There were trophies, triumphs, blowouts and rainouts in Herts baseball club’s first ever experience of European competition. And the players and fans lapped it up.
The Herts Falcons, sponsored by Regin Products, took part in the European Federations Cup qualifier in Bulgaria, thanks to their position as runners-up in last year’s National Baseball League. In a history stretching back to 1996, Herts has never before been in Europe, so it was a big step forward.
The first of five games in five days in Blagoevgrad was against the Polish side, UKS Deby Osielsko. They would go on to be the runner’s up in the tournament, and so provided stiff opposition.
Herts took an early lead, with Tetsuro Shinkawa writing his place in history by driving in the club’s first ever European runs. Miguel Sarmiento later hit Herts’ first ever European home run, as the Falcons rallied late in the game. Shortstop Carlos Casal Jr went 2-2 with two walks, but Osielsko won 18-8.
It had still been a solid start from the travelling Herts side. The sport of baseball is far more solidly established in Europe, with professional leagues in countries such as Austria, Italy and the Netherlands – so we knew the challenge would be tough.
Herts were overpowered by Athletic Sofia from Bulgaria on Tuesday – despite a 3-for-3 day at the plate by Gary Davison – and by eventual Swedish tournament winners Solvesborg Firehawks on Thursday.
In between was the most dramatic game, against Atletico Alexandria. Herts led the Romanian side 3-0 going into the fifth inning, behind the superb pitching of Davison. Ryan Trask and Miguel Rodriguez had scored the runs.
Then Alexandria rallied to take the lead on a couple of Herts errors and wild pitches. They scored 5 from only 2 hits. But the Falcons were still in the game.
A cloudy day then brought rain which interrupted proceedings with Herts 6-3 down. Casal had come on to pitch in relief, and struck out three, and the Falcons hopes remained high. But the rain delay became a cancellation and the game was called. Herts were disappointed by a 6-3 loss.
It was frustrating as, inside the camp, the Falcons felt their performance had been their best as a team so far. Manager Cris Hiche put it simply: “We should have won it”. The team had been more relaxed and had more fun.
That strong team spirit showed in the way they washed away their disappointment. Stripped down to their underwear, the team sprinted from the dugout, through the rain, and slid across the outfield.
The moment was memorably caught on camera. It proved a success not only on Herts social media channels, but on a Facebook page covering baseball around the world – where it racked up more than 20,000 views.
On Friday, the Falcons ended on a high when they faced Utenos Titanai from Lithuania. Young Chris Gregory got the start on the mound and pitched a gem. He went the full eight innings, scattering 7 hits and striking out 7.
He was backed up by the bats, with Jarrod Pretorius going 3-for-4 and Tyler Badenhorst and Conner Brown both having a multi-hit game. It ended 13-2 to Herts and they claimed the fourth place trophy.
This had been an epic adventure, for these players and for the club as a whole. Herts veteran Lee Manning – who made some guest appearances as a reliever – said “We’ve left everything on the field every day. After 23 years, making it into Europe has taken us to the next level.”
Falcons’ manager Cris Hiche was proud of what the team had achieved, while club President Aspi Dimitrov hailed it as an historic week for the club.
Generous donations from players, supporters and from the Falcons sponsor Regin Products had made the trip possible. The reaction from the fans and families – and from the rest of British baseball – had made it worthwhile.