Vienna’s baseball teams aim for the bleachers

If you happen to be near the Lusthaus, at the southern end of the Prater Hauptallee on a sunny Saturday morning this summer, you might be surprised to hear some rare, foreign sounds, in quirky contrast to the gracious ­elegance of the 18th century imperial hunting lodge. First, it’s the distinctive clang of aluminum hitting horse hide or the muffled thwack as a ball hits a leather mitt. Then a man’s voice calls out in American-accented Germish. “Dylan, you’re erste up to bat! Ricky, you’re up nächste!” as the rollicking rhythm of The Band’s Up on Cripple Creek is piped through a P.A. system.

You have stumbled upon the Freudenau ballpark of the American International Baseball Club (AIBC), in time to witness “minors” training for novices ages 5-10. Yes, baseball exists in Vienna and has (albeit with a three-decade interruption) ever since post-war occupying troops brought “America’s pastime” to the Hohe Warte.

Coach Joel Turpin patiently guides the kids through the rudiments and rules of the game – which can seem ridiculously arcane to those who haven’t been raised on the sport. A few fathers are helping out – but it’s like herding cats. A bored five-year-old girl repeatedly ambles behind home plate despite constant warnings to “keep out of the danger zone.” Before lobbing an under hand pitch to a young batter from only a few meters away, one dad pleads half-jokingly, “Now, don’t hit me in the face with the ball!” First pitch: PAING! A line drive straight to his forehead.

Shortly before noon, smoke from the barbecue grill outside the clubhouse fills the field with the aroma of hotdogs and cheeseburgers, while Matthew Stevens preps his slow-food taco stand. “The best tacos in Vienna! And Ströck custom bakes our burger buns,” claims AIBC president and native Angeleno, Jeffrey Velasquez. He also mans the club’s concession stand, serving up imported American snacks, soft drinks and beer.

“Since taking over as club president, I’ve no time left for coaching, much less playing baseball,” regrets Velasquez, who’s responsible for organizing the 16 adult and nine youth baseball and softball teams that all use the ballpark for practice and regional league competition, as well as maintaining both diamonds and preparing for this summer’s baseball camps.

A League of their Own

The AIBC was founded by a few U.S. embassy staffers in 1989, playing on soccer fields until raising enough money from members and sponsors to lease a hectare on Aspernallee from the City of Vienna, building a sand diamond in 1994. A clubhouse was added in 2003 and upgrades such as batting cages, floodlights and a scoreboard have been made since. Though its membership is largely American, its youth program includes around 400 kids from some 30 nations. The amateur regional league teams that train and play here include Team Japan (mostly embassy families) and “Piratas de Caribe” (mostly Dominican and Cuban expats).

Velasquez would like the Freudenau ballpark to stay as friendly and family-oriented as it is now, but is facing outside pressure to upgrade it for official Baseball League Austria competition. There are currently two Viennese teams in Austria’s topmost national league: the Wanderers and the Metrostars. Both play their home games a bit further down the Prater Hauptallee, at the roomier ASKÖ Sportanlage Spenadlwiese.

The Metrostars are the top team of the Vienna Homerunners, Austria’s oldest and most successful club, founded in 1982 – eight years before baseball was officially recognized by the Austria’s Federal Sport Organization (BSO). Like the Wanderers, the Homerunners also field regional league and Nachwuchs (youth) teams, as well as fast- and slow-pitch softball. Both offer Schnuppertraining (introductory training sessions) for anyone age five and up.

Developing Talent

Austria’s major league is split into two divisions: the East includes teams from Vienna, Stockerau, Traiskirchen and Wiener Neustadt, while the West covers Upper Austria, Vorarlberg, Carinthia, and Tyrol. Allstars at this level form the national team, which placed first in the B1-Pool European Championship qualifier in 2017, giving Austria a shot at advancing to the A-Pool this June when they play a best-of-three playoff against Lithuania in Wiener Neustadt (Austria’s so-called “Baseball City”).

Metrostars player-spokesman (and son of the team’s founder) David Dorffner urges local fans to attend weekend games (usually double-headers) at the Spenadlwiese: “Tickets are €5 and include a free drink – probably the best deal in Vienna.”

The Metrostars’ player-manager, J.T. Hilliard, was born in Virginia but grew up and now works in Vienna, so he’s exempt from the league rule against having more than two non-Austrians on a team’s roster. “The Austrian Baseball Federation wants the sport to be developed domestically, not just import players,” says Dorffner. However, imported American chewing tobacco is in high demand, says Hilliard.

To promote the sport locally, national baseball clubs and associations are reaching out to schools. It’s an uphill battle, as throwing skills are rare in comparison to kicking talent in a land dominated by soccer. Competing in national and regional leagues is also a big commitment: “We practice three times a week and have games every weekend from April through August, plus the playoffs in September,” says Hilliard. Training also continues indoors during the colder months.

It remains to be seen if Austria’s Vice-Chancellor, federal Minister of Sport H.C. Strache (FPÖ), will help promote this fremdländisch (most foreign!) sport. On the other hand, it may not matter; current trends suggest baseball will thrive with or without him.Even as its popularity is declining at home – giving way to American football, basketball and soccer – baseball’s popularity overseas has only grown.

“The future of baseball is international,” writes Marc Normandin on the sports blog SB Nation, noting that the World Baseball Classic, founded in 2005, was won by the US last year for the first time. It may be a sign, writes Susan Jacobs in her homage to the sport, Why Baseball Matters: the sport’s key feature – a clockless suspension of time – is also its greatest liability in a culture of digital distraction. This is also, of course, its greatest charm, offering sanctuary in an era that needs to slow down.

So baseball should fit right in here, where slowing down the pace of life is a matter of pride, and leisure an art form. A game with no clock, that stretches out into the pleasures of an eternal afternoon. Batter up, Vienna!