Serbian baseball league finds its own field of dreams

A survivor of war, sanctions, funding halts, travel bans, and player inexperience, baseball is proving a durable game in a reslient Serbia.

"It looks strange," says Ivan Spasojevic, a pensioner watching from the first-base line. His wife, Mirijan, disagrees: "It's beautiful."

There are indeed errors, but there are also double plays and home runs, pick-off moves and pitch-outs, hand signals, and brush-back pitches. When the game begins, the umpire jumps up out of his crouch, rips off his mask, and screams, in English, "Play ball!"

It is Serbian baseball - a survivor of war and sanctions and nationwide unemployment, a durable game for a durable country.

On this day, Nikola Vucevic might as well be Cy Young. He's mowing down the Dukes, the crosstown rival that knocked his own team, Belgrade '96, out of last year's playoffs. His fastball is popping, hitting the low 80s. He mixes in sliders and knuckle balls to keep the batters off balance. His team is out to an early lead.

Mr. Vucevic is one of four veterans on Belgrade '96, undefeated this year in the six-team Serbian league. He pitches, coaches, and carries the bases home after games. "I just like to play," he shrugs.

But even that hasn't been easy.

Yugoslavia had a healthy league in the late '80s, with more than a dozen teams in Croatia, Serbia, and Slovenia, three of Yugoslavia's prewar republics. They traveled regularly and played in the European Championships.

"The level of play was good," says Milan Zonic, the Belgrade '96 catcher. "Not as good as the Americans, but pretty good."

Then the wars of the early '90s split up the country. One national team became three and the money dried up. The Serb players couldn't travel to games because of international sanctions.

They struggled, but found help at the American embassy - in the form of a coach. They received some equipment from the International Baseball Association. They formed an all-Serbian league, relying on the expertise of Vucevic, Mr. Zonic, and a few others who could double as players and coaches.

Then in 1999, the United States and NATO launched air strikes against Yugoslavia over the mistreatment of ethnic Albanians in Kosovo. Anti-American sentiment reached an all-time high. It seemed almost treasonous to play.

"How could I go to the government and ask for money to play at a time like that?" asks Zonic. "They would just say, 'Why do you want to play an American sport?' "

Desperate to keep the league alive, Belgrade '96 tried to arrange a game in Novi Sad, 60 miles north. There was one problem: Bridges across the Danube River had been bombed. So the Novi Sad players formed a sub-team, with only the players from nearby Petrovaradin. They became the Petrovaradin Shelters, and Serbian baseball survived another year.

Today, with a pro-Western government in power and a new optimism, play is sharpening. The Yugoslav Sports Ministry gives the baseball league about $500 a year. There are other small donors, some from the US.

For the first time, all the teams wear uniforms. Gloves, bats, and baseballs are hard to come by, but there are enough.

This summer the league plans to build a permanent field in Belgrade, with a backstop, a pitcher's mound, and bleachers. No longer will they have to compete with rugby and field hockey for space.

With or without help, the game is pure here, played with the kind of joy that is hard to find elsewhere in Serbia.

When Zonic smashes a two-run homer to left field in the sixth inning, his teammates jump from their bench and run to greet him at home plate.

The score is 9-0, and the players trade high-fives. For a moment, it seems as if Belgrade '96 has just won the World Series.

Jovan Tadic, a 12-year-old helping to collect balls between innings, looks on with a wide smile.

When asked what he thinks of all the commotion, he pauses for a moment, then says confidently, "It's a very good sport. I think I will play someday."

(c) Copyright 2001. The Christian Science Monitor

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