Czech Republic 2002

The rain poured down for most of the week in the small town of Mlade Buky in the central
mountains of the Czech Republic from August 12-17, 2002 – the same rain that was causing
devastating floods in Prague. Left field was full of puddles; right field was often a lake.
The usual suspects – Great Britain, Ireland, the Czech Republic and Germany (but minus
Guernsey) were joined by Austria and Slovakia, giving the tournament a total of six teams – a
total that has not been matched since. And Austria, with players from their national fastpitch
and baseball squads, gave the tournament another competitive team – as they showed with a
14-2 win over the Czech Republic during pool play.

As the week began under lowering skies, a GB team much changed from 2000, with new
coaches (Dave Owen and Gary Crock) and a new manager (Pearl Bramhall), struggled to find
its way. Meanwhile, a seasoned and talented Irish team were confident that this time the
crown would be theirs. They had trained and prepared relentlessly, and they were supported
by a strong group of fans that had followed them into the heart of Central Europe. And right
up until the final denouement on Saturday, nothing suggested that the Irish would fail.
Thirty-six hours of rain wiped out all play on Tuesday, and GB then experienced a
devastating “Black Wednesday”, first committing 11 errors in a crushing 18-6 defeat by
Ireland and following that with five more errors and four appalling baserunning blunders in a
9-4 loss to the Czechs. Altogether, GB committed 35 errors in eight games, and the weather
was only partly the problem. GB morale was low on Wednesday evening, with coaches and
players alike wondering how this could happen and who was to blame.

But a GB recovery started with a shaky win over Austria on Thursday in which a key change
took place: Mark Saunders, who had been the #3 pitcher in Ireland in 2000, took over the
pitcher’s spot from David Lee. Still, GB could only finish third in the pool standings, behind
Ireland and Austria, and that meant that every game in the Page Playoff was sudden death –
starting with a game against the Czech Republic on Friday afternoon, played at last in
welcome sunshine in front of a large home crowd.

GB stayed with Mark Saunders on the mound, and they still had one huge asset that none of
the other teams could muster: home run power. Fence-clearing home runs by Brett Gibbens,
Shaun Findlay and David Lee and a wonderful running catch by second baseman Paul
Bullock that choked off a Czech rally turned a tight game into a 16-7 GB win. And a more
routine 11-0 win over Austria put GB into the Final. But a supremely confident and
undefeated Irish team was waiting for them.

Afterwards, when the Final was over, long-time Ireland stalwart Brian Connolly said
wistfully, “We were certainly the team of the week out here. But not on the day when it
mattered….”

GB coaches Dave Owen and Gary Crock had studied the Irish batting line-up in minute detail,
and they laid out the plan at a lengthy team meeting on the morning of the final day. The plan
was based on the fact that the Irish hit well throughout their line-up, but had little power.
Even more important, many of their hitters were one-dimensional, unable to hit to all parts of
the field. So each hitter was analysed: where to pitch the ball to negate their strengths or
preferences, and where the defense should play as a result. The defense was told to crowd in,
to take away singles and prevent singles becoming doubles, so the force play at second would
always be on. It was a plan that could strangle the Irish – but it depended crucially on
execution by the pitcher. Finally, the undefeated Irish had earned the right to be home team in
the final – but Dave and Gary reckoned that this could work against them if GB could get out
of the gate with a lead.

Sometimes, plans go astray. Sometimes they work so well it sends shivers up your spine. GB
scored four runs in the first inning (two of them on a triple by Bruce Saunders), and then
brother Mark went to work, pitching carefully, always aware of location, and the Irish
managed nothing except the odd run here and there. GB was still committing errors, but so
were the Irish, crumbling under the strain, and GB bats were booming. A long two-run homer
by the inevitable Brett Gibbens off Ireland reliever Drew Hennessey in the fourth inning took
the heart out of the Irish, and in the end it was easy: GB took the game and their third straight
title by a score of 16-3. But it was a long and improbable comeback for Britain, and a
stunning loss for the Irish, who were without doubt the best team there.

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