Baseball dreams of new diamond fields
Diamonds are forever for American baseball fans. Now enthusiasts are finding fresh fields for the game in some unlikely corners of Scotland.
If the sport is to thrive, however, it will rely heavily on getting the word out to schools and youth groups. Few appreciate that more than Rit Zbikowski, a trainee primary school teacher who grew up in Bristol, Connecticut, and plays as a centre fielder for the Edinburgh Diamond Devils. He doubles as the team's youth programme co-ordinator.
The Diamond Devils' junior section for 7-to 13-year-olds meets every Saturday between April and September to introduce and develop baseball techniques.
There is some limited support from SportScotland for the Edinburgh Junior Baseball Association and matches are held against teams of a similar standing, usually from Glasgow or Lanarkshire.
Mr Zbikowski acknowledges it is a far cry from what he was accustomed to in Connecticut, where children could follow a sophisticated development structure through from the age of 6 to 15.
Little League starts with an instructional league for 6-to 8-year-olds, progresses to what is rather grandly known as the Majors for 9s to 12s and to a Pony League for 13s to 15s. A small percentage are scouted by Major League professional teams.
"The teams have head coaches and assistants, who are often parents, and they have full uniform and play on their own small fields, which have batting cages and batting mounds. There are also bleachers for parents to come and watch," Mr Zbikowski explains. "It works really well.
"Bristol is a town of around 90,000 - about the size of Motherwell - and they would have four teams at every age group. That would be the same in similar small towns throughout America.
"Scouts from the pro teams would generally look at talent from the age of about 15 in high school. At that age, they will be able to judge height and speed and how fast the pitchers can throw the ball."
Mr Zbikowski's passion for the game is clear, as he takes on a pioneering role of introducing the game in school.
As a student teacher, currently assigned to Cramond Primary as part of his training, he has been able to introduce baseball in PE lessons.
"Cramond Primary has been happy for me to give baseball lessons and the children have responded well," he says.
"We use a lighter aluminium bat and a softer ball.
"The key is to make it so there is always something happening for them and they are not sitting around watching.
"It's something new for them and you find a lot of them are happy to pair up and just throw the ball to each other. The children even get a thrill out of using a glove, as it's just so different for them."
Baseball has a lot going for it in terms of benefits for children. As well as the obvious hand-eye co-ordination, it is a good way of keeping fit outdoors.
"It's not part of the culture here. So, initially, it's all about having fun and just teaching children the basics," says Mr Zbikowski. "Maybe in America it is too competitive at a young age. We don't want to scare anyone off."
The Edinburgh Diamond Devils play in the British League North and trips to Manchester, Liverpool and Hull are on the itinerary. Mr Zbikowski believes the standard is reasonable, with several American-raised players on team rosters.
But the key to the team's future will be to nurture talent. It now has plans to develop an intermediate team of 13-to 16-year-olds to provide a stepping stone for the juniors to playing for the senior side.
"A few of the older children come up to train with the senior team and there was a 16-year-old who played for the Devils in a league match recently and recorded a hit," admits Mr Zbikowski. "But we are looking to bridge the gap between the very young players and the national league team, so there is a constant stream of players coming through."
Mr Zbikowski concedes that the sport struggles to make an impact against football here and would benefit from a Scot making the grade in the professional ranks in the United States and all the media exposure that would bring.
It is not as far fetched as it might seem. In 1951, Bobby Thomson - the "Staten Island Scot", who was born in Glasgow and emigrated with his family at the age of 2 - hit one of the most famous home runs in baseball history when he helped to win the national league pennant for the New York Giants against the Brooklyn Dodgers in a 5-4 victory.
The Diamond Devils have named their home patch, at Meadowmill sports centre in Tranent, "Bobby Thomson Field" in honour of his exploits.
"There's nothing to say a Scot cannot make it all the way to the professional game in America," says Mr Zbikowski. "But I think for that to happen, he would need to spend a lot of time in the States and come through the system.
"Thomson, of course, did it a long time ago. To have someone make it now would give youngsters a role model to look up to."