Soccer. Basketball. Hockey. Cricket.
These might all be sports easily identified as popular in Europe, but the players from the 16 teams who competed in the 2018 Little League Baseball® Europe and Africa Region Tournament in Kutno, Poland, may disagree.
With the rapid development of baseball in Europe over the last few years, Little League International decided to expand the regional tournament field in 2018 and establish a qualifier tournament to provide more opportunities for teams to experience the tournament atmosphere.
“This tournament is such a great tool for baseball development in Europe,” said Beata Kaszuba-Baker, Little League® Europe and Africa Regional Director. “Establishing this qualifying tournament allowed more teams to participate, play more games against more competitive opponents, and continue to develop the sport across our region. We still have a long way to educate people about the game, but this new structure creates a huge potential for growth.”
Where in past years, a team might have only played two games before heading back to home, this new qualifier system in 2018 allowed Austria, Belarus, Croatia, Hungary, Switzerland, and Poland to play six games over five days, before allowing the teams with the top two records to remain in Kutno for the eight-day Regional.
“The competition level is getting higher and higher and it’s a great experience for the kids to play against the best in their peer,” said Martin Brunner, Coordinator of European Development for Major League Baseball.
With the new structure, teams from additional countries, such as Switzerland, were given the opportunity to participate in the 2018 Europe and Africa Region tournament, expanding the overall field from 14 teams to 16 teams.
“We are all about the learning and we’re growing as a league,” said David Walter, a manager with Switzerland West Little League in Basel, Switzerland. “We’ve expanded from just having a few teams to trying to get more and more teams and more and more kids involved.”
In a region where it is difficult to come across a baseball field, much less play an organized game in an organized league, this new tournament structure gives players from all over the region a chance to not only get on the field to compete and polish their skills, but interact with other players who wish to do the same. That sort of experience for these players, coaches, and fans goes a long way.
“It is our hope when they go back home, they will talk about it. They will tell their friends,” said Mrs. Kaszuba-Baker.
“Lots of my friends play cricket,” said Dylan Lawler, a London Little Leaguer. “Now, I get to tell them that it’s quite a lot like cricket, but it’s better in lots of ways.”
While developing ambassadors of the game is an integral part of the growth of the sport throughout the region, the development of skills and players continued to show on the field throughout the tournament as well as Catalunya Little League out of Barcelona, Spain, took home the 2018 Little League Baseball Europe and Africa Championship, marking the first team from Spain to do so in more than 30 years and the first team to be made up solely of Spanish citizens.
Starting in 2019, the Little League Baseball Europe and Africa Region will begin utilizing a relegation system, similar to what is done in professional soccer leagues, to maintain a balanced field in both the qualifier and regional tournament. The 2019 Little League Baseball Europe and Africa Region Tournament takes place in Kutno, Poland, on July 19-26 with the qualifier tournament held just prior. For more information, including the full schedule of events, visit LittleLeague.org/WorldSeries.
This story is featured in the 2019 Little League World Series Official Souvenir Program. To read all of the stories in this year’s program, visit the Little League Baseball World Series on August 15-25, 2019, in South Williamsport, Pa. To learn more, visit LittleLeague.org/WorldSeries and plan your visit today.