Cervenka hoping to rep Czech Republic in MLB

Catcher looks to be first Czech national to reach Majors in 67 years

February 25th, 2019

SARASOTA, Fla. -- When Martin Cervenka first told his family he dreamed of making the Majors, his grandma laughed. She had reasons to be dubious. For starters, Cervenka was eight, and eight-year-olds from anywhere face long big-league odds.

But the young Cervenka faced longer than most. He was born and raised in Czechia, the small central European country known more for producing beer than ballplayers. That’s 10 hours by plane and an ocean away from the closest MLB stadium, and even further removed historically. Hence grandma’s doubts.

“I didn’t remember telling her that,” Cervenka said. “But she reminded me this winter.”

A few months later, Cervenka is on the doorstep of making that dream a reality. The 26-year-old veteran Minor League catcher’s presence in Orioles’ camp is a testament as much to his hard work as it is to baseball’s expanding global reach. Signed as a 16-year-old out of a Prague-based amateur league in 2009, Cervenka stands a chance to become the first Czech national to reach the bigs in at least 67 years, and as many as 140.

(Carl Linhart, who made two pinch-hitting appearances for the Tigers in 1952, is technically considered the last. But that’s debated due to the region’s fluid history. According to Czech baseball historian Jan Jabrocky, Linhart and others credited with Czech nationality were actually born in modern-day Slovakia. The two countries split in 1993 with the fall of the Soviet Union. What’s clear is Cervenka would be the first big leaguer to grow up in what is now considered Czech.)

“The kids back home mostly played soccer and ice hockey, but for me it was always baseball,” Cervenka said. “Usually when someone asks me what I do, I say ‘I play baseball,” and they have no idea what I’m talking about.”

Grandma’s initial reaction aside, Cervenka’s family encouraged him to pursue his dream, however farfetched. He estimates between 4,000-5,000 people play baseball or men’s softball in Czech, exclusively in amateur leagues. Martin’s father, Filip, was one of them, and his passion trickled down to his three sons.

The eldest, Marek, took to pitching. Martin became a catcher and a San Francisco Giants fan; a Barry Bonds kid when it was kind of tough not to be. The nine-hour time difference between San Francisco and Prague meant Cervenka often stayed up deep into the night streaming Giants games, his heroes accessible via an MLB.TV subscription. He also longed for bleary-eyed glimpses of Ivan and Alex Rodriguez as well.

By 15, he was playing in Extraliga, the country’s top amateur circuit, against some players twice his age. A good showing there earned him a spot at an MLB-run tryout in Krc, Czech, which led to an invitation to Major League Baseball’s European Baseball Academy in Italy in 2009. At the month-long clinic for the continent’s top prospects, Cervenka brushed shoulders with Gift Ngoepe, who’d become the Majors’ first African-born player when he debuted with the Pirates in 2017.

He also caught the attention of Indians scout Pete Gahan, who signed Cervenka to a contract that allowed him to finish high school before embarking on Minor League life. Cervenka spent the next two seasons developing in Extraliga and playing winter ball in Australia. He reported to Arizona for rookie ball in 2011.

“The first few years were the toughest,” Cervenka said. “It was the first time, for me, being away from my family, being alone, being out of country as well.”

The competition, too, was different. Exposed to higher velocity and consistently sharp breaking pitches for the first time, Cervenka struggled to adjust, hitting .189 while playing sparingly over his first five Minor League seasons. Results started coming in 2017, at which point, 24 and still at Class A, Cervenka was released.

But Cervenka took with him a strong defensive reputation, and catchers are always in demand. He caught on with the Orioles for 2018 and broke out with 15 homers in 97 games at Double-A Bowie, his first summer at that level. He was soon playing in the Arizona Fall League.

“He’s come a long way,” said Gary Kendall, Cervenka’s manager last season at Bowie. “It’s been a well-traveled road for him.”

And he keeps going back. Cervenka returns home each offseason, lifting at local gyms and cramming in college classes during winter sessions. He completed a bachelor’s degree a few years ago and is currently working toward a master’s in management. He also speaks four languages.

“With baseball, you never know, one injury can change everything,” Cervenka said. “My parents were really big on me going to college and getting my education as well.”

In the meantime, he’s inching closer and closer to that initial, unlikely goal. Now in his first big league camp, Cervenka is one of the longest shots to crack the Orioles’ Opening Day roster. But he’s closer to the Majors than ever, and a few breaks (maybe an injury or two) from realizing a dream spawned decades ago, half a world away.

“Now Martin is the most popular player in Czech,” said Jabrocky. “Because he is close to the Majors, the mainstream media here has [started to focus] on him. If he plays in the Majors, it can help baseball here a lot.