American pastime rising in Europe

As baseball gains in popularity, more MLB prospects coming from European nations

Updated: September 13, 2011, 4:58 PM ET
By Leander Schaerlaeckens | ESPN.com

REGENSBURG, Germany -- The unmistakable crack of a Louisville Slugger rings out over the Danube, that bluest of European rivers, snaking east from here all the way to the Black Sea after splicing up Vienna and Budapest and Belgrade and Bucharest. On the other bank lies Regensburg, a town of 130,000 that was founded in A.D. 90 as a Roman fort on the very edge of civilization, where the empire ended and barbarian wilderness began. The city is situated in the heart of the southeastern German state of Bavaria, tucked up against the Czech and Austrian borders. The old town teems with tourists, filling up beer gardens and artisanal bratwurst joints or sauntering through cobblestone alleys so narrow that you can touch both walls if you stick your arms out. They snap pictures of the 13th-century cathedral and much older town walls.

But on this side of the river, opposite that quaint European cliché , stands a bastion of Americana: a ballpark. Every spring and summer weekend, up to 3,000 spectators each pay about $11 U.S. each and pack the grandstand that encases the sunken infield of the state-of-the-art Armin-Wolf-Arena to watch the German champion Buchbinder Legionaere Regensburg -- or the Legionnaires -- play baseball. When the German national baseball team played here during the 2009 Baseball World Cup, 10,000 fans filed into sold-out auxiliary seating.

[+] EnlargeLiddi
Steven Bisig/US PresswireAlex Liddi, from Italy, last week became the first graduate of the MLB European Academy to reach the majors.

For decades, European club baseball was played on abandoned soccer fields despite the chronic dimension problems, converted by hand by dedicated amateur players who would be lucky to afford luxuries like a regulation mound, dugouts and a backstop after having to pitch in for the materials themselves. Playing in Armin-Wolf-Arena puts the Legionnaires in the vanguard of a foreign game making its way on an inhospitable continent where it has traditionally been short on impact and long on developmental miscarriages. More than anything, Regensburg owes its success to its very own year-round, live-in baseball academy.

After graduating college at the turn of the millennium, Martin Brunner, an Austrian-born German resident, decided to turn his back on an already-promising engineering career to instead focus on baseball. He'd happened upon the sport as a 17-year-old, and within four years, he'd earned a tryout for the Montreal Expos. "If you run a 6.3 on a 60-yard dash, you turn some heads," said Brunner, a man who laughs with all the air his lungs can hold. "But I was a one-tool prospect."

Not content with the state of German baseball and desperate to make an occupation of improving it, Brunner came to a realization: To stand any chance of making it, his nation's thinly spread young baseball talent would have to be assembled and allowed to mature in a nurturing environment. Brunner scrounged up enough government funding (10,000 Euros) to get a baseball academy off the ground and eke out a living. The first class of five players started in September 2002; by 2006, the academy had its first graduate sign with an MLB team. Rodney Gessmann had come into the academy as a 16-year-old throwing 78 mph. When the Minnesota Twins signed him two years later, he was throwing 92 mph with good command. "That's when people realized there's something positive going on," Brunner said.

Since 2007, seven more Regensburg academy products have been offered contracts by big league teams -- meaning nearly one-third of the 25 players the academy has produced or is producing who are eligible to sign have moved on to pro ball. Three other players have landed Division I college baseball scholarships. The crown jewel among them is outfielder Max Kepler-Rozycki, the son of two stars in the Berlin ballet. ("They say I have pretty good feet," Kepler-Rozycki notes.) He has matured into a five-tool prospect in the Twins organization after receiving an $850,000 signing bonus as a 16-year-old in 2009, a record for an amateur position player from outside North or Latin America. Kepler-Rozycki is considered the best-ever European prospect -- and at just 18, he is widely regarded as one of the top 10 prospects in the Twins' deep farm system.

With all the talk of emerging markets like China, India and Brazil as successors to Latin America and the Pacific Rim as Major League Baseball's next breeding ground, Europe is overlooked. However, the Regensburg academy, while a pioneer, isn't unique. The professionalization of elite youth baseball is happening all over the continent. Scattered across Europe are 17 full-fledged baseball academies that have the support of Major League Baseball. Located in the Netherlands (six), Italy (one), Germany (one), Sweden (one), France (two), the Czech Republic (two), Great Britain (one), Belgium (two) and Austria (one), these academies are churning out prospects, with a flurry of European signings to big league teams. Since 1999, 77 European prospects -- from Belarus, the Czech Republic, Italy and elsewhere but mostly from the Netherlands and Germany -- have signed contracts with MLB teams. The rate of European signings has been accelerating, as 63 of the 77 have signed since 2005.

The signings reflect the larger boom of European baseball. Although participation numbers fluctuate wildly from country to country, according to the Confederation of European Baseball, the number of competitive European baseball players has surged from 18,133 in 1970 to 112,303 in 2010. Some nations lag behind such as Denmark with just 105 baseball players. But others have witnessed extraordinary growth: German baseball grew from 100 or so players in 1979 to 26,500 in 2010, which paces the continent. The Netherlands and Italy have around 23,000 players each.

This growth has made Europe increasingly fertile scouting ground for Major League Baseball. Andy Johnson has been scouting Europe for the Twins since 2003. "When I started, I probably saw four [other MLB] clubs on average at the bigger events, and a lot of the smaller events I would be the only scout there," he said. "Now it's very common for me to run into somebody -- I can see 10 to 12 scouts. The attention has definitely increased. At some point throughout the year, at least 50 percent of big league clubs swing through here. Because there's a lot more guys who are a lot more interesting. The player pool is bigger and better."

"MLB organizations recognize that today there's talent in Europe, too," said former New York Yankees infielder Robert Eenhoorn, a Dutch player who wasn't discovered until he played in the 1988 Summer Olympics in Seoul, South Korea, as a 20-year old. "Back when I signed, there were maybe three organizations that even scouted internationally. And nobody looked at Europe. These days, when we stage an event there are 17 or 18 organizations that come check it out."

"Europe is making a lot of progress, and it's a place that needs to be watched more closely," said David Stockstill, director of international scouting for the Baltimore Orioles. With two scouts who trawl Europe part time, the Orioles are one of the less active clubs -- for budgetary reasons. "I really wish we could be a big player there," Stockstill said.

Johnson discovered Kepler-Rozycki -- a prospect in whom some 15 MLB teams eventually took an interest and whose games, no matter how remote, always drew at least a half-dozen scouts. Afterward, Johnson says he noticed a further uptick in interest from the other side of the pond. "There's a definite reaction there," Johnson said. "They're saying: 'Holy cow! You found this over there? Let's go see if there are some more.' Now it's a territory like Asia or Australia or Southern California."

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Walter KellerThis is Regensburg's Armin-Wolf-Arena packed with 10,000 people in 2009.

This has driven the price of Europeans up. Just a few years ago, clueless European prospects "were asking for what sounded good to them," according to Johnson. They were grateful for the opportunity and happy to bag $20,000 or so. Rick VandenHurk, an Orioles pitcher with 45 big league appearances, signed with the Marlins for $25,000 in 2002, but as he put it, "If they'd only given me a new glove, I would have signed anyway." One pitcher asked for and got just enough money to buy a laptop. Today, European players regularly command six-figure signing bonuses.

The launch pad for European prospects and the European game are academies like this one in Regensburg. With a capacity of 20 players at a time, boys aged 15 through 19 cycle through a four-year program. They are surrounded by coaches with professional experience in the U.S., a trainer, a physical therapist, sports doctors, tutors, nutritionists and specialized chefs. They live in a cozy dorm with an indoor batting cage and spend six days a week playing 30 to 35 hours of baseball within the framework of a regimented schedule. Makeup is emphasized, as is education -- academy alumni have a 100 percent graduation rate in Bavaria's demanding high school system.

"They really know what they're doing there," Kepler-Rozycki said. "I'm pretty sure it would have taken a lot more time to adjust [to the minor leagues] if I hadn't gone to Bavaria."

But for all its success, the academy's future isn't certain. After each player pays about $13,000 per year in tuition -- depending on financial aid -- the academy has to raise an additional $280,000 a year to break even. As a nonprofit organization, the academy is independent from the Legionnaires club and thus doesn't benefit from its stadium and sponsorship revenues. And like much of European baseball, the academy was hit hard by baseball's elimination from the Olympic calendar, which cut off substantial funds from national Olympic committees. The academy is entirely dependent on government funding, grants, its own sponsorships and donations.

"It's a lot of hustling," Brunner said. "It's unbelievably difficult."

The role model

YANKEE STADIUM, New York -- Seattle Mariners rookie outfielder Greg Halman hails from Haarlem in the Netherlands -- the original one, just west of Amsterdam -- but he is indistinguishable from his big league peers. He walks, talks, spits and swears like them, is jacked and tatted-up. He even has the "good face." He belongs.

Halman, 24, is only the fifth born-and-raised Dutchman to make the majors -- making him the fifth true European, too. Dozens of turn-of-the-century big leaguers and several players in later years -- such as Bruce Bochy, Ron Gardenhire, Elmer Valo, Bobby Thomson, Charlie Lea, Edwin Jackson and Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven -- were born in Europe, but they all grew up and got their baseball education in North America. And Dutch Antilleans such as Andruw Jones, Sidney Ponson and Jair Jurrjens may technically be European on account of their Dutch passports, but they're really products of the baseball-mad islands of Aruba and Curaçao off the Venezuelan coast.

After German Claus Helmig became the first true European to play minor league ball for the Orioles at the old Class D level in 1956, the first to make the big leagues was Dutchman Win Remmerswaal. Remmerswaal was a fantastically eccentric right-handed reliever -- he wrote "Win" on his left cleat and "Lose" on his right, and after a game hopped off the field on whichever foot applied to its outcome. He was signed by the Boston Red Sox at age 20 and made his big league debut five years later in 1979. He would make 22 appearances in '79 and '80, compiling a 3-1 record with a 5.50 ERA in 55 2/3 innings. Then he dove headlong into an abyss of arm trouble, drugs and alcoholism that landed him in a wheelchair and a nursing home in the Netherlands with brain and nerve damage by age 43. He remains there to this day, unable to feed or bathe himself, suffering from dementia.

Another Dutch right-hander, Han Urbanus, nearly beat Remmerswaal to the majors. After spending spring training in 1953 with the New York Giants -- where he'd stepped onto a pitching mound for the first time in his life -- for a second year running, he was offered a contract. Urbanus had been mowing down the Dutch league since he was 15, but he chose to return home so he could finish his degree in accounting and get married. (His grandson, middle infielder Nick Urbanus, signed with the Texas Rangers in 2010.)

The wave of Europeans following Remmerswaal was only marginally more successful. In August 1993, Rikkert Faneyte made his debut for the San Francisco Giants, lining up in center field between Barry Bonds and Willie McGee. He played 80 games in four seasons with the Giants and Rangers. Eenhoorn, a shortstop with fancy footwork attributed to a childhood spent playing soccer, spurned the Milwaukee Brewers in favor of a season with Davidson College and was drafted by the Yankees in the second round in 1990. "Baseball America" called him a "defensive genius." Another scouting publication labeled him the "greatest Dutch import since Heineken." As a prospect, he was rated higher than Carlos Delgado, Jeromy Burnitz and Brian Giles in the New York-Penn League. The Yankees considered him their shortstop-in-waiting -- at least until Derek Jeter came along. Eenhoorn made his debut the season after Fanneyte did, but he played just 26 games for the Yankees and 11 for the California/Anaheim Angels in four big league seasons before quitting in 1998 at age 30. His greatest distinction was manning second base the day Dwight Gooden threw his no-hitter in 1996.

"

[When] you're from the Netherlands & people associate that with soccer and wooden shoes. & But I'm from the Netherlands, and I've always played baseball, and this is what I do. I don't make excuses for anything. We Europeans know how to play ball.

" -- Mariners outfielder Greg Halman

Now cresting in the wake of the first European players to wash up in the majors is a much bigger wave of talent, with Halman and VandenHurk at its front edge. They are joined by Washington Nationals outfielder Roger Bernadina, who was born in Curaçao but grew up in the Netherlands.

Halman started to play baseball as a 3-year-old and wants to build on a solid minor league career in which he hit 115 home runs and stole 97 bases over six seasons. Although expectations for him have been downgraded, Halman still hopes to be Europe's first baseball-playing household name. "I just want to become the first superstar who is born and raised in the Netherlands," he said, sitting on the visiting dugout bench on a rainy day in July before being sent down to Triple-A on Aug. 4. "I really just want to put the Netherlands on the map and show that it really is possible to come from the Netherlands and love baseball this much. & Being that pioneer would be nice," Halman says, smiling. "I want to be that face."

While Eenhoorn faced prejudice and questions over whether a European could really play, to the point of sometimes feeling more like a novelty than a serious prospect, his barrier-breaking achievements paved the way for those who would follow. "[His being European] is not even something on my mind," Mariners manager Eric Wedge said of Halman. "I think he's completely on par with everybody else. When you look at his aptitude, maybe even beyond that, because I think he's a quick learner."

Halman hopes to inspire the next generation to surpass his own. "I'm glad that it's opening a lot of eyes in the Netherlands," he said. "You don't see guys aiming to play in the top Dutch league anymore but aiming to play here [in the majors]. They see that it's possible, and that's important. When Rick and Roger and I came to America, you were thrown into the deep end, but if you have a few guys ahead of you, it becomes easier for the guys who come after you."

If Halman becomes a star, he could help drive greater numbers to the sport in the same way Dirk Nowitzki has done for German basketball. "If you get a European who's a recognized All-Star, that would make a difference," said Stephan Rapaglia, who played and coached in Europe on and off from 1993 through 2010.

In spite of the acceptance, however, Halman is still confronted with his unconventional baseball roots. "I do hear about it a lot," he said. "Because people don't ever see it: Dutchmen who play at the major league level. You're from the Netherlands, and people associate that with soccer and wooden shoes, and that's the sort of thing you have to hear about." He sighs. "But I'm from the Netherlands, and I've always played baseball, and this is what I do. I don't make excuses for anything. We Europeans know how to play ball."

The genesis

Although European baseball has started to make headway only recently, the game and the old continent have an astonishing amount of history. According to author Josh Chetwynd's authoritative book, "Baseball in Europe," the sport has existed continuously in Europe for nearly a century and a half through peaks and troughs. But although the game is the same everywhere -- save for some Italian pitchers who consider intentional walks unmanly -- the way the different countries came to play is as varied as the continent itself.

In 1874, the Boston Red Stockings and the Philadelphia Athletics played an exhibition game in England, the first known baseball game in Europe. In 1889, Hall of Fame pitcher and burgeoning sporting goods magnate A.G. Spalding took Cap Anson and the best players he could find in the U.S. on a promotional tour through Europe, hoping to create a new market for his company. They played games in France, England and Italy.

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Courtesy of Han Urbanus and the Dutch Baseball and Softball MuseumDutch pitcher Han Urbanus, shown in spring training with the New York Giants in 1952, was the first European ballplayer to set foot on MLB territory.

The next year, a professional league was started in England but folded after one season. (Another would start in 1935, expanding rapidly before collapsing after its third year; it did manage to get its games broadcasted live by BBC Radio.) Spalding's tour didn't bear fruit everywhere. In Italy, the game was mostly forgotten. Two years after his visit, however, Spalding received a letter from an American who'd been on holiday in Rome and had seen monks play baseball in a park -- they played well, but their robes made fielding grounders difficult.

In the Netherlands, an English teacher had grown smitten with the game on holiday in the U.S. in 1905 and upon his return advocated for baseball as an alternative during soccer's summertime offseason. Scores of soccer clubs signed on and kept playing through the 1960s -- which is how Dutch 1970s soccer superstars like Johan Cruyff and Johan Neeskens wound up playing baseball in their youth. In Belgium, the sport was introduced by Japanese merchant sailors on shore leave in the 1920s.

Mostly, European baseball got a big push from war. After both world wars, American GIs waiting for months to be shipped home fought boredom with baseball and encouraged locals to join in. This was fitting, given how baseball also has played an outsized part in European political history. Although Russia had supplied the U.S. the horsehide it used to produce baseballs until 1917, the Soviet Union denounced the American game and claimed either that it had invented it and that early Russian settlers in the U.S. had brought the game with them or that their Cuban allies had come up with it. In Spain, meanwhile, the sport was banned because it was edging out bullfighting as the all too un-Spanish pastime of choice by the locals on their Cuban island colony, where ballgames were the setting for the first tentative organizational meetings and fundraising for a secessionist movement to boot.

At the 1936 Summer Olympics in Berlin, Adolf Hitler, hoping to befriend the U.S., invited top U.S. college players to give a baseball demonstration. Hitler took a keen interest, attending workouts for several days and chatting with players. At an exhibition reportedly held before 125,000 people -- making it the best-attended baseball game of all time -- Hitler's box was 10 feet inside fair territory in right field. Throughout World War II, the Dutch continued to play ball, even though it was purportedly banned by the Nazi regime on account of its Americanism, sometimes as a form of protest to the German oppressor. Since real baseballs could obviously no longer be imported from the U.S., these Dutch players used pressed cork balls that often broke up into pieces after they were hit -- the biggest remaining chunk would count on the play. In 1996, the first athletic contest between Croatia and Yugoslavia, which had just ended a bloody war, was a baseball game.

The advocate

ROTTERDAM, the Netherlands -- Former Yankee Robert Eenhoorn looks like a former Yankee. He is carefully groomed and dressed, he's dignified, and he walks with an understated swagger. On a cold, rainy summer day, we sit in the seats behind first base in European club baseball powerhouse DOOR Neptunus' 2,500-seat Familie Stadion. It's a facility no minor league team would be embarrassed to play in, and we're here to take in a game of honkbal, the literal Dutch translation of baseball.

We're almost 3,500 miles from the nearest big league ballpark, but there's a lot of professional experience in Familie Stadion. DOOR Neptunus' shortstop played in short-season Class A, and the right fielder made it to High-A. The third baseman played rookie ball. So did the batter, who is facing a pitcher who played professionally in an independent minor league. On Neptunus' bench, sitting out the second game of a doubleheader are two starting pitchers who reached Double-A and Triple-A, respectively, as well as Aruban outfielder Eugene Kingsale, who played 211 major league games for four teams from 1996 to 2003.

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Brad White/Getty ImagesOrioles pitcher Rick VandenHurk, who also plays for the Netherlands national team, has pitched parts of five seasons in the major leagues.

Eenhoorn is perhaps European baseball's biggest patron. Since quitting pro ball in 1998, he has turned his attention to his home country and built the Dutch national team into a solid international team -- first as a player, then as manager and now as director of baseball operations for the Dutch federation. Since Eenhoorn's return, the Dutch became the first team in 36 years to beat Cuba in international competition at the Sydney Olympics in 2000; twice placed fourth at the Baseball World Cup, ending Cuba's six-year winning streak there, too; made two Intercontinental Cup finals; and twice beat a stacked Dominican Republic at the 2009 World Baseball Classic.

"The next time we play the Dominican, I don't think they'll take it lightly," said Dutch-born Bert Blyleven, the pitching coach for the Netherlands at the 2009 WBC.

Looking ahead to the 2013 WBC, Eenhoorn reckons the Netherlands is a team the world powers should watch for. "We're not their equivalent, but they have to be careful not to lose to us," he said. "If you have a mediocre day against the Netherlands, we'll beat you, no matter who you are."

"We'll try to do the same thing and kick their butts," Blyleven said. "Dutch people are stubborn, so that's a good thing. I'm already looking forward to it."

Eenhoorn's value to the Dutch game, however, lies mostly in his work in youth player development. Like many of the Dutch players with U.S. pro experience before him, he knew he had to share his knowledge. "I think that's only normal," Eenhoorn said. "It would be a desperate waste if you'd lived in that incredibly professional world and learned a ton and came home and never mentioned it again." So shortly after his return from the U.S., he set up the Unicorns academy ("Eenhoorn" is Dutch for "unicorn"), the first baseball academy in Europe, where he set about molding the next generation of Dutch ballplayers.

"Eenhoorn is a perfect storm of having played in the big leagues, having grown up in Europe and having the coach's bug," said longtime Belgian grassroots baseball organizer John Miller. "He's the kind of guy who will wake up early and go hit ground balls to a kid in the rain."

"

I had to close a big gap when I arrived in America. I had to figure it out on my own; I had nobody to ask what it would be like. Boys these days do have that. The gap between Europe and a professional career is smaller.

" -- Former MLB infielder Robert Eenhoorn

The European game relies heavily on men like him, whose devoted toil goes largely unrewarded. "Without selfless and dedicated people like that who stick with the game over time, it is difficult for growth to exist and be sustained," Rapaglia said.

Five other Dutch academies have since opened, and they have started their own league in two age brackets. This high-level environment, similar in intensity to that of Regensburg, has created an assembly line of Dutch prospects to the minor leagues -- 21 since 2005.

"We've come a long way," Eenhoorn said. "In my day, I practiced twice and played one game a week at most. The circumstances are incomparable. The knowledge is better, practice is better, the athletes are better, the fields are better, the equipment is better."

"Eighteen years ago, there was no structure for helping the best young players progress," Rapaglia said. "Now, more talent has been identified, and more time and resources are spent developing it."

"I had to close a big gap when I arrived in America," Eenhoorn said. "I had to figure it out on my own; I had nobody to ask what it would be like. Boys these days do have that. The gap between Europe and a professional career is smaller."

After graduating from the academies but usually before they turn pro in the U.S., Dutch prospects usually latch on with a club in the top Dutch league, which, Eenhoorn said, "isn't all that different from the stateside rookie league." Although the rookie league is the lowest tier of the U.S. minor leagues, it boasts players who throw harder and hit farther. However, the Dutch league is stacked with former pros and college players and sports a more polished brand of baseball -- while also playing with wooden bats. Halman figures he got a better baseball education there than he would have had playing high school ball in the U.S.

"I felt that I had a head start on guys my age," he said. "Playing in the Dutch league helped me a lot. I'd played with grown men and soaked up their knowledge, and it let me grow very quickly."

"He did have a head start," Mariners manager Wedge said of Halman. "He's been playing for a while now. Even though he's young, I think he has a great deal of experience, and that's really helped him."

Major League Baseball has put a lot of resources into gaining traction in Europe, too. In addition to sending envoy coaches, 25 of whom roamed the continent during the summer of 2010, MLB has put on frequent clinics. Its capstone project is an annual three-week instructional camp in Tirrenia, Italy, for the 50 or so best 15- to 19-year-olds in Europe that doubles as a showcase for scouts. "It's a pretty good place to see all the best players in Europe at one time," said Bill Holmberg, one of the camp's coaches. "We've had between 18 and 20 scouts that have watched the games this year." The accelerated rate at which Europeans have been snapped up by MLB teams has had much to do with the Tirrenia event, which started in 2005, the year European signings jumped from an average of 2.33 a year to nine. "We're not the Dominican Republic yet," Holmberg said. "But I think we might be sneaking up on Australia."

Eenhoorn has bigger plans still for the continent. He is in ongoing talks with Major League Baseball to bring one of its three-game regular-season series to the Netherlands in 2014. The games would be played in a new stadium in Hoofddorp on the fringes of Amsterdam. "Major League Baseball hasn't conquered Europe yet," Eenhoorn said. "Tirrenia is fantastic, and the academies are important. But Major League Baseball should show just how high its level is. Europeans see things on television, but it doesn't do it justice. It's important for Major League Baseball to be visual here."

Eenhoorn has been lobbying MLB to support a fully professional league in the Netherlands, too. He is concerned that Dutch pros who have washed out of the minor leagues aren't returning and that, coupled with the outflux of young talent, the Dutch league will deteriorate quickly and stop being appealing to young athletes, killing the sport with its own success.

The breakthrough

The continued Americanization of European culture further spurs on baseball's emergence in Europe, and although it may not give it a fighting chance against Europe's obsession with soccer, it is allowing it to carve out a niche. Drive down any stretch of the German autobahn and you'll see more Burger Kings, Dominos and Subways than all German chains put together. American music, movies and television dominate Europe. Cheap Yankees hats are fixtures at gas stations. Germany's 1980s baseball explosion is credited, in addition to considerable efforts by its federation, to the inclusion of a few MLB games on German basic cable each week.

Jan Novak
Jan BenesCzech pitcher Jan Novak, 17, tries out in front of a horde of MLB scouts in Prague on May 5.

Modernity has overcome distance. "In my day baseball wasn't visible on Dutch television, but now all sorts of technologies have brought Major League Baseball much closer," Eenhoorn said.

"When I talk to kids from the Netherlands, they're watching every single one of my games live," Halman said.

Serious coverage of European baseball is emerging, swimming against soccer's violent tide. In the Netherlands, some national team games are broadcasted live nationwide. Mister-Baseball.com, a comprehensive website with news, results and standings of European baseball, gets between 10,000 and 15,000 unique visitors per week. Honkbalsite.com, the biggest Dutch baseball website, gets 5 million page views per year. Newspapers report on the progress of European players in the U.S. And Rick VandenHurk's annual European Big League Tour, during which he and a handful of prominent major leaguers give clinics in several European countries, attracts more than a thousand kids and a throng of reporters and camera crews.

"There's a small baseball press that's emerged [in the Netherlands]," VandenHurk said. "When I signed [in 2002] the local paper reprinted a press release, and that was it. But when I came back this past winter I went on national television and radio and was written up in the papers and magazines. A lot more notice is taken of baseball. Whenever a Dutchman does something over in the U.S., articles are printed."

Perhaps the last piece to the puzzle is a baseball consciousness. "Baseball is finally starting to create a culture and some roots in Europe," said veteran envoy coach Pat Doyle. "We're seeing more places in Europe where baseball is flourishing and creating synergy than ever before."

Baseball's European hotbeds are still very much fragmented, dotting the map wherever irrationally committed men have made a stand for the sport. "When I started in 1995, there were specific places where baseball was strong," said Clive Russell, MLB's managing director for Europe. "That has increased exponentially. There used to be four or five places in Spain and four or five places in France where people are playing baseball. Now it's 45 places in Spain and 45 places in France. That's the biggest difference." You can still travel hundreds of miles without seeing baseball or anybody that could recognize it, but, Rapaglia said, "in those pockets where baseball has taken off, it really means something."

Now, 137 years after the Red Sox and A's first showed up in Europe with their peculiar game, a tangible momentum is pushing the sport. "There's helium in the balloon finally, and it's starting to rise up off the ground," Doyle said. "How far it's going to go is hard to say yet."

Leander Schaerlaeckens is a contributing writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at leander.espn@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter at @LeanderESPN.

Leander Schaerlaeckens

Contributing writer, ESPN.com
Leander Schaerlaeckens is a contributing writer for ESPN.com. He has previously written for The Guardian, The Washington Times and UPI.