By Vince Little, USACEApril 16, 2014
WIESBADEN, Germany - Lawrence Carabajal is among a growing contingent of Americans volunteering their time to give baseball a push in Germany.
At the end of last summer, the longtime structural engineer for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Europe District helped lead a German youth team to its third straight Hessen state championship. He's returning for a third season in the Hünstetten Storm baseball club, this time as an assistant with the Jugend Vergandsliga, a team made up of players ages 13-15.
While success is always nice, Carabajal says his work with the kids goes way beyond winning and losing.
"My son, Jesper, started playing on the Hünstetten club about seven years ago," he said. "As you can imagine, there's not an abundance of baseball coaches in Germany. Although I played baseball as a youth, I would never consider myself a baseball coach. I'm simply a dad who likes baseball and saw an opportunity to help.
"Seeing players improve and have a passion for baseball is what keeps me coming back."
Still, there are stark differences between America's polished Little League associations and the realities of playing the game in Germany, right down to the makeshift diamonds carved out of soccer fields. It presents unique challenges for coaches and players.
Hünstetten, a small village of about 10,000 residents, sits 20 minutes north of Wiesbaden. Organized baseball didn't make an appearance there until 2003.
That's when Bill Dickman, the Storm manager this year in the 13-15 division, staged an "Introduction to Baseball" day in the town.
"I wanted to bring something I'm passionate about to the kids here in Germany," recalls Dickman, a self-professed "transplanted American" who came to Germany in 1986 with the intention of staying a year, and never left. "I wasn't sure if two kids would show up or 20. Well, it turned out 200 people showed up, and we got 90 kids signed up. I knew then that we'd have to launch a program."
Now in its 11th season, the local club has expanded to five teams and 75 active players.
"I've worked with Lawrence for many years now, and our relationship has grown over that time," Dickman said. "Coaches and managers don't grow on trees here. We've been fortunate enough to find people like Lawrence to pitch in and help us out."
While baseball is becoming more of an alternative, soccer remains king throughout Germany and all of Europe. In Hünstetten and the village of Görsroth -- where the Storm play their home games -- that means practices and games taking place on a converted soccer pitch.
The backstop and fences have to be manufactured, Carabajal said. Movable soccer goals are used behind the plate, while the fence is more like a long piece of mosquito netting. Forget dugouts or foul poles.
And once the game or practice is over, all the items have to be cleared away and the field readied again -- for soccer play.
"We have an artificial-turf field," Dickman said. "It's actually more like a carpet, an older one, so you don't get true hops on the infield. … We're trying to get a baseball field in our village, but it takes time."
About 90 percent of the players in the Hünstetten program are German, he added, with American boys making up the balance.
"Soccer is by far the predominant sport in Germany. That's what kids grow up wanting to play," Carabajal said. "Soccer gets all the money and the sponsors. We actually wind up getting a lot of kids who've never played baseball before but want to try it out so they can be part of a team."
A year ago, the turnout was so high that Hünstetten managed to field two teams in its Jugend age group -- Vergandsliga and Landesliga. Carabajal took charge of the latter squad.
In September, the Storm captured a third straight Hessen title in the 13-15 age division and wound up third among nine teams at the German Baseball Championships, the Hünstetten club's best finish ever in national play.
"That's something we're extremely proud of," Dickman said. "Here we are playing against teams from Berlin, Mannheim and Regensburg, much larger communities. To get third in Germany last year was pretty amazing. Lawrence gave the kids a great experience."
In 2014, the club went back to a combined team in the 13-15 age group, with Carabajal assisting Dickman. But the manager says the duo views itself as a tandem unit.
"He's one of those guys the kids notice right away," Dickman said. "Lawrence is really more of a mentor than a coach. He's not one to scream or yell at the kids the way some might. He motivates through his presence, and the kids are happy with him and learn from it. He has an excellent way with them."
Carabajal said there are challenges dealing with the physical developmental differences between a 13-year-old and the older boys. The language barrier pops up on occasion, too.
"It always makes for a good excuse if the players aren't executing well," he joked. "What's great about this situation is that they learn English from me and I learn German from them.
"It's all about understanding the players' strengths and those elements of their game that aren't as developed. Also, keeping it fun by mixing practices with other sports such as kickball or American football creates good team cohesiveness."
Carabajal grew up playing Little League and Babe Ruth baseball in Albuquerque, N.M. He never coached in the U.S. but said people would be surprised by the talent level in Europe.
In recent years, Germany and Europe have become more fertile ground for major league scouts, and the country's fledgling youth program certainly paved the way, Dickman said. Four Germans are playing pro ball in the United States now.
Outfielder Donald Lutz of Friedberg became the first to reach the big leagues when he was briefly called up by the Cincinnati Reds last spring. In 2009, the Minnesota Twins signed Max Kepler, also an outfielder, who grew up in Berlin. At the time, his $800,000 signing bonus was the largest ever given to a European-born player.
Kai Gronauer, born in Solingen, is a catcher in the New York Mets organization, playing for the club's Triple-A affiliate in Las Vegas. Daniel Thieben is pitching in Seattle's minor league system.
The Hünstetten program is always seeking more players and knowledgeable coaches -- and they can join up at any point in the season, Dickman said. It also offers an indoor winter program, setting up a "field" and using a softer-shell baseball in area gyms around Hessen.
"Some American families aren't willing to take that step with a club atmosphere like this," he added. "But I've yet to see a family that was disappointed after joining up. It's a new and different culture than what they might be used to in the States, but we have a good, competitive program. I think families who bring their kids out would be pleasantly surprised by the caliber of play and atmosphere. It's not only about the mechanics of baseball, but we try to teach them about good life and work habits as well."
The Storm began outdoor practices in late March. Their season opener is May 1 against Dreieich. The team officially plays an eight-game schedule in the Hessen Baseball and Softball Verband, but it routinely has exhibitions against youth clubs from the Ramstein and Wiesbaden military communities.
As a youngster, Carabajal played until age 15 but says his coaching days have an expiration date. They'll last only as long as Jesper wears a uniform.
"When my son hangs up his baseball glove, my hat will hang right next to it," he said.
For more information about the Hünstetten program or registration inquiries, contact Bill Dickman at 0172-598-1992 or firstname.lastname@example.org.