As a kid, I used to imagine my final baseball game: the ceremony, the fans, the victory lap around Fenway. But the Red Sox dream never came true. I wasn’t in Boston for my last game. I was in Munich, Germany. There were twelve people in the stands. It was so cold I could see my own breath. And the catcher on the other team was wearing florescent green soccer cleats.
In Germany, top teams from each sport play in the Bundesliga, which translates simply to “top league.” Some of the best soccer teams in the world play in the Bundesliga, but baseball isn’t popular in Deutschland. Munich’s soccer club, FC Bayern, for example, has a new stadium and a payroll like the Yankees, while the Disciples, Munich’s Bundesliga baseball club, have a field and a payroll like a grocery receipt. Â
Baseball was first included in the Bundeliga in 1951— just a few years after American soldiers brought the game over during WWII—but it hasn’t grown much since then. There are some baseball fans in towns that have teams, but, for the most part, the game and the country remain stuck in an awkward introduction. It’s becoming a pattern— wherever people play soccer, they’re quick to adopt basketball because of its similarities to soccer, but baseball is too different— too slow. The year before, I had played for the Tel Aviv Lightning in the Israel Baseball League, another place they love soccer and basketball. I thought I knew what to expect when I got the offer to go to Germany. I was wrong.
I remember when Christian Haas, the assistant coach of the Disciples first called me. He said he’d seen my statistics from Israel and offered me round-trip airfare, a furnished apartment, a cell phone, a bike, two wood bats and 700 euros per month to come to Munich for six months. The only catch? The season started in one week. Something had happened to the Cuban catcher they tried to bring over (he took his flight to New York but skipped the connection to Munich, just disappeared) and they needed me there Thursday.
I wasn’t planning on playing anymore. I was 28 and had gone to an orthopedist in the off-season who told me I had a tear in my throwing shoulder and needed surgery. I surveyed the facts: I was the team’s second (maybe third) pick, I had to leave in 72 hours and I wasn’t sure if I could throw the ball. It wasn’t the Red Sox, but at least someone still wanted me. So I said yes, I could be there Thursday. The next morning I quit my job working the front desk at a gym in Brooklyn, listed my apartment as a six-month sublet on Craigslist and started to pack.
Moritz, our shortstop, picked me up at the airport in Munich and took me to my new home. I couldn’t see well—it was dark and raining—but we appeared to be arriving at some sort of campus. Moe parked and I followed him into a simple brick building. We walked upstairs. Halfway down a long corridor we stopped and Moe opened a door to an equally simple room: a white rectangle with a single window, a desk, a closet and a small bed. I asked Moe where exactly we were. He said, “A mental hospital.” I thought he was kidding and smiled. He wasn’t kidding.
My room was number 39 in building 49. The hospital groundskeepers and other semi-normal people lived in 49 with me. The psycho killers were in 51. Wolfgang, one of my new neighbors, told me that I didn’t have to worry about them; “Ders no vay dey’d come here. If dey get out, zey’ll go fa’ fa’ avay.”
So, this was Germany. My “apartment” was actually a small room in the largest functioning mental hospital in the country. My team’s home field wasn’t in Munich, but in Haar, a small town ten kilometers south of the city with only three attractions: a baseball field, a supermarket and a mental hospital (none of which are attractive, at all). It had somehow not occurred to me that spending six months in Germany would take six months, and as I stood looking down at my little bed with the striped sheets, I secretly wished my arm would stop working in an official enough capacity so the team would send me home.
The confusion continued for the first week. Could I drink the water? What was the daily schedule going to be like? What was I doing in an insane asylum in Germany? But slowly, it all started to take shape.
Each team in the Bundesliga is allowed two foreign players—everyone else has to have a passport from an EU country. Adalberto Paulino, a centerfielder from the Dominican Republic was our other foreigner. The Giants had released him from his minor league contract the summer before. Paulino lived down the hall in room 44 and called Germany “Alemania.”
Besides Paulino and me, everyone on the team worked or was in school. And though we practiced every night, we only played games on Sundays—one double-header a week. Â
Needless to say, Paulino and I had an abundance of free time. We went to the supermarket a lot. Paulino showed me how to cook a Dominican fish stew called Sardinia. Beside the fact that we both played baseball and ate food, we had remarkably little in common. Paulino spoke Spanish. I spoke English. Paulino had a wife and a newborn daughter back home to whom he mailed his euros each month. I spent my money traveling. He read the Bible every morning. I read Hunter S. Thompson’s Rum Diary. Our longest conversation that first week went something like this:
“What window?” I asked.
“Ah, yes, it’s windy today.” Â
But, we had been brought across the world to play ball, which is why, at least at first, we rode our bikes to the field early every day together for extra work.
It was all very fragile. The Disciples weren’t making money on us; they were spending it. Paulino and I cost almost $30,000—not to mention the team’s travel expenses and equipment costs. The money came from Todd, the team owner, but if he ever pulled the plug, it was all over. Â
To try to generate money, we would show up four hours early for home games and set up a ticket booth, a burger stand and a little press box where the announcer would sit at a table under an umbrella. Tickets cost four euros. We always sold a decent amount of burgers and beer, but that only covered umpire fees and gas for road games. Â
Mike, our head coach, was a giant—6’6” easily, with a big head and huge hands. He never washed his uniform and had bad teeth. In pro baseball, the head coach of a team is called the manager and is usually referred to by his players as “Skip.” In amateur baseball he’s called “Coach.” We called Mike, well, “Mike.”
Along with being our coach, Mike was also the CEO of a biochemical/pharmaceutical engineering company. For my sake, and because it’s an American game, Mike spoke English when he addressed the team at practice or after games. But, he didn’t speak well and used the word “Yah” a lot. “We must get some offense ongoing—Yah?” he’d say, trying to look tough. I’m sure Paulino never understood a thing Mike said, but he was so good it didn’t matter. Why Mike thought he could coach the team and run his company at the same time, I don’t know—he couldn’t. I would get a phone call from him most mornings asking if I could run practice again.
Practice itself was a bit of a shit show. Some nights, only four or five guys came. Because our head coach wasn’t there and because at some point everyone missed a practice, no one could be held accountable for showing up. The sun started to set earlier and earlier. Sometimes, we only had an hour of sunlight before we had to turn on the few operational field lights.
There are two Bundesliga Baseball divisions, North and South, eight teams in each. We were in the Southern Division, the stronger of the two. At the end of each season, the seventh and eighth place teams from each Bundesliga division play “relegation games” against the top teams from the second league. Whoever wins is in the Bundesliga the next season, whoever loses is relegated to the lower league. According to the sportswriters who actually cover Bundesliga baseball, we were supposed to be appearing in the relegation series. But, halfway through the season, we were still in the running for the playoffs (which surprised everyone but me and Paulino, who had no sense of how bad our team was supposed to be). Â
I was the official old guy on the team for the first time in my life. At practice, I’d complain about my arm and limp around the field grunting and groaning. I was downing five Advil before each game just to be able to throw. Peter, our right fielder/team doctor, warned me that this might be a bad idea. During warm ups one day I started throwing up in left field and had to start taking additional pills for my stomach.
Our inevitable meltdown came about two-thirds of the way through the season. No one was coming to practice and the coaching staff was a mess. I started practicing less and traveling more. What started out as me and Paulino taking buckets of groundballs or hitting extra in the cages turned into me knocking on his door to tell him I was going to Vienna for the week again. By the end of the season, we were right where we were supposed to be, fighting for sixth place, trying to avoid relegation. Â
Going into the final weekend, we had to win one game against the Indians, the team from the west side of Munich. The trains in Germany are called the “s-bahn” or “u-bahn,” depending if they run above or below ground, and the games were hyped as the “S-Bahn Series”—loser moves down.
We got to the park early, like we had before every home game, and transformed our little field; put screens out for batting practice, erected a snow fence in the outfield as a homerun wall and lined the base paths. My six-month bid at the mental hospital was almost up. My arm hurt, but it had made it through another season. It had gone from cold, to hot and back to cold.
We lost the first game. Afterward, Mike told us he was done; game two of the doubleheader would be his final game as a coach. I’m not sure if we were inspired by his sudden honesty or just relieved to hear Mike would not be coaching anymore, but we had hope that if we could just win this one game and keep the Disciples in the Bundesliga, maybe everything would be better next year. Â
We were energized and played well. The game was tied going into the last inning. I was up first in the bottom of the ninth. I stood in the on-deck circle waiting to hit. A dozen fans were huddled under blankets behind home plate. Everyone in our dugout hopped up and down, both in excitement and to stay warm. A lifetime of playing baseball had landed me in a city I was never supposed to see with teammates I was never supposed to meet—people with names like Dirk and Moritz and Hendrik. My fantasy may have been in Boston, but my life was in Munich—well, Haar. Now it was time for one last at-bat. Â
I was thinking homerun but instead got walked on four straight pitches. I advanced to second base on a wild pitch and I moved to third when Lars grounded out. There I was, 90 feet away from the winning run. They pulled the outfield in. I was ready for a play at the plate. Clemens hit the first pitch of his at-bat over their left fielders head. I jogged home pumping my fist just a little. We did it. Sixth place. One more year for the Disciples in the Bundesliga—and one small victory for German baseball. It was a bizarre and beautiful moment—a release, a storm breaking, pink lightning slicing through the sky.