Marc Stein 2015-11-24 04:32:50
The ESSL had its first season in 2014, but the starting point occurred several years ago in Linz, Austria. I have been involved in baseball since 1984 when I started playing. At this time, there were only four teams in Austria. As the years went by, baseball grew and flourished. Yet, in the last couple of years we realized stagnation in our region that led to less awareness in the public. You have to know that baseball and softball are exotic sports in Austria. Here, the national sports are soccer and skiing, and even American football (which I also played for many years as quarterback) gains more attraction. As a founder of baseball in my region, I started thinking about how we could get more people enthusiastic about playing and watching this great game. The initial situation was as follows. In our city, Linz, with 200,000 inhabitants, we had one field sited rather remotely and only one baseball as well as one fastpitch softball team. We also had a tradition in coed slowpitch in Linz, where we became Austrian champion five times and regional champion on nine occasions. However, coed slowpitch was only played after the baseball and fastpitch season was finished in October, because it turned out to be difficult to get enough players, especially females, during the season. In this time, the Dominican community started to grow in Linz. For them, baseball is a national sport and they are really enthusiastic about the game. Giving a boost to the baseball scene in Linz, the different cultures also meant a new challenge in the club. After a break where I founded an IT startup, I returned to the Austrian baseball scene. The break enabled me to get an outside view of the situation. I realized that we had to take the opportunity and place a different kind of product on the market; one that supported the entire baseball and softball family in our region, a product which would be an attraction to the public. The first question centered on how to involve more people in the game. We did not have the capacities to coach enough younger players, and for older ones, it is a long road to become successful in baseball. For me, one key point was that players could see a faster level of success, leading to more fun and excitement, through slowpitch softball. As a first step, I organized an open slowpitch tournament with no gender restriction. Starting with four teams at the first tournament we reached six teams at the following event, and the interest was growing. In the meantime, the Dominican community formed their own team, Los Coyotes. This team is the strongest team in Austria due to their experience and will to win. As a next step, the product needed a name. Therefore, a league called ASSL (Austrian Slowpitch Softball League) was started. With defi ned dates for the games, a continuous offer for the teams was provided. As almost all teams were from Linz, and without official umpires or strict regulations, this step was an easy one. The purpose was to smoothly lead the players into an organized structure. The next question centered on determining what it is in baseball that attracts players besides playing. It is baseball statistics. In sports, everybody wants to compete and reach goals, like being higher-ranked than the other. But how is a player with less experience and no scorer license able to score a game? As a solution I invented a simple scoring system. Because slowpitch is an offensive game, it only focuses on the offensive side, but the output is the same as for official scoring. The difference is, the official scoring fills a whole book whereas the new version fits on only three pages and enables almost everyone to score a game. From then on, we had enough scorers (always players from other teams) and the resulting statistics attracted more people to our league. This step created a unique feature for the ASSL and later on for the ESSL.. 2012: The Moment of the Walk and Invitation to the USA In April 2012, we had the chance to host a two-day ESF Slowpitch Clinic in Linz, Austria, with two coaches from Ireland, John Austin and James O’Farrell. Both inspired us and taught us a lot about the game of slowpitch. At that clinic I walked around the field watching the excitement of the participants and realized that we needed to position slowpitch as a recognized and well-organized sport in order to attract the public as well as former baseball players. We already had the base, but we were still fighting against the prejudice of “it’s only slooooowpitch.” Today, I know the clinic was the turning point for the development of slowpitch in Europe. I immediately started doing some Internet research about slowpitch in Europe and around the world. That was really kind of a “scavenger hunt.” It was not easy to find information about where the game was played besides the United States because in Google you mainly receive results from US websites. I used my knowledge in search technology to find the right keywords and had to wade from one country to another via detours. For instance, from a comment on a Youtube video in Venezuela, I discovered that slowpitch was played in Italy. I found a tournament in Italy, and was surprised that this tournament had been held already for 18 years. I also contacted websites in Asia, Near East and Africa and realized that slowpitch is a worldwide sport. And yes, it is a really big sport. But how could we teach the game on a higher level? I received a contact in UK, Bob Former from the BSF. He helped me get in contact with Ron Radigonda from ASA and I received the fabulous opportunity to join Team USA as a guest coach on their Border Battle tour from North Dakota to Oklahoma. The support by Bob Former and Ron Randigano was a milestone for the development of slowpitch in Europe and I am very thankful for this experience of a lifetime. What I saw on this trip inspired me to create the ESSL. I traveled to the United States and was part of Team USA with John Austin, ESF Development Comissioner. I learned from players like Brett Helmer, Kevin Filby and others. I was in Bismarck, North Dakota, at the biggest tournament you can imagine, with more than 400 teams. I supported coach Randy Raper with the Futures Team USA and saw that even a younger team with less power is able to beat a more experienced team, because you not only need power but also speed and passion for the game. By the way, Futures Team USA won all their games in Oklahoma. I also learned something from Team Canada. Throughout the entire tournament they concentrated on their strength and worked on their performance prior to games. At the Border Battle they were able to tease Team USA in the first couple of innings, although they had only three power hitters. Their secret: hitting the ball in the outfield gaps as they trained the days before. The output of this trip was one of wonder; I never knew that you could play slowpitch on such a high level. That game has speed, power and passion, just perfect for the players and perfect for helping to increase the attention to the whole baseball and softball family in Europe. After my return I traveled directly to Ljubljana, Slovenia, where Los Coyotes from Linz participated in an international slowpitch tournament that they won. At this tournament I saw that the level of playing was steadily increasing but there was still room for improvement. The joint venture between Austria and Slovenia had already started two years earlier and turned out to be one of the core elements for the foundation of the ESSL. At that time Darja Grimsic was already the driving force behind slowpitch in the Slovenian region. The first contact with the Slovenian was at an international tournament we organized in Linz. We later called it the European Series. This tournament was held with the support of Charles Williams. He managed to get two US teams to this tournament: Bamberg Softball, a US military team, and BBK. Charles, a man that loves the game and a hard worker for slowpitch in Europe, is also the founder of the Windmill Classic. The Birth of the ESSL In 2013, I played with Los Coyotes in Ljubljana again. This time Los Coyotes were able to win the tournament in the last inning of the final game, and I realized how much the level of play had increased within one year. Right after the tournament, I went on vacation, filled with all the impression of the games, and an idea arose: Why shouldn’t we form something together? The level was attractive now and interest was increasing; we even had an Italian team at the tournament. On my way back to Austria, I contacted Darja Grimsic and we met in Ljubljana at the baseball field. This meeting was the beginning of the ESSL. Our goal was to form a tournament series in Europe with teams from different countries. At the beginning we had interest from Austria, Slovenia, Italy and Germany. But things turned out to be not so easy. Next issue: ESSL - From an Idea to Its Realization
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