belgrade baseballBojan plays for the Belgrade Juniors, the newest expansion team to join the Yugoslavian Baseball Association. His team failed to make it to the playoffs this year, and he and his team-mates hadonly a handful of scruffed up balls to practice with until the 2001 season started in March.

If these are lost, they will use tennis balls. The Yugoslav World Series itself, a three game series which saw the Vojevode Dukes top the Belgrade 96’ers, was played with only two new balls. If these disappeared into the nearby trees, then it would mean using dirty ones hard to pick up in the late-afternoon shadows. This is what playing ball in the poor, bruised city of Belgrade is all about.

There is only one field, an improvised diamond that overlaps with a craggy soccer field on the Western outskirts of town The loose bases are the kind you find in American little league games, the sandlot infield something from an old episode of The Little Rascals: the backstop a converted soccer net, a single umpire in catcher’s equipment, the outfield fence a jagged row of bushes and stumps. To judge from the Balkan intensity of the games, you would think they were playing for big money in front of 50,000 adoring fans, and not a handful of curious onlookers in the tired capital of a country just now emerging from a decade of war, depression and dictatorship.

The first team in Serbia – the Belgrade Partisans, named after Tito’s army – was formed in 1988 with ten players and three gloves between them. As war broke out and the economy rapidly deteriorated, the team relied upon the help of the US Embassy. Along with tapping the US outpost for some coaching, the team channeled equipment through the embassy in order to avoid customs charges. They also hung out at the Marine House – usually off-limits – to watch games. During the last decade baseball has survived here against the odds.

The Yugoslavian Baseball Association, formed in 1993, now boasts six teams with ambitious plans for the future, including a youth league. “Back then, this country was a closed system,” says Aleksander Zonic, Commissioner of the League and third baseman for the Belgrade 96’ers. “We had little access to equipment, no possibilities for ties with organizations, no coaches.”

Zonic came to baseball in the 1980s while living in Tokyo, where his father worked for Yugoslavian Airlines. There, he learned the game and rooted for the Tokyo Giants, vowing to one day return to Belgrade and nurture the sport. A guerrilla scout, he approaches kids playing stickball and teaches them the rules. He also circulates videotapes of Major League games and organizes baseball nights at the homes of the few players who can afford a satellite dish. He’s hopeful that the recent regime change will make his project easier.

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“Under Milosevic, we couldn’t get any official help. Firms would link baseball to propaganda and were nervous to support us. It was impossible to get any money. The Windsurfing team got money, the handball team got money, but not us.”

Baseball’s image problem in Yugoslavia became acute during the war with NATO, which fueled anti-American sentiment throughout the country. Bojan Vasilyvic, the 18 year-old shortstop, remembers the hazards of practicing during the bombing:

“During the war we played ball when it was safe. One day these guys came up to us in the park and started getting rough with us, saying ‘How can you play this American game when they are bombing us?'”

The team from Novi Sad is actually called the Shelters, and was organized during the war, the first furtive practices taking place as NATO planes roared overhead. But most Yugoslavs are happy to separate American culture from politics, and players see the all-pervasive shadow of soccer as a more serious obstacle than nationalism.

Things may be changing soon. An NGO active in the Balkans pledged funds to build a professional field, and Commissioner Zonic, who studied marketing, is already planning a strategy to broaden the appeal of the game – and to commercialize it. For the moment, however, baseball remains in pure form in Yugoslavia. In a country where the average monthly income is 40 dollars, merchandising and contract disputes seem distant. The players aren’t worried about making money so much as learning the game.

“Coaches. We need coaches,” says Bojan, who keeps a baseball card of Chipper Jones in his wallet. “Maybe when we have a good relationship with America again, they will send us someone to teach us.”