Baseball finds its way to kids in Slovakia

May 18--Since its inception as the American national pastime, the game of baseball has built bridges between this nation and others throughout the world.

One such example is in Central Europe, where a plea for youth baseball gloves has turned into much, much more. So when one American family showed up at the border of the Czech Republic and Slovakia with a couple of baseball gloves and a bat, a high ranking government official immediately asked if they could start some sports programs for Slovakian youth. The father didn't know much about baseball, and he called for help from a friend in the United States.

That friend, Tom Johnson was a minister in Minneapolis, but prior to that he was a professional baseball player. He had pitched for his hometown Twins from 1974-1978, with his best year being 1977 when he won 16 games before a career-ending shoulder injury.

The call for help has resulted in Johnson and others traveling to Slovakia and running baseball camps; until then he decided to move there permanently.

Over the past 25 years, Johnson has used his experience in baseball to serve others, whether coaching locally or overseas. In Slovakia he began using baseball and other sports to provide meaningful after school activities for Slovak young people.

Johnson and his wife moved to Bratislava, Slovakia last year to minister to the young people in that country which had been under Soviet control for nearly 50 years.

Johnson has attempted to organize the young people in the Bratislava community into teams and enter them into the European Little League.

Europe is entitled to send two teams from its region to the Little League World Series. Since 1960, when a Little League team from Berlin, Germany, was the first European representative to Williamsport, the composition of every team has been primarily American; but that has changed with the sport's growing popularity.

Equipment was going to be an obstacle; there aren't many sporting goods that sell affordable leather gloves and aluminum bats. So Johnson turned to his friend, John Summerville, from Oakhurst. Summerville is a retired colonel in the United States Marine Corps and has devoted his best years to teaching the game of baseball. He is an assistant coach on the Yosemite High School baseball team and travels abroad several times a year to help others.

"I've had the distinct honor and pleasure of coaching with Tom for several years both in Slovakia and Israel," Summerville said. "Our camps were usually two to three weeks in duration, but attempts to establish long running programs weren't very successful because no one could afford the expense or time to oversee them."

Most of the volunteer leadership was made up of our former players, but they were usually in college or just starting their careers and couldn't devote the needed time or energy to see things through.

When the country of Czechoslovakia split into the Czech Republic and was Slovakia that really got the short end of the stick economically.

The industrial strength of the country was centered in the Czech Republic. Slovakia got the mountains and the borders with the Ukraine, Hungary and Poland. With no real economy and the shambles of a half-century of communist control, the young people in Slovakia faced a pretty dismal future.

Much of the youth, with nothing to do, were turning to drugs and delinquency in the Soviet-style block ghettos that had dislocated much of the population into the capital city of Bratslavia.

So in stepped Johnson, baseball's unofficial ambassador.

"We have 155 kids registered in the Little League program in Slovakia," Johnson said. "From this list we hope to have four teams play a 16 game schedule. The U.S. Ambassador threw out the first pitch on April 28th. "We have a sweet deal for getting sports equipment here. The military attache is cooperating with the deputy chief of mission at the embassy and allowing us to use the APO address to get equipment here. So if you have any good stuff lying around, there is a relatively inexpensive way to support us. You only have to pay for shipping to New York and then it ends up in Bratislava! Sweet deal -- no duty and rather quick delivery."

Playing baseball without the proper equipment negates any progress establishing a successful program

"We could really use some decent, broken in gloves for little leaguers -- 10-11 inch, along with "soft" and hard baseballs (that can be hit with a bat). We received two shipments of "soft baseballs" which we found out quickly were NOT designed to be hit with a bat -- only used for throwing," Johnson said.

"Did you know such a thing even existed? The balls did not have any "warning" not to hit them on the cover; but we found out quickly as the covers began to rip off. We had no choice but to use them, since we had no other options.

"Baseball is the first of what we hope will be multiple activities we hope to offer for the benefits of both kids and parents.

"Baseball as well as the other sports are an international venue that automatically attracts a lot of kids and channels their energies into positive channels and helps to keep them away from drugs and crime and can be a positive factor in building a democracy."

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Mike Hackworth

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