The game of Baseball. We can easily say that this is definitely not the most popular of the team-based sports in the eastern reaches of Europe.

 

However, in Bulgaria in particular it is estimated, that there are approximately a couple of thousand individuals that are veterans of this barely known, at least in our geographic dimensions sport, or who are taking active direct or indirect part in the conduction of the National Men’s Championship, the senior’s and minor’s youth championships, and few other formats of Baseball Cups that are taking place in Bulgaria on yearly, seasonal basis.

There is also women’s Championship and federation, but the game that the girls are playing is a bit different and it is called Softball. This variation of the sport can also be played by boys and vice- versa, but we won’t fall into the particularities of the differences, for the purpose of this article.

Here, I think is the place to clarify, that although this sport is gathering an ever-growing volume of sport’s history pages of Bulgaria, it is played on the amateur level and it exists thanks to the love and life-long dedications of the players, organizers and managers towards the sport and the promotion of it inside the country, and abroad for that matter. There are some players, coaches, organizers and journalists who are working on the professional or the so-called semi-pro level in Bulgaria, but their numbers are modest. Also, a number of volunteers, mainly from the USA, Japan and of course Cuba have helped for the development of the sport in Bulgaria, in various initiatives. Such as the cup of the Japanese embassy in Sofia – JICA, that has taken place on a yearly basis in Sofia.

The federation also has specialized Baseball stadiums in the capital Sofia and beyond, namely in Blagoevgrad and Dupnitsa, where the level of the sport is the highest in the country. There are baseball clubs in other towns and cities such as Stara Zagora, Lovech and even Varna as well, but there, the sport is played on adapted pitches for other sports, and the conditions are a little less than optimal. The enthusiasm though is the same, almost everywhere, and this is what’s important here, also the high emotions, of the players and on- lookers, are guaranteed.

There have been of course ups, downs and some controversies that surround the organization and the implementation of the various formats of competitions on managerial and other levels, but we don’t want to discuss that here either.

Our focus here will fall on a short history of the sport, and its proud achievements, in the world and more particularly in Bulgaria, as kindly presented to us, in a writing, by a very dear friend of mine, and also teammate for more or less 10 years, from the youth leagues for minors, seniors up to the men’s Championship and one of the best, if not arguably the best, and most serious players in Bulgaria, Dimitar Nassapov, who introduced me to my first training session. More than 15 years ago. - And also, to my first head-coach and now honorary-president of our club – the “Sofia Blues”, and his father, Emil Nassapov, who is one of the founders of this sport in Bulgaria, and amongst lots of other achievements and contributions towards the sport, is considered by many to be the “Father of Bulgarian baseball” and deserves a separate article for his own. He sadly and unfortunately passed the way, after long and courageous fight with the scary illness of cancer, on the 10th of December 2008.

The birth year of baseball is considered to be in 1839 when the first official meeting is registered, discussing the rules that we are familiar with today. It was held in the town of Cooperstown, USA. In fact, we owe it to Abner Doubleday, an interesting, universal personality later called the "father of baseball." Sport has evolved from informal games with a bat and a ball, some of which were called “rounders” and “town ball”, which had features of the British cricket. In 1845, the New York Knickerbocker Club, published a version of the game inspired by one of its members, Alexander Cartwright. His version included the already-known diamond-shaped course with bases located 90 feet (27.45 meters) from each other, two teams of nine, three outs to end one team’s attack, and three strikes, as one of the ways to "burn" a batter.

The term strike is used in baseball, when a ball thrown by the pitcher from the pitcher's mound, passes above the home plate, and also at certain height, determined by the bottom of the batter's knees and the bottom of the chest. The upper outline of the strike zone, also is often considered to be, at the level of the inscription, on the front side of the batter's jersey, or more simply put, front side of the t-shirt. Under these conditions the throw will be regarded as good, or - "strike". The batter has to try to hit the ball of such throws and get it into the outlines of the field and into play, and to start his run, advancing through the bases. Each throw is judged by the umpire, who is the head- referee. When the batter rounds up all the other three bases, steps on each one of them, and finally on the home plate again, a point is scored for his team. While the batter is running, he, or she, can still be "burned" - pronounced to be - “Out”! - Under various circumstances and rules in the game.

Extended modifications to the rules over the years are a reminder that baseball is a constantly evolving sport.

In the 1950s the love of baseball in the northeastern parts of America became an obsession. The number of players and organized clubs is on the rise, and the ever-growing interest on the part of the fans pushes the clubs to start selling tickets for the games and competing with each other for the services of the best players. In 1876, the first professional baseball league, or the so called "National league" was created, replacing the former National Baseball Players' Association. Six years later, the competitive "American League" appeared, with a total of thirty teams that are competing today in both leagues.

In Bulgaria things are developing much later and in a much simpler way. Apart from a few earlier reports on the existence of this extravagant American sport in Bulgaria - the first one of which was in the distant 1915 year at the American College in Lovech - the start of baseball was given in 1987 with the founding of the “Sofia" club.

From then on, the things are developing at a faster pace. In 1988 the number of clubs has grown to three - the "Academic" club hosted by the Sofia University "St. Kliment Ohridski" (which is the renamed club of "Sofia") and in the town of Pernik – the “Pernik Club 1”.

In 1989, the first baseball championship took place in the town of Pernik and in the spring of 1990, baseball officially appeared on the Bulgarian sports map, both with the founding of the Bulgarian Baseball and Softball Federation and the conducting of the first Bulgarian championship.

The debut of the recently founded Bulgarian baseball on the international stage is logically related with the first Bulgarian baseball team. It has taken place, even before, the world and Europe officially accepted Bulgaria as a member of the big baseball family.

The year is 1990 and the team of “Academic” was invited to Hamburg, to take part in an international youth tournament. This first international performance ends with losses in the matches with the teams from the USA and Cuba, but that is not so surprising, given the modest baseball experience of the Bulgarian athletes. Just a month later, such a tournament was organized in Sofia. It includes teams from the USA, Germany, Yugoslavia and Czechoslovakia, and the team from Bulgaria, "Academic – Sofia University". The tournament was won by the team of "Athletes in Action", who beat Hamburg 13:2 in the final.

In addition to the amazing organization including a coaching school, screenings of baseball movies etc., the tournament will also be remembered with the first Bulgarian international victory - where the team of “Academic” defeated “Partizan” (Belgrade) with 16:11. Later in the same year, the two teams met again ,in Belgrade, at a tournament organized for the occasion of the 45th anniversary of “Partizan”, and it resulted once again in a victory for the Bulgarian team.

In 1991, the Bulgarian baseball made some of its largest first steps. At the yearly Congress of the International Baseball Association in Barcelona, Bulgaria becomes its newest member. The country has been accepted with a full majority of the votes, along with Zimbabwe, Norway and Samoa. A few months later at the Congress of the European Amateur Baseball Confederation in Rome, the Bulgarian Federation, represented by its chairman, Mario Primdjanov, is warmly welcomed as a member of the European baseball family.

The debut participation of the Bulgarian national baseball team is at the European Championship held in Slovenia (group B). The first lucky ones who are selected for the national team of are Martin Chichov, Moni Simeonov, Kiril Stoynov, Todor Yalamov, Zlatko Rusev, Ivan Stoyanov, Dimcho Dimov, Yassen Nedelchev, Lyuben Kirilov, Petar Arbov, Ivo Ruev, Yuri Alkalay, Yordan Tsvetanov, Andrey Gyurov, Nikolay Lazarov, Darin Radulov, Rumen Lachev, Yordan Atanasov. The team is led by the senior coach Amauri Gorrin. The national team scored three wins and ended up in 11th place.

The level of baseball, as well as the players' confidence, increases with each subsequent European Championship. The results are also improving, culminating with a second place at the European Championship (B Group) in Croatia 2011, three placements in the third position respectively – Croatia ’08, Switzerland ’13 and again in Croatia in 2015.

Undoubtedly, the biggest baseball success is related with the participation of the national team (under 21 y.o) at the European Championship in Italy in 2006. The Bulgarian team finishes in the 6th place, but for the first time, the nationals competed in the very prestigious and competitive “A group” against the strongest in Europe. In addition to the good ranking, the Bulgarian athletes returned from Italy with the three most prestigious individual prizes - MVP (Most Valuable Player) - Dimitar Nassapov, best pitcher - Dimitar Nassapov again, and for the best batter - Vladimir Markov.

The official tournaments organized by the European federation, in which the winners of the Bulgarian national championship and the winner of the Cup of Bulgaria can take part, are two - the European Champions Cup and the Cup Winners Cup. The pioneers in the two tournaments are the teams of “Buffaloes”, Blagoevgrad and “Devils”, Dupnitsa respectively. In 1998, both teams went to Hungary - the "Buffaloes" to the town of Nagykanizsa and the "Devils" to Sopron. Unlike the team from Blagoevgrad, that scored only one victory, the Devils finished in 4th place with two wins. And while for Dupnitsa this will be the first and last participation, for the team of the famous “Maketo” (as the playing coach of “the Buffaloes” Yassen Nedelchev is known) these are the first steps towards becoming one of the main baseball teams in Eastern Europe. Already in 2001, the fate has sent them back to Nagykanizsa for revenge.

The "Buffaloes" make the most of this opportunity and finish only one step away of total success and earn the 2nd place, and a reserved spot in the top places in all the following competitions. They will qualify in the top 3 throughout the next 12 years, earning two second places in 2012 and 2015.

Other notable Bulgarian teams that took part in the European Champions Cup qualifications and the Cup Winners Cups are the teams of “Athletic” and “Blues” from Sofia, who will also earn a number of second and third places.

Since 2005, an academy organized by the United States and Canada's Major League Baseball has been held in Tirrenia, Italy. Every following year, from a precise selection of players from Europe and Africa, the top 60 will be selected to take part in a training camp ran by some of the best US coaches. Bulgaria has had a representative in four of these academies, associated with the names of two people - Dimitar Nassapov and Martin Andonov. These academies can be an exciting stimulus for young athletes, as each year, some of the biggest stars in baseball are part of the organisation, and there are also scouts from most US professional teams. There are also many colleges that are offering scholarships to the selected players.

These mentioned and also other names have contributed to the development of - and also played, the game of Baseball on the national Bulgarian and international sceneries. Some on the professional and semi-pro levels in western European clubs and championships, some even in the college leagues in the USA.

As we can see, even though the sport is on the amateur level in Bulgaria and there are hardships in the financing and organization, it has produced its talents and followers, fans and friends. It has taken some life-long dedications and contributions for it, to remain a reality for the youth, and the players in Bulgaria.

For me personally this sport has brought one of the happiest moments and some of the best lessons in life, it gave me the opportunity to become а junior coach myself, and also introduced me to some of my best friends in life.

So, there is definitely lots of charm in these little known and extravagant sports, even in our, relatively small, eastern European countries. Maybe because they can improve our abilities in team work, or just show us what the important things in the life of the young people are, and namely not to just hang around in the cafes, on the park benches and on the streets, but to get involved with the sports and hobbies that we are passionate about. And also, to help in their respective causes and goals. Maybe the amateur nature of these sports and activities is what’s the best thing about them, because what this means is that, almost anyone, can get involved and at least try. Where the more ambitious and competitive in nature players are concerned, there will always be the need for further improvements and developments, but also the opportunities to perform.

Special thanks for this article goes to:
Dimitar Nassapov; “Short history of Baseball”
Martin Stoimenov; professional photo on baseball thematic, “MS photography”

Writing and translation: Velin Nedkov

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