Summer 2013 /Baseball/

Baseball Worldwide

From Brussels to Tel Aviv to Taipaei, Sagehens play an outsized role in helping to spread baseball fever beyond the bounds of North America.
John Tsuei '09 is emcee as Major League Baseball slugger Prince Fielder tours China in 2010.

John Tsuei ’09 is emcee as Major League Baseball slugger Prince Fielder tours China in 2010.

Two years ago, the Yarkon Sports Complex in the Israeli city of Petah Tikva became the site of an unexpected Sagehen reunion. When Israel and Great Britain faced off in the qualifying round of the European Baseball Championship, three Pomona players—one now a graduating senior, the others veterans of the European baseball leagues—took the field in the ballpark outside Tel Aviv.

Guy Stevens ’13 was waiting around with his Israeli teammates when Michael Renery ’03 and Alex Smith ’03 passed by with the British squad. “One of them was like, ‘Which one of you guys goes to Pomona?’” Stevens recalls.

Such a confluence so far from Claremont might seem surprising, but it shouldn’t: Pomona has played an outsize role in the development of international baseball everywhere from Belgium to Taiwan. On the field, from the bench and in the boardroom, the contributions made by Pomona’s players, coaches and graduates have helped push the growth of baseball abroad.

It began in the 1970s, when Pomona-Pitzer baseball coach Mike Riskas started coaching in Europe. Riskas is now known for his work with the Greek national and Olympic teams, which began after his retirement from Pomona in 2003. After Riskas left, in stepped Frank Pericolosi, another coach with foreign experience.

When Pericolosi arrived at Pomona, he had already started working with the Brussels Kangaroos, a Belgian team in their country’s highest division. The team was struggling before Pericolosi arrived, recalls John Miller, a reporter for The Wall Street Journal who played and coached on the Kangaroos. “By himself, he created this electric atmosphere,” Miller says. Pericolosi’s intensity and determination set an example for the other players, and by the latter part of the season the team boasted a winning record.

Pericolosi later shifted his focus to youth and grassroots programs, creating opportunities for kids to play even where equipment is so scarce that one team used a sub-compact car to groom the infield. Since he was hired at Pomona, he’s spent summers in Sweden, Denmark and Italy, and completed his sabbatical coaching in Australia. His summer months are now dedicated to scouting, but Pericolosi has opened a door into the international leagues for his players. Every year, seniors receive contract offers from teams in Belgium, Sweden, the Czech Republic and even South Africa. Just this May, outfielders Nick
Gentili ’13 and Erik Munzer ’13 signed professional contracts to play in the Belgian league.

“I get a lot of kids from other colleges contacting me now,” Pericolosi says. “Coaches will come to me a lot from Europe, and ask me if I’ve got any guys.” Because American players often serve as coaches when they travel abroad, sending successful ballplayers overseas provides much-needed support for small organizations in atypical destinations.

Along with grassroots promotion, selling baseball overseas also requires the creation of professional leagues, says Peter Wermuth ’00, CEO of the Australian Baseball League. They generate attention for the sport and provide local heroes that developing players can aspire to be like.

Wermuth has the perfect background for a baseball ambassador, having developed a passion for the sport while growing up in Germany. At Pomona, he didn’t get much playing time for the Sagehens, but he brought home what he learned here each summer coaching teams in his native land. “I missed graduation because I had a baseball game in Germany,” Wermuth says.

Working for Major League Baseball since 2005, Wermuth was sent Down Under three years ago in a first-of-its-kind effort by MLB to kick-start a pro league overseas. Australia was chosen because the sport was comparatively strong there and the seasons of the Southern Hemisphere provide an advantage: Aussies playing pro in the U.S. can come back home to play and promote
the game in the American off-season. MLB’s goal is to expand the market for the sport—and for TV rights.

While the lack of baseball facilities in Australia has been an unexpected obstacle, Wermuth says the startup pro league has also been unexpectedly buoyed by the proximity to Asia, with the ABL drawing good players—and accompanying media attention—from nations such as Japan. The Australian effort has yet to break even, but “once we have demonstrated this works we’ll definitely look at other places,” says Wermuth.

Even with strong professional leagues, international competitions also are key because they “ignite passion” far beyond what national competitions can do, says Wermuth, pointing to the overseas popularity of the World Baseball Classic.

For most of the past year, John Tsuei ’09 worked for the 2013 edition of the World Baseball Classic. As team coordinator for Chinese Taipei (the name for Taiwan at international sporting events) he became the main point of contact between the team and the tournament.

A lifelong baseball fan, Tsuei examined the sport’s influence in Taiwan for his senior thesis at Pomona. That led to a Fulbright scholarship to study youth baseball culture in Japan, where Tsuei met the travel manager for the Los Angeles Dodgers. The connection eventually landed him a Major League Baseball internship in China. Tsuei later received an offer to work with the World Baseball Classic, and jumped at the chance. Once the tournament began, Tsuei’s job became a marathon 40-day road-trip. “Travel, transportation, hotel rooms, selecting a roster, getting the right equipment, making sure the team understands everything that’s going on—we touch upon everything,” he says.

Tsuei did manage to watch the team’s games, as did many others. Stadiums were packed, and when Chinese Taipei played Japan in the second round about half of the Taiwanese population watched on TV. In Japan, that broadcast was the highest-rated program of the year, “beating the Olympics,” Tsuei says with pride.

While the largest international tournaments draw viewers by the thousands, in most countries baseball remains a niche sport—which brings us back to Petah Tikva and the European Baseball Championship qualifiers. The match-ups between Israel and Great Britain in Tel Aviv drew slightly more than 1,400 spectators over the course of three games.

Pitching for Israel, Stevens incurred a tough loss in the first game. Smith—still the holder of the Pomona-Pitzer single-season E.R.A. record—threw eight dominant innings in the final game. “We got to talk afterward, so they talked a little bit of trash,” Stevens says, laughing. Undeterred, he’s looking forward to playing with the Israeli team again sometime in the future.