The diaspora of St. Louis Cardinals fans and the magic of Croatian baseball helped one writer survive the darkest days of the COVID pandemic.
I’ve watched four live MLB games in my life and two KBO games in South Korea. But the game that remains most vivid in my mind was played on a rugby pitch in the Balkans in the crux of a global pandemic.
In February 2021, the MLB and other sports leagues faced a plethora of unanswered questions due to the rapidly changing COVID-19 situation. Would the season start on time? Would 162 games even be possible? How many fans would be in attendance?
Across the Atlantic, I dealt with my own tribulations. For the past 15 months, I had been living in Rome, Italy with my girlfriend, but my visa was on the verge of expiring. To obtain a new visa, I would have to return to my home country of Canada. Doing so seemed like it would require four weeks in quarantine (two weeks on each side of the ocean) and thousands of dollars in hyper-inflated flights.
The logical alternative to returning to Canada was to spend three months nearby in a country outside of the Schengen Area that covers most of Europe while my girlfriend remained in Italy for work. But where? Border restrictions changed daily, and many countries had closed their borders entirely to non-essential travel. The only region that seemed mostly open was the Balkans.
After a few days of deliberating, I settled on Croatia — the country seemed to be politically stable, had a growing tourism industry, and was famous for its beautiful coastline. But even on the way to the airport, I continued to price tickets to Serbia in case last-minute border restrictions threw a knuckleball into my plans.
Perhaps to my surprise, I made it to Croatia without a problem. An hour after taking off from Rome on a cool Sunday night, I landed in Split, a port city of about a quarter of a million people nestled on the eastern coast of the Adriatic Sea.
“Dobar dan,” I said to my Uber driver when I met him in the airport parking lot.
“Not like dobar dane, like dobar dawn,” he explained in broken English as he drove through the sparsely lit streets of the countryside that led into the city. Not long after reaching the city limits, he dropped me off outside a concrete apartment built in Yugoslavia circa 1970.
The car drove off, and I stood under the honey-colored glow of the streetlights with my suitcase in hand, scrutinizing the cookie-cutter apartments and wondering what strange new world I was visiting. A cold wind sent a shiver through my body — the first time I had experienced a near-freezing temperature in nearly two years.
Two men smoked under the orange and green glow of the neon lights coming from the sign of a Studenac convenience store, their voices carrying in the silent evening. They glanced at me for a moment before stamping out their cigarettes and walking off.
Over the next month, I began to settle into the city — picking up enough Croatian to make simple orders at restaurants and to be courteous at supermarkets. Meanwhile, in America, MLB teams reported to spring training in Arizona and Florida. Despite all the apprehension leading into the season, it seemed teams would play a full 162 games after all.
I had been a St. Louis Cardinals fan since I was six years old and McGwire finished off a 70-home run campaign, but I couldn’t help feeling empathy for the Toronto Blue Jays who were also currently displaced from Canada.
It’s natural when living in a foreign country, or even in a foreign city, to seek out certain familiarities of home. During my early days in Croatia, I spent a lot of time alone, like many people around the world at the time. Many of my most vibrant memories from that time are listening to the color commentary of Mike Shannon calling St Louis Cardinals games for his 50th season at 2:00 a.m. local time.
Despite the lingering feeling of being an outsider — a fan of “America’s Pastime” in a country obsessed with “The Beautiful Game” — it didn’t take me long to fall in love with Split.
The city was founded by the Greeks more than 2,000 years ago. Later in about the year 305 AD, the Roman emperor Diocletian would build Diocletian’s Palace, which is still one of the most popular tourist destinations today. Many other groups occupied the city throughout history including the Venetians, Italians, Austrians, and Ottomans before it became part of present-day Croatia.
After my first month, I moved into a studio apartment at the highest point in the city. Every day, to get into the city center, I walked down a steep staircase surrounded by traditional stone houses with clay roofs and either green or cerulean shutters. Semi-feral cats would watch me from the windowsills as I walked down the 300 or 400 steps it took to get to sea level.
Croatian baseball isn’t exactly a global phenomenon
From my apartment’s loft window, I could see across most of the Old Town, more houses with clay rooftop tiles iconic of much of the Mediterranean region. I could also see the rows of palm trees along the promenade and the sparkling aqua water in the harbor, where ferries frequently came and went from the surrounding islands. Behind the Old Town, high-rise apartments sprawled to the base of the sparsely covered Mosor mountains.
One day as I was walking home near the Old Town, I heard a familiar sound from a sports field across the street — the crack of a ball against a bat. To my ear, it sounded as familiar as if I had heard my childhood best friend call my name over a sea of Slavic syllables. I crossed the street and peered through the chain-link fence surrounding a rugby field and watched a group of young baseball players taking batting practice. I watched for a few minutes before moving on, surrounded by a group of retired Croatian men who seemed intrigued by the strange sport.
Coincidentally, a few days later, one of the players posted a message on an expat Facebook group explaining that Klub Nada Split, the local team in the Croatia Baseball Association (Hrvatski baseball savez), would be playing its first home game of the season at the same stadium I saw them practicing.
According to the World Baseball Softball Confederation Rankings, Croatia is currently the 43rd-ranked nation, sandwiched between 42nd-ranked Peru and 44th-ranked Uganda. They have a total of 89 points that contribute to their rank, nearly half those points coming from an 11th place finish at the 2019 European Baseball championships — a tournament won by the Netherlands. For reference, the number one ranked Japan has 4,290 points and earned 1,380 points for winning the 2019 World Championships.
The history of the sport of baseball is foggy. Despite the prevalent myth that it originated in Cooperstown, home of the Baseball Hall of Fame, its lineage dates back even earlier than originally thought. References to baseball-like games in the United States were recorded in the 1700s, likely derived from the two popular English games rounders and cricket brought overseas by colonists. Hundreds of years later, Europe-bound American sailors brought the game to the Balkans.
There seems to be a limited amount of information available on the history of baseball in Croatia, at least in English, but Duško Marovic and Mihovil Rađa, who are the attributed authors of the history page on the Nada Split website, did a good job consolidating the history.
According to them, baseball was introduced to Croatia in 1918 by sailors who landed in Split on the warships “Pittsburgh” and “Olympia” and would play the game in the city’s Old Square. Admiral Philip Andrews, the captain of the Olympia, is attributed as being a particularly influencing figure.
Young locals joined the American sailors and began playing the game around the city. The first registered baseball club in Yugoslavia, “Club Krupa – Split”, was founded in 1934. After World War II and into the late 1950s, the locals began playing a modified version of baseball called “benza” until the city’s expansion cut the number of fields available. Two professors at the School of Economics in the nearby town of Solin reintroduced the sport of baseball to Split in 1972 by teaching it in physical education classes. They would go on to form a baseball club in 1974 that would move to Split and become the current club, Nada Split.
The Nada Split website, which doesn’t appear to have been updated since 2016, lists league championships for Nada Split in 1980 — the first year of the Yugoslavian Championship — and 1981. They also won in 1992, the first year of the modern Croatian Baseball Association, and 2004, 2005, 2010, 2012, 2014, and 2016.
Like my beloved St. Louis Cardinals, Nada Split also appears to have the second-most championships of any team in the league. The Croatia Baseball Association website, which only chronicles league champions from 1992 to 2011, lists 11 championships for the team based in the city of Karlovac.
After seeing the Facebook post, I marked the date of Nada Split’s home game on my calendar. The last live professional baseball game I had watched was the Seattle Mariners against the Houston Astros in 2016 at the formerly known Safeco Field.
On the day of the game, I almost didn’t go. After more than a year of navigating COVID-19 restrictions, being surrounded by a crowd of people seemed like a strange concept. After over a year of stay-at-home orders, social distancing, and language barriers I felt like I was one step away from becoming Tom Hanks in Cast Away. I hadn’t started talking to volleyballs, but maybe only because I didn’t have a volleyball in my apartment.
I’m sure I’m not the only person who felt like they needed to be resocialized back into society. Even now, hopefully in the dwindling hours of the pandemic, I see radical shifts in the personalities of some of my friends who have become uncharacteristically aloof. They might be saying the same of me — although I had always been somebody who enjoys a high degree of solitude.
I walked down the stone staircase leading from my apartment into the Old Town and headed toward Stadion Stari plac, where the game was being played. When I reached the field, I clung to the chain-link fence surrounding the stadium for a few minutes as I listened to the familiar shouting of the players on the field when the ball was put in play.
Between innings, I sheepishly made my way to a seat in the stone bleachers overlooking the rugby field. I sat some distance from the other spectators, perhaps to keep a healthy distance to the exit in case I felt awkward and out of place.
The home team came to the plate — I could tell it was the home team by the reaction of the small but enthusiastic crowd. Within the first couple batters, the ball sailed over the right-field fence and the batter trotted around the bases. Several batters later, another ball flew over the fence and landed somewhere in the parking lot.
It seemed strange seeing baseball being played on a field made entirely of grass. Even though there was no dirt in the infield, the grass was well-worn around home plate at the confluence of lines marking the outer bounds of the rugby field.
The grass also showed clear signs of wear near first base, which was almost halfway to the right-field fence. Judging by the standard dimensions of a rugby pitch, I estimate about 222 feet to right field and 330 feet to left. For players unlucky enough to hit the ball toward the far corner in centerfield, they would need to launch the ball over a high fence more than 398 feet away to hit a home run. Following the tradition of the New York Yankees, I can only imagine part of the home team’s strategy is to load their lineup with left-handed bats.
After about an inning, a father and son speaking English in North American accents sat down a few rows in front of me. Before long, we started talking and I learned that they were both Cardinals fans traveling from Arkansas.
Despite the Cardinals having one of the largest fanbases of any MLB team, I had only met a handful of Cardinal fans in my life. I grew up on the East Coast of Canada where baseball received little attention, and I had spent my adult life between East Asia, Western Canada, and Europe. In fact, my last memory of meeting another Cardinals fan was at a Cardinals-Expos game in Montreal when I was a kid.
We half-watched the game as we talked. I imagine none of us had a particular investment in the outcome. I was just excited to finally have somebody to ask the burning questions that I had been keeping to myself.
What did you think of the Dodgers signing Albert Pujols? How do you think the Cardinals are going to do this year? Where should we upgrade?
I can’t tell you who won the game, I became so enraptured in our conversation that I didn’t even realize the game was over until people filtered past us toward the exit. When we said our goodbyes, I couldn’t help but feel more connected to the city knowing there were other people like me — displaced Cardinals fans more than 5,000 miles away from the Gateway Arch.
Choosing a favorite sports team is often arbitrary. Often it happens based on where we live or which team’s pajamas we wear as toddlers — I became a Cardinals fan because I had a Beanie Baby cardinal as a kid called “Mac” after Mark McGwire’s famous moniker “Big Mac.” But becoming part of a fanbase connects us to a community with which we can celebrate the victories and mourn the losses.
When I was 21, I moved to South Korea. One of my first memories is going to Jamsil Stadium watching the Doosan Bears of the KBO League with 25,000 other cheering fans. Over the next two years, I would use the talking point “How about them bears?” to develop friendships with the locals.
When I was traveling through Japan for the first time, I was filled with the regular apprehension that comes with traveling to a country where you don’t speak the language. As I took the train from Osaka International Airport into Osaka, I looked out the window and saw a group of high-school students playing baseball. I would later bond with the people of Osaka over our shared admiration of Ichiro Suzuki.
A few weeks after watching the game in Split, I would leave the country to return to Italy. The Cardinals were in first place, and as vaccines continued to roll out, it seemed increasingly likely that the season would be played to its entirety without interruption.
When I first arrived in Croatia, I landed on a cold night not knowing anybody and not sure what to expect. My final image was looking out the window of a plane mesmerized by the sunlight sparkling off turquoise waters of the Adriatic Sea as I left a city that had started to feel like a second home.