Baseball International has been donating baseball equipment and sending teams to play in foreign lands since 1994. A recent interview with the Society of American Baseball Research (SABR) gives an overview of who we are.
SABR Nine Questions
by Ryan Chamberlain
For American John Gilmore, being called a foreign devil in countries such as Russia, Argentina and Italy might not necessarily be a bad thing. That is because Gilmore is the founder of the international amateur team, the Foreign Devils, of which he also player-manages. Through Baseball international, a "not-for-loss" company, Gilmore coordinates about 6 international baseball trips a year where games are played against international competition. Gilmore draws no salary from the company and finds his reward through the positive effect his competitions have on promoting international relations an the game of baseball. Not to mention he gets to travel all over the world and play baseball while doing it.
But for Gilmore, it's not necessarily all fun and games. Beyond playing and sightseeing in the countries his group visits, they also donate thousands of dollars of new baseball equipment to the teams and leagues they play against. Last year in Russia alone, they donated over 150 gloves, 50 bats, and 50 batting helmets plus 6 sets of catcher's equipment. He says that over the years his groups have donated more than $100,000 of brand new equipment to countries and teams who would otherwise not have the equipment to grow their baseball programs. In addition, says Gilmore, many of his players leave behind their own personal equipment (gloves, bats, spikes, uniforms, etc) when they see how little equipment some teams in other countries have. A SABR member for 17 years, Gilmore takes baseball to unexpected places as you will see in this issue's SABR Nine.
1. What is the origin of the Foreign Devils team and is it considered amateur or semi-pro?
I started out in 1994 doing a few trips to Russia to play baseball against teams in the Russian Baseball Federation. Russia started baseball around 1986 as a communist country targeting Olympic baseball as sport they hoped to dominate. I had played in Russia for 3 weeks in 1990 and over the years had gone back on business always bringing new baseball equipment as a donation to the different teams such as the Aeroflot Fighting Chickens and Moscow Red Devils (the KGB actually vetoed the name Red Square Devils). In the fall of 1993, they asked if I could bring a few teams over as they wanted to play different levels of competition than just themselves. So in the summer of 1994, I brought two amateur teams over on back-to-back trips totaling 18 games in 22 days.
Unlike the dirt and rock fields in the HBO movie “Comrades of Summer”, we played our games on a beautiful astro turf stadium on the Moscow State University (MSU) campus that was a gift by from the Japanese. It was essentially a 5000 seat minor league stadium, not something you expected to see in the Soviet Empire.
Beyond playing a game each day in the countries we visit, we also do extensive sightseeing and donate brand new baseball equipment. Each day we go sightseeing in the morning and afternoon, then play a game in the late afternoon or early evening. But the most gratifying aspect is that we donate thousands of dollars of new baseball equipment to the teams and leagues we play against. As an example, last year we went to Russia and donated over 150 gloves, 50 bats, and 50 batting helmets plus 6 sets of catcher’s equipment. Over the years we have donated more than $100K of equipment to countries and teams who would otherwise not have the equipment to grow their baseball programs. In addition, many of our players also leave beyond their personal equipment (gloves, bats, spikes, etc) when they see how little equipment some teams have.
2. How is the Foreign Devils team different/same from Baseball International in which you’re also affiliated with? What is your role in both of them?
Our organization’s name is Baseball International and I chose the team name to be the Foreign Devils as in each country we play we are the foreign devils. This name has served us well except in China where being called a foreign devil is like being called an SOB, so they refer to us as the American All Stars. I run Baseball International which means selecting the countries we’ll play in, negotiating the rates of the hotels, sightseeing trips, meals, guides, etc, and managing/playing on the team. I also do the accounting, website, emails, advertising, plus maintain the mailing list. In my free time I constantly scour the internet and sporting good stores for discounts on baseball equipment that I purchase for donation on each of our trips. At any given time, I probably have 10 full teams worth of equipment in my basement.
As you can imagine, this all takes a lot of time given we do about 6 international trips each year. Baseball International is a “not-for-loss” organization. I draw no salary and work towards not losing any money by the end of each fiscal year. My reward is knowing that we make such an impact in all the countries we visit.
3. What are the qualifications to play on a team such as the Foreign Devils?
Our teams are composed of amateur players and on most trips we take two teams. The first is a competitive team called the Foreign Devils that play the full rules of baseball while the second is a goodwill team known as the Senior Devils that play goodwill rules (no stealing or passed balls). I would say the average age of the Foreign Devils is 45 years old and the Senior Devils about 55 years old, but it’s the skill level of the players that dictates the teams they play on. For example, we have had 30 year olds on the Senior Devils and 50 year olds on the Foreign Devils. The one US event we do each year is a goodwill rules tournament at a MLB spring training site in Florida each January. This lets players play 7 games over a 4 day weekend and gives them a feel for how their skills measure up. Plus it’s a great escape from the winter weather.
The majority of our international trips consist of players from across the country who decide they would like to play in the country we are going (e.g. in 2004 we have played in the Caribbean, Argentina, China, Italy, and Brazil) and sign up for a specific team. We usually take 13 players and play 6 games over the course of a week.
The important thing I remind our players of each day is that we are on a goodwill trip. As an American team we are looked at as examples and good sportsmanship is key. We travel thousands of miles and play in countries and cities where we are the first American baseball team they have ever seen, so it is important that our players realize that they are all goodwill ambassadors both on and off the field. Beyond the equipment donations, each player brings baseball caps and t-shirts as an exchange gift with the opposing teams after each game. This goes a long way towards establishing warm memories of Americans in foreign lands. It’s not as if a player in Kirovograd, Ukraine, can walk into a local store and buy a Dodgers cap.
Beyond our men’s teams, we are also making arrangements for some youth and high school teams to play international in 2006. I have baseball contacts in over 100 countries around the world, so any where a team wants to go I can usually set up a trip.
On most of our trips we also have a number of fans who come along (wives, family members, and friends) and on some trips we actually have tourists join us who want to take in our extensive sightseeing program as an inexpensive way to see a country.
4. Who is your international competition for these games? Is this simply a vacation?
Oh, we face real competition. Our first game in Mexico City last year was against a 22 year old pitcher that the Dodgers signed at 16 and had recently cut as his fastball had dropped from 95 to 88. In China and Russia, the Foreign Devils play against university teams of 18-24 year olds. China also now has a 4 team major league and last year we played the Beijing Tigers equivalent of an AAA team. We have played in international tournaments in France and Switzerland comprised of 8 countries, both times coming in 3rd.
Our goal on any trip is a .500 record as winning or losing all the games isn’t a lot of fun. Even the Yankees would be bored with a 162-0 record. And though we play many college teams, playing Northern Beijing Poly isn’t the same as playing LSU or Oklahoma as international players usually stayed playing baseball later in life.
We also have fun sometimes ending our trips by mixing our team with the host team for the last game which generates real international baseball comradery. In most countries, we also have competitively matched Senior Devils games as over 40 teams now exist in places such as Italy, Amsterdam, China, Brazil, Argentina and Russia.
But it is also a vacation as we go sightseeing each day with an English speaking guide on a luxury tour buses. We have walked the Great Wall, strolled through Red Square at midnight, had canal boat races in Amsterdam, visited Hamlet’s castle in Denmark, toured the Alps in Switzerland, visited Mexican archaeological sites, stayed in medieval cities in southern France, seen the Temple Of Vestal Virgins in Rome, and toured the Nestle factory in Switzerland (free chocolate!) among other sights. There’s nothing eerier than seeing Lenin under glass in Moscow and hearing about his twice weekly embalming.
5. You’ve played baseball with American teams in Russia, China and eventually Iran, have you experienced any political antagonism?
In every country we play that is not political aligned with the US, the teams we play against go out of their way to let us know that politics have no place on the baseball diamond. Most begin our pre-game ceremonies by saying that no matter what our respective countries political issues are, we are all just here as baseball players. Several times we have also had a trip within a week of a major international incident. China is an interesting case in point. One year the US accidentally destroyed the Chinese embassy in Bosnia and another year they captured our spy plane while we caused the death of one of their pilots. Both times we were playing in Beijing the following week and never felt anything but an overwhelmingly warm welcome.
At one level our road trips are people-to-people exchanges where we get to show other countries what Americans are like. Our upcoming trip to Iran is a good example. They have played baseball as a national federation since 1992, but we will be the first American baseball team to visit. Given the current situation in Iraq you might not think this was the best time to go, but Iran is insulated from most of the Middle East violence. Playing there will be an interesting and hopefully rewarding experience.
6. Is the game fundamentally the same internationally? In terms of the game, what cultural differences have you encountered?
The game is fundamentally the same, but you can really see the cultural differences in terms of the style of play. The first thing you recognize is who a team’s coaches must have been. In Ukraine, a more Cuban favor to strategy was apparent at one game and afterwards I discovered that many Ukraine teams had had Cuban coaches as part of an old Soviet exchange program. In China, many teams play a base at a time no matter who the batter is, and it’s clear they have had Japanese coaches. In Europe, many teams have had US coaches and focus on more offense than defense. And in countries where they haven’t played long, the strategy is unique. Given they don’t get many hits, they steal every base they can once they get on. I once pitched against Moldavia and eventually stopped trying to hold the runners when I realized they were always trying to steal because their hitting wasn’t strong. Though they scored a few runners, most innings ended with a man stranded at 3rd and we won 8-2.
7. What has been the most rewarding part of playing baseball against international teams?
Beyond the fantastic experience of playing international baseball, to me personally the most rewarding aspects are the amount of equipment we are able to donate to the teams we play each trip and the friendship exchanges we have with the teams we play after each game. After many games, the host team will have a barbecue or dinner event on the field for us where we get to meet and mingle with the opposing players. One year in Rome, the Italian team had a post game 4th of July party for us which was a welcomed surprise. In talking with the players it’s always interesting to hear who their MLB baseball heroes are and its amazing to see the depth of their knowledge of the current MLB season. And in just about every country, we hear stories about what the players had to do to just to listen to the World Series. MLB broadcasts the Series to more countries each year, but many foreign players don’t have television or internet access to the games.
Our last night of each international road trip we have a farewell banquet where I invite the opposing players to join us at our expense. These are great baseball parties lasting well into the night. For example, in Argentina our “dinner” was from 8pm to 3am and we had 65 Argentina players join us. The final bill was 11 pages long.
Many of us also make sure that we don’t forget about the young children who come and watch our games by bring baseball cards, baseballs, and children sized gloves and caps.
8. In your various games and tournaments, what have been some memorable moments?
Some of the fields we have played on leave a lasting impression. The field in Moscow is overshadowed down the third base line by one of Stalin’s 25 story “wedding cake” Soviet era buildings. In Switzerland, the Fribourg B-52s built their field at the end of a pasture that has a terrace of paths rising above the outfield. When we played, cows wearing bells were making their way up the hillside and we had 9 innings of wind chimes. In March, we played 6 games on 5 Caribbean islands using a cruise ship as our transportation. In Curacao the ship docked right next to the field creating an impressive website picture of the batter being dwarfed by the massive cruise ship. In Beijing, I brought hundreds of baseball caps that I had purchased from a souvenir stand that went out of business when the Tigers left Tiger Stadium. I passed out about 200 to the crowd and as they lined up down the third baseball line all 200 fans in unison followed my instructions on how to remove the card board border and bend the cap’s bill correctly.
Over the years some games stand out more than others. In a tournament in the south of France, we were playing a German team on the first day but all of their players had not yet arrived. Starting with 9 players, they had an outfielder who had to leave the game in the 7th. Rather than forfeit, they asked if they could draft one of the British players who was in the stands. Showing goodwill (and knowing that the Brits hadn’t won a single game at the tournament in 5 years), I agreed and Willie Jones joined the German team. Up by one with 2 outs in the top of the ninth and runners on 2nd and 3rd, I had our pitcher walk the German clean-up hitter to get to Willie. With an 0-2 count, he weakly hit a bouncer that I was easily charging from short until our pitcher reaches out and deflects the ball into foul territory. By the time the inning was over, we were now down by 2. In the bottom of the ninth with the bases loaded and two out, our batter hit a bomb to dead center and for an apparent win. But at the last minute the German centerfielder dives head long and makes a fully outstretched Sportscenter catch. We were disappointed to lose, but all knew it had been a great game. And Willie Jones was now a British team hero and the talk of the tournament the rest of the week with his own pub song.
9. As a 17 year member of SABR have you been able to combine your research interests with your international baseball exploits?
I have a great interest in international baseball history and our trips provide a first hand opportunity to discover how baseball started in different countries. For example, this year while playing in Italy we visited the American cemetery in Anzio. Though known by most as the site of a great WWII battle, this is also the birth place of baseball in Italy. American soldiers would recruit local youths to aid in the burial details and then teach them to play baseball on their breaks.
As a dead ball era fan, I have always been interested in the around the world tours of Spalding (1888-89) and McGraw/Comiskey (1913-14). I have researched the McGraw/Comiskey world tour and have organized an around the world Foreign Devils trip duplicating their tour in May of 2005. In 24 days we will play in the same 13 cities alternative wearing 1913 New York Giants and Chicago White Sox uniforms. My goal is to eventually write a book on our around the world adventure that details the history of baseball in each country and the account of our present day visit. Hopefully as a start it will make an interesting SABR 2005 Conference presentation.