Poland hires former MLBer Dennis Cook with hopes for future success

April 12th, 2024
Design by Tom Forget. Photos courtesy Polish American Baseball Softball Federation.

It all starts with a dream. For investor and entrepreneur Paul Bragiel, that dream is to put Poland on the international baseball map. Born to Polish parents, Bragiel grew up speaking the language as a child in Chicago, getting into baseball as a way to connect with his American peers.

Now, after watching the success that European programs like the Czech Republic, Great Britain and Italy had in last year's World Baseball Classic, he is hoping to help do the same for Poland.

"We saw teams like Czech Republic pull this off," Bragiel said in a recent phone call. Named a bench coach and special advisor to the team, Bragiel is expected to use the acumen and grassroots growth he's brought to both his companies and his sporting ventures, like the Colombian cross-country skiing team which he started.

"We've seen these other countries do it, why can't we do it?" he said. "Especially since we have such a huge diaspora -- larger than all those countries combined."

It won't be an easy road ahead: The country is currently tied with Finland for 72nd by the World Baseball Softball Confederation (WBSC). To make those first steps toward European relevance and a spot in a future World Baseball Classic tournament, they've hired former big league pitcher Dennis Cook to manage the team.

Cook has long been involved in European baseball, having managed Sweden's national team and making coaching stops in Germany, Italy and with Baseball United this past fall.

"What led me to the Polish [job] is the same thing that led me to the Swedish -- they were up and coming and starting from the ground up," Cook said in a recent phone call with MLB.com. "I think Poland ranks 72nd in the world, so we're very far down in the rankings. I think that their federation is finally starting to put a push together to see what they can do. The potential is there."

Dennis Cook throws a pitch for the Mets against the Yankees in Game 1 of the 2000 World Series.

Cook and bench coach John McLaren -- himself a former big league manager with the Mariners -- will soon head to Poland to get started on that process. They'll take in the country and meet with the local players and ballclubs before holding a tryout camp on April 26.

Though the talent pool may not be up there with Europe's best, Cook will be looking for his players to give the same amount of effort that he gave during his 15-year MLB career.

"I always had ingrained in my brain that no matter what, I'm gonna give a hard 90 on a ground ball back to pitcher," Cook -- one of the best hitting pitchers in big league history -- said. "I'm giving a hard 90, and that's the way I want them to play. That's the way they will get noticed is if they play the game the right way."

While the team draws inspiration from how the Czech Republic built an almost entirely homegrown roster, Cook and Bragiel will also be looking to supplement the roster with U.S. and Canadian players with Polish heritage.

"I think that England has done a pretty good job with that. They've brought a bunch of U.S. kids over and now they're one of the top teams in Europe," Cook said. "Infuse some Polish-American players -- there's quite a few guys that are big league players and in the Minor Leagues that have some Polish heritage -- and I think there's a lot of potential there."

A recent photo of the Polish national team. Courtesy PABSF.

The hope is to both raise the level of talent on the roster and give the homegrown players a new style of play to shoot for -- not to replace the roster with import players.

"You can't just bring all foreign players over there because then you'll lose the kids in your own home country," Cook said. "I do think a sense of success helps build the game. If you're always just getting your brains beat in -- who wants to do that every year?"

"Our goal is always to have -- I don't know -- a third or a half the team be Polish, even in this first round," Bragiel said. "Maybe they won't be the starters, but we want to give these kids exposure."

Logo for the Polish Baseball and Softball Federation.

After the first tryout in Poland, the group will return to the United States for a second tryout in Chicago in mid-June, when they'll be looking for any Polish-American players who could strengthen the roster. Two positions are high on the wishlist:

"Dennis Cook says, 'Find me a shortstop and find me a catcher,'" John Dobkowski, the chair of the Polish American Baseball and Softball Federation, said with a laugh.

Dobkowski has been involved with Polish baseball now for over a decade. Introduced to the team in 2010, he soon found himself on the national team roster, even earning pitcher of the tournament honors after leading Poland to an upset victory against Austria in the 2011 European B-pool qualifier. Unable to shake the international baseball bug, Dobkowski then founded the Federation in 2021 with the aim of helping support ballclubs in Poland while growing the sport among Polish-American youth here in the United States.

"I'm just trying to bring awareness that there are kids that are trying to play in Poland," Dobkowski said. "We have a lot of Polish-Americans in New York, New Jersey, Chicago, Milwaukee and Los Angeles that would love to represent Poland."

John Dobkowski pitches for Poland. Courtesy John Dobkowski.

Since founding the federation, Dobkowski has been hard at work sourcing donations for equipment and uniforms for teams in Poland, while offering free clinics and camps for ballplayers in New York. Most recently, he's hoping to bring the Little League back to Greenpoint, N.Y. -- a heavily Polish neighborhood in Brooklyn.

"In my opinion, baseball is growing -- growing huge," Dobkowski said. "Like, from 2010 until now, it's amazing what the Czech Republic is doing. It's amazing what Great Britain is doing. I'd like the same thing for Poland."

After identifying the best players for the senior team, Poland will try to qualify for the European Baseball Championship this summer. From there, their sights are set on the World Baseball Classic, the Olympics and beyond.

"I'm not going over there just to just to finish second or third," Cook said. "I want to qualify and be ready to go to the European Championships next summer. Five years down the road. I'd love for us to be moving way up in the rankings with an opportunity to play in the World Baseball Classic the Olympics. That's the goal."

The mission is a long one, but the rewards could be immense.

"Do we realistically [have a shot?] I don't know," Bragiel said. "The world is waking up to baseball. The [World Baseball Classic] last year was amazing for the sport and I'm pretty sure there's other people thinking like me, too. I'm not the only one like this. So we have to be realistic. But I mean, there's the famous saying: Shoot for the stars and land on the moon. Let's go big, and if not, we're going to end up somewhere cool with this program."