended, Samurai Japan came out of their dugout to cheer for the players from Czechia; when the team arrived in Miami for the World Baseball Classic semifinals, Ohtani donned a Czech national team cap, inspiring a worldwide run on the lid that saw the the rest of the stock sell out in mere hours. Roki Sasaki -- a rare talent who already has Major League teams salivating -- delivered candy to Willie Escala, the young ballplayer he drilled with a 102 mph pitch.

"I think at this moment, it was not important to win this game," Satoria said. "But I think we won the hearts of the Czech people and maybe people from around the world. I think the most important thing is that the baseball community from around the world now knows that Czechia plays baseball and they're doing well."

All of that could have been expected during the tournament, though. What is a little less expected is that the lovefest hasn't abated. Nearly a year after Samurai Japan lifted the World Baseball Classic trophy, the Czech Republic has found a partner and a fanbase in a country whose love of amateur baseball is second-to-none.

"I think there are three important things," manager Pavel Chadim said about the Czechs' baseball connection with Japan. "First, the courage to play against anybody. Second, hard work. And third, a real respect -- for the game, for the opponent, the umpire, and spectators. These three things, I feel we have very, very strong in both Japan and in the Czech Republic."

The first sign that things had changed came about a month after the tournament when the Czech Extraliga began. It was a particularly cold spring in Czechia and the baseball predictably suffered. Normally, these games -- especially so early in the year -- would draw a couple dozen local fans out to the park. But this time around, there were a few new faces in the stands: Fans who had flown over from Japan to watch their new favorite players.

"I didn't expect that to develop at all," Czech national team pitcher and media manager Lukas Ercoli said. "It was rough at the beginning of the season this year. It was freezing raining and I remember watching the games and the Japanese fans were, like, shaking while they were sitting."

His Excellency Hideo Suzuki, Ambassador of Japan to the Czech Republic, and his wife, Atsuko, attend a baseball game in the country. (Photo courtesy Baseball Czech)

Among the new fans was Shoto, a blind law school student who flew to Prague two times during the regular season. Once in the country, he was feted by Zyma, who hosted him for Eagles Praha games, where the young fan could hear and experience the game.

"I asked him how he was enjoying the game," Zyma said, noting that his guest followed the on-field action with a text-to-voice app from the game's live box score. "He said he felt it. He felt the atmosphere. He was sitting in the first row, that way he could hear any voice and he said that he enjoyed it."

The love didn't end at the ballpark, though. Zyma was invited by a local Japanese school to give a presentation to the class. He prepared slides for the class with life lessons attached to them and then headed outside for games of catch. To the children in class, Zyma was not a financial trader who happened to play baseball -- he was a baseball idol.

The door swings both ways, too. When Zyma asked the group how many of them currently played baseball in Prague, not many raised their hands. Many seemed unsure if they were welcome to play the sport in their new country.

"It's extra motivation for me to really show the Japanese community that they are welcome to baseball games," Zyma said. "We would love to have young Japanese players -- we could even maybe set up a Japanese under-12 team -- they could just hop in and play in the Prague League with the kids. We want to do it. You know, it's baseball, but if we can help the kids feel a little better in Prague, in the Czech Republic, I feel like this will be a great result."

Czech captain Petr Zyma celebrates with Arnost Dubovy during the World Baseball Classic.

Czech national team reliever David Mergans also wanted to do something to help pay homage to both his country, the game, and the culture that embraced him and his teammates so warmly. He had long dreamed of doing a clothing collection, so Mergans -- who works at a snapback cap and lifestyle store in Prague -- realized this would be the perfect opportunity. Teaming up with Under Native, a Czech clothing brand, Mergans made a design incorporating the Czech Baseball logo, the Tokyo Dome and cherry blossoms with katakana-inspired letters.

"Baseball is life for me," Mergans explained while showing off pieces of his collection in his Prague apartment. "I played baseball since I was 6 years old. I took baseball and the Czech Republic and the Japanese culture and I did this collection. I asked Adam from Under Native to do the collection with me because it's a big thing for the Czech Republic. I know not many people know about [baseball] in the Czech Republic, but it's a big thing for Czech and Japan together."

Mergans modeling his collection while posed in front of his Czech national team and Milan baseball team jerseys.

The response was overwhelming. Fans and teammates quickly flocked to the collection, selling out the initial drop and leading to a second drop in late November and a third before December was out.

The most exciting news may be what's to come, though. While many European nations, including Czechia, have looked to America as a place to grow their skills -- taking part in MLB development camps and sending young prospects to colleges and universities around the nation -- the Czechs have agreed to a long-term development program with the Chiba Lotte Marines that is sponsored by Panasonic.

The idea seemed ludicrous enough to this small nation of some 10,000 or so baseball players that Ercoli at first didn't believe the offer.

"One evening I was speaking with my girlfriend, and I was like, 'How crazy is this?' I'm flying with Pavel [Chadim] and [Czech slugger] Martin [Muzik] to Japan for a one-week business trip," Ercoli said. "We had four or five Zoom meetings, talking about cooperation. We didn't exactly know what Chiba wanted from it. We didn't exactly know what Panasonic wanted from it. I just trusted that it wasn't a scam or something like that."

Instead, the trio found themselves being treated like stars in the country before unveiling the first details of the long-term cooperation.

"What should happen is that our hitting coach, Alex Derhak, will go on a coaching internship and spend Spring Training with the Chiba Lotte Marines," Ercoli said. "He will work with their hitters and he will bring it back to Czech Republic."

Czech national team manager Pavel Chadim gives former Team Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama a cap. This is a replacement for the one he was given during the World Baseball Classic -- which Shohei Ohtani wore on the team's flight to Miami. (Photo courtesy Baseball Czech)

The expectation is that the plan will grow in the future as a kind of baseball exchange program, with Czech players heading to Japan for training before returning with newly acquired knowledge and skill. Plus, there's the hope of the Czech Republic once again facing Samurai Japan -- except, this time the matchup will come on European turf.

That's the dream that WBC-winning Japan manager Hideki Kuriyama has, at least. Though he retired from the national team at the end of the tournament, he has a vision of Japan bringing its baseball team across the continent, similar to how Major League teams used to bring baseball around the globe during the early parts of the 20th century.

That vision is starting to look like a reality after Kuriyama made a visit to the Czech Republic in September. While being named an ambassador of baseball to the nation, Kuriyama met with Chadim at his house and even made a stop at the Czech manager's neurology office -- a place that has become a bit of a pilgrimage for local sports fans in Brno.

"I really admire what Mr. Chadim has been doing," Kuriyama said during his visit to the Czech Republic. "I watched him doing two jobs at once, being a great doctor, neurologist, and a baseball national team manager at the same time, plus he has an amazing family. How is he able to manage all that? He really deserves my admiration."

The two managers have developed a special relationship. Even though neither speaks the other's native tongue, the two are some of the most thoughtful and empathetic baseball men in the sport, allowing for the easy exchange of ideas.

"Somebody asked him how to develop players and one of the answers was, 'Oh, a player can be better if he becomes a better human first,'" Chadim recalled -- a statement that has echoed his own view on building a team.

While the Czech Republic now prepares for the 2026 World Baseball Classic tournament, there is plenty of work to be done before then. Prague Baseball Week is coming up this summer and they expect a team from Japan to compete, furthering the baseball brotherhood that was forged in the World Baseball Classic.

The Czech Republic may be small, but as Chadim has said, their goals are large. Anything can happen now.

"It feels like a dream," Chadim said. "And I still haven't woken up."