Baseball is a universal sport. It brings together fathers and sons, bridges generations and give people a common bond. In some cases, as the Butler baseball program has found, the great game of baseball can also bring together nations.
Steve Farley, in his 20th season as head coach at Butler, has become an international ambassador of the sport since participating in an amateur baseball clinic in Regensburg, Germany several years ago as part of Major League Baseball’s Envoy Program. For years, coaches from the US have gone overseas to teach baseball to European coaches. This past March, the program was flipped. European coaches came over to the US to learn the game on American soil.
Benjamin (Benji) Kleiner, 33, came from Berlin to learn the finer points of the game from Farley and the Bulldogs. Kleiner is a player-coach for the Berlin Sluggers, a baseball club in Germany. The sluggers, with Kleiner on the squad, have been a winning team in the Second Bundesliga, which is essentially the second-best club league in Germany. Much like the culture in soccer, where your finish in the standings dictates your league for the upcoming season, the Berlin Sluggers have now played their way into Bundesliga, the top level of the sport in Germany.
Kleiner originally learned of baseball as a youth, and considered it an American alternative to Germany’s popular brennball (“burnball”).
“All of the kids in Germany play brennball,” Kleiner said.
The game essentially requires speed, baserunning savvy and a strong arm. A play begins when the batter throws the ball as far as he can. The defense must retrieve the ball and get it back into the circle. Most Americans may equate this with the sandlot version of “pitcher’s hand out.” The batter-runner must decide how many bases to advance. If he is in between bases when the ball is back in the circle, he is out.
It was this idea of learning a similar game that intrigued Kleiner as an 11-year-old on a school field trip. One kid on the trip had a bat, Kleiner recalls.
“From then on, we were all hooked on baseball,” he said.
Kleiner credits Duane Phillips, an American architect who coached youth club baseball in Germany, as his mentor in baseball. It was Phillips who got Kleiner and other boys in Berlin in the late 1980s to play the sport at an organized level. Until then, Berlin children experimented with baseball on local soccer fields. They used dirt bases.
Led by Phillips, Kleiner and the local youth struggled to learn the sport. Playing against experienced kids on a nearby military base, the young Germans picked up on two new loves: baseball and Dr. Pepper.
“The American kids had Dr. Pepper,” Kleiner said. “And Coke and Pepsi. And their pizza was different than ours. I used to buy them out of the vending machines and sell them at school for $5. We didn’t have any of that. But, we became hooked.”
Under Phillips’ tutelage, Kleiner and his fellow Berlin natives gradually got better. After a couple years of losing, they realized how fun the new sport had become. Soon, baseball was spreading throughout Germany and the America’s national pastime was becoming more and more popular.
According to Baseball-Reference.com, the number of baseball-playing Germans increased from 700 to 20,000 from 1985 until 1995. Currently, Kleiner estimates 30,000 players participate in baseball. Now compare that number to the nation’s most popular sport, soccer. In a nation of about 82 million people, an estimated 20 million play soccer.
“That’s why it is important for me to come here and learn from the Butler coaches and take what I learn back to Germany,” Kleiner said.
After Kleiner’s time with the Bulldogs, Farley called Kleiner “a first-class person.” The 20th-year head coach said Kleiner was a great representative of his native Germany.
“Our players and coaches thoroughly enjoyed our daily interaction with him,” Farley said.
He hoped making the connection to baseball enthusiasts may open doors for Butler University overseas and also for the baseball program, perhaps helping Butler graduates play professional baseball in Europe. There also may be chances for further baseball diplomacy, as Farley took his team to Australia in 2003 for six-game baseball exhibition tour. A similar trip to Europe may be in the cards for the Bulldogs, Farley said.
“We’re excited about some of the possibilities.”