European Baseball, Part One: Where Have You Gone, Joe DiMaggio?

Simon and Garfunkel’s iconic 1960s song, “Mrs. Robinson,” referenced the baseball superstar Joe DiMaggio. By 1968 when the song was penned, the one-time baseball legend had been in retirement for some time. His accomplishments were immortalized in Cooperstown. His memory evoked the nostalgia of a bygone era for all New York Yankees fans, and in many more lovers of the game.

As of late, European baseball has produced some well known players; among them are Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven of the Minnesota Twins (Holland), as well as Twins outfielder Max Kepler, a native of Germany. Mike Blowers also came from Germany. Steve Jeltz and Charlie Lea came to Major League Baseball from France, and former Seattle Mariner Alessandro Liddi hailed from Italy. In spite of these players’ successes, when we think of international baseball stars, or nations that birth baseball powerhouses, Europe is not often considered in the conversation (even though New York Giants 1954 hero Bobby Thomson was an immigrant from Scotland).

There have been five persons associated in one way or another with the Confederation of European Baseball whom I have had the privilege to know. None of them is renowned internationally. Not one is enshrined in Cooperstown, nor are any of them household names like Mike Trout, Bryce Harper and Madison Bumgarner. Yet each of them has accomplished a great deal in European baseball, either as players or developers of the game in their given locations. It is a given fact that baseball remains a minor sport all across Europe. Thus, those who have contributed so much to the game there are relatively unknown, in spite of their accomplishments. It is time to learn about these five men, and to reserve a place of respect and honor for them, even if it is only through a few short words in this article. It is my privilege to introduce the reader to them through a two-part series of articles on their baseball lives.

“Where have you gone, Sean Mitchell?”

Rainy Ireland does not seem like a great environment for baseball. The weather is so unstable that official games in Dublin’s Corkeagh Park quite often are played in downpours that would cause cancellation in many other nations. The rainfall regularly waterlogs the balls, the field, the players’ faces, mitts, and uniforms. Yet the Irish league players take pride in their ability and willingness to play under such conditions, with enthusiasm and zeal. Much of that enthusiasm, passion, zest, and gusto can be credited to the twenty years of selfless investment put into the league by Sean Mitchell.

Sean is not an ego-driven, boisterous person. He is a quiet and reserved gentleman. His baseball leadership to his nation is undeniable. The time, effort, sweat, success, and heartbreaks that he has engaged in since 1996 have developed Irish baseball. Mitchell strikes me as a later version of another Irishman of baseball fame, one Cornelius McGillicuddy (Connie Mack), who happened to be the son of Irish immigrants to America and a Hall of Fame manager. Similar in physical build (tall and slender), similar in dignified character and manner, both should bring pride to Ireland’s baseball world. Both lived for a time in Philadelphia; in fact, Mack managed the Philadelphia A’s during their most glorious years.

Sean caught for the Irish National Team for a number of years, recently retiring from that role, letting younger players like Mark Treacy and Mike Ferrato man the dish. Now fully engaged as the skipper of the Senior National team, at 6 feet, 2 inches tall, Sean is a gentle giant who fell in love with baseball as a young boy. The Mitchell family relocated from Ireland to Philadelphia when Sean was seven years old. One summer evening, he listened to the Phillies radio broadcast of a game, and that was all it took to sell the youngster on a game that he’d never played. Names like Greg Luzinski, Mike Schmidt, Pete Rose, Steve Carlton, and Bob Boone were talked about that evening, and Sean quickly learned how to play as he avidly followed his new heroes, the Phillies. Passion was born that summer.

“The first time I listened to the radio and heard about the likes of Schmidt, Luzinski, Carlton, Rose, and Boone — well, that was it,” Mitchell recently told me. “I was hooked.”

This was all the better for baseball in Ireland.

Mitchell’s players love him and respond as a team to his encouragements and instructions. His humility is also impressive. If no one ever mentioned Mitchell’s name publicly, I doubt Sean would ever think about it twice. National team catcher Mark Treacy is typical of Mitchell’s players. Traecy is a 20-year-old student who is built like a bulldog: squat, thick, and tough as nails. Every pitch, every inning, Traecy gives 100 percent. As he gets waterlogged, he will flash a tooth-filled, broad smile. A quiet, polite young man, the love of the game oozes from his being. As practice goes on, Traecy becomes brown with mud, and his catcher’s gear will surely need a serious cleaning before next being used. But on the diamond, Traecy wants more — more innings, more pitches, more game. Sean Mitchell loves to have a team made up of players like Mark Traecy.

Mitchell has imbued his players with a love of the game. With a Senior Men’s League of four competitive teams in the Dublin area, this is the training ground for the Irish National team. Mitchell has also found American, Canadian, and Venezuelan expats to play in the league, upping the level of play. They are all a smart find and a helpful contribution to the development of baseball in Ireland. Sean’s tireless initiatives, aided by faithful assistant coach Chris St. Amand, helped to arrange a recent tournament in brand new Ashbourne Park, the new baseball facility in the Dublin area. In that tournament, Team Ireland surprised its American visitors, the UCLA Bruins’ Alumni team, by playing to a 5-4 game while facing former Chicago White Sox pitcher Sean Tracey.

With an indoor complex being planned as part of the new facility, the future of baseball in the Emerald Isle looks bright. And it will be so as long as sparkplug Sean Mitchell is going strong.

Mitchell organizes his Irish National Team coaching staffs with wisdom. During his last effort, he brought on board an American hitting coach, an Israeli pitching coach, and the aforementioned St. Amand, who works on a daily basis with players in the Senior League. It is a smart head coach who surrounds himself with experienced baseball advisors, and listens to them, incorporating their advice while steering a successful course. This is characteristic of the approach of Sean Mitchell. Additionally, the players loved all three coaches (and Mitchell, of course), expressing their desire to have all four return to the squad “next time around.”

Amazingly, Mitchell has done something else over the years that is difficult to do in the sports world: He and his wife have raised two children who love and respect their parents, and who have ambitious educational and athletic plans. In the 21st century, finding a baseball family in this condition is a breath of fresh air. It is simply all too rare.

I can only say this — build on Sean, and Joe DiMaggio will tip his hat to you. I know that I do.

“Where have you gone, Shuki Friedman?”

The tension could not have been higher. There were two outs in the bottom of the sixth inning of the 1999 Arizona high school state baseball championships at the Seattle Mariners’ field number one in Peoria, AZ. Number-one ranked Hayden High School from Winkelman, AZ, took on fourth-ranked SCA High School of Phoenix. As expected, the Hayden High Lobos held a 4-2 lead and looked to be on their way to the state championship. Little-known player Shuki Friedman, in his junior year, was a new arrival in his first year at SCA High School. He came to the plate for the Eagles with the bases loaded. The strong, solidly built blonde teen had proven himself to be a stout defensive catcher at the school that year, winning the starting job from the first practice.

Shuki battled through five pitches, arriving at a 3-2 count. There was total silence as everyone tensely waited for the payoff pitch. Savvy, talented, All-State pitcher Kevin Waddell bore down and threw a fastball that Shuki simply crushed. The high fly ball sailed over the 385-foot sign in left-center field by quite a margin. The fans from Phoenix rose to their feet as the underdog Eagles took a 6-4 lead that they never relinquished. Number-one Hayden High and its excellent pitcher had been upset, mostly through the bat of the new Eagles backstop.

The Scottsdale Tribune, in its article on the game, quoted Eagles coach David Eeles: “We definitely needed a lift, no question about that. Shuki’s hit really ignited the team.” The newcomer from abroad was an instant success in Arizona, winning SCA High School’s Junior Athlete of the Year award, while playing on the school’s baseball, soccer, and football teams.

A year before this, high school baseball fans in Solon, Ohio, had seen Shuki’s bat ignite their team. As a starting catcher for the junior varsity, the 16-year-old belted a pitch in Hudson, Ohio, that head coach Chuck Chocinea watched and said, “That ball would have made it over the fence of any stadium in the state of Ohio.” Shuki led the junior varsity at Solon High School in home runs with the powerful swing that would characterize him for the next few years.

By 2000, when he graduated high school, he was named All-State, all-conference, and was chosen to play in the Worth All-Star high school game in Arizona, being named to the winning North squad. named him as one of the leading Major League Baseball draft candidates in the southwestern states. Arizona Diamondbacks scouting director Kendall Carter paid a visit to Shuki to see him hit and throw and “was drooling over his hitting,” in the words of Shuki’s hitting coach. However, a dislocated elbow suffered in game two of his senior season was not fully healed yet, and it showed. Funny enough, ten minutes after hurting that elbow in a collision at first base in Tucson, Shuki hit a home run during his next at-bat.

But where did the unsung slugger come from?

In the 1990s, the sandlot fields of Jerusalem, Ra’nana, and Tel Aviv, Israel, played host to him. The rocky ground of Israel is not the best environment for a baseball diamond. In fact, former major league pitcher Tom Johnson once remarked how he led a baseball clinic in Israel and had to use a ceramic horse trough for home plate. In spite of the harsh environs, the blonde dynamo loved the game and excelled at it in Israel’s 1990s baseball scene. One Israeli junior national team player affectionately dubbed the Israeli national Cadet team (14-15 year olds) as “Shuki ve-ha-Pitzponim,” roughly translated as “Shuki and the Rice Krispies© ‘snap, crackle, pop’ cartoon elves” of television advertising fame.

The pop was indeed in his arm and bat.

In January, 1993, Shuki and his brother Benny decided to talk to their fifth grade classmates, to convince them to join a new baseball team that they were forming. “Baseball, what’s that?” was most often the response. The game was unknown in their neighborhood and school. But they succeeded in convincing eight classmates to join them, and with two volunteer coaches, practices began at a nearby soccer field (whenever the guard would let them in to play). Shuki and Benny started baseball in their area. Their team played Tel Aviv teams once weekly and went 7-7 their first year. That was not bad for a group of youngsters who hardly were familiar with the rules of the game when they took the diamond for their first game in the Sharon Valley League, which was organized and run by Israeli baseball pioneer Randy Kahn. Shuki was the starting catcher, one of two starting hurlers on his team, and an ersatz coach.

In one Cadet League game in 1996 in Jerusalem, Shuki struck out twenty hitters in a six-inning game. Dropped third strikes contributed to the extra batters needed. In addition, he once hit a ball so hard that it broke through the fence at the field. That same year, his team sported a one-run lead with two outs in the last inning. Playing in right field, Shuki threw out a runner at first base after the batter had singled and the tying run looked like it would soon cross the plate. Shuki gunned a successful throw on a “frozen rope” before the batter reached first, and before the runner who was reaching third could get to home plate. Game over.

As a member of Israel’s Cadet national team in 1997, Friedman threw a win over Slovakia in international play, getting four hits in four at-bats on the day with an enormous home run that landed on the roof of a storage facility across the alleyway from the field in Brno, the Czech Republic. He also happened to have five runs batted in on the day, and iced the cake by stealing home late in the game. Atlanta Braves scout Robert Isabel, observing from the stands, noticed the performance and let his scouting department in Atlanta know about it.

From 2001-03, Shuki played on a baseball scholarship at a Division II New York college, platooning at catcher and in the outfield. The training he underwent in those years made him bulk up, and he rose to over 200 pounds with a solid build. Before a devastating labrum injury, he gunned the ball from home plate to second base in 1.9 seconds, which then was considered major league speed. After arm surgery to repair the labrum, performed by the San Francisco Giants affiliated surgeon, Shuki returned to the game. Unfortunately, his velocity was slowed, and arm stiffness plagued him.

In 2004, in his penultimate performance with the Israeli Senior National team in Germany, Shuki hammered two home runs, one against Hungary in a 6-5 win, and a three-run, first-inning blast against Switzerland that provided the margin in a 7-6 win. In that tournament, he handled 56 fielding chances perfectly, playing both behind the dish and at first base. His statistics matched those of the German national team catcher, who had just played two years in the Milwaukee Brewers minor league system. In 2011, Shuki played again for the Israeli Senior team, but a recently torn MCL hampered him, causing stiffness and constant pain. As a result, he was unable to perform to the top of his ability. For an unknown reason, he was also assigned to starting at third base, where he had seldom played. Though he bravely took on the task, moving around the infield became difficult. He did knock in two runs in the first game in a win against Georgia, but he was unable to do much more during the next three games, as his injured knee swelled and movement became more difficult with each day.

At every level, from Little League through Senior division ball, and through his participation in Israel’s Pro League (the one-year-long Israel Baseball League of 2005), he contributed to all levels of baseball. In his 2004 Senior League season in the Israel Association of Baseball, as part of the Jerusalem team, Shuki’s batting average was well over .800 for the national runners-up. But possibly the most impressive character trait was this young man’s humility. Whatever success he enjoyed, Shuki always considered the welfare of his teammates first. He was no prima donna, but first and foremost a team player who wanted his efforts to contribute to team success. When I asked him details of particular games that he has played in, he often responded, “I don’t remember what I did then, because that wasn’t as important to me as the outcome of the game.”

Today, Shuki is one of the veterans on a Senior Division men’s wooden bat league in the National Adult Baseball Association, where he regularly rubs shoulders with former minor leaguers, a few former major leaguers, and ex-college and independent league players. A member of the Minor League Alumni Association, he starts at first base or as the designated hitter for his club, trotting out to the fields once or twice a week, with sore knees, a sore shoulder, and a love for the game that has never abated. He may not throw as hard as he once did, and running is more painful than it used to be. But I have never seen a love for the game greater than the one he exhibits.

He learned his baseball in a country where baseball is not well known, then shined in two countries as a player for many years, giving his best efforts continually as he constantly encouraged his teammates in their roles. His performances in the land of the Bible, and his character, deserve to be remembered. I believe that Joe DiMaggio would tip his hat once again.

Next week this series will continue with more abstracts on outstanding European baseball persons.

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