Many people would call Gabor Mako a baseball freak. Donning sunglasses and a New York Yankees Jorge Posada t-shirt, the sun-tanned Hungarian sits under open skies over the Bavarian city Regensburg in southern Germany, watching Sunday's championship game of the EuroCup 2008 – the sport's top competition in Europe.
"Baseball brought me here, along with this unique baseball stadium and this beautiful city," said Mako in excellent German. "In Hungary we can't watch any good games. The level is really low."
Mako and four of his friends traveled 650 kilometers from Budapest to Bavaria just for this tournament. Of course, this is just the latest international baseball event for Mako, who travels to at least one major competition year.
"The best was the 2004 Olympics with Cuba and Japan and Canada and Australia. Cuban baseball players are like the Brazilians of football. And Japan had superstars like Daisuke Matsuzaka, Kenji Johjima and Kosuke Fukudome," beamed Mako, who also drove to Holland in 2005 for the baseball world championships.
But the Hungarian was just one of some 5,000 fans to show up in Regensburg for the baseball spectacle, which ran from Wednesday to Sunday. Spanish club FC Barcelona held on to beat Italian side Nettuno BC 12 runs to 11 thanks to a fourth inning grand slam home run by MVP Jesus Golindano.
A rambunctious group of Dutch fans, who clearly weren't too upset by Holland's unexpected departure from the Euro 2008 football tournament over the weekend, helped create a fine atmosphere. Football just isn't their games it seems – they came to support favourites Door Nepuntas of the Netherlands. Friends and family of the team members drove some 800 kilometers from their homes near Rotterdam decked out in orange and toting noise-makers. In a true sign of commitment, one woman even had her broken leg cast in orange.
Hosting the whole event was local Regensburg club Buchbinder Legionäre, which finished fourth behind Neputnas. Legionäre executive board member Armin Zimmermann believes the event offered another glimpse why his club is one of the best in Germany and on its way to joining Europe baseball elite.
"Those who were here in the stadium experienced European baseball at the highest level. We have caught up to the European elite – especially when you consider the three top teams are all professional clubs where the players get paid and ours isn't," said Zimmermann, whose club has finished runners-up in the German championship the past two seasons and has reached the semifinals every year since 2002.
The Legionäre are using their strong standing in Germany and their reputation of having one of the best baseball facilities in the nation to position themselves as a major player on the European baseball scene.
Regensburg on the rise
Regensburg's Armin Wolf Arena already hosted site for the 1998 European Cup Winners Cup Pool B tournament as well as the same event's Pool A competition in 2002 and the 2004 Pool B European Baseball Championship. And next year, Regensburg will be one of five cities to host first round action of the 2009 baseball World Cup.
"It's an unbelievable atmosphere that they have here. The level of the competition, the support of the fans, and all the personnel – all three things are very important to have a successful tournament. And it's obvious that they've done a tremendous job with everything because there's not a single player that I've talked to who is not having a great time," said American player Gil Kim from the winning club Barcelona.
Kim and his Barcelona teammates were also impressed with the happenings around the game, including the Thurn and Taxis beer stand.
"That is definitely something we don't have back in Barcelona. It's funny because the majority of people when you tell them you're going to Germany the first thing they tell you is that you have to try the German beer – or the Bavarian beer," said Kim, who he enjoyed the chance to get to know locals from Regensburg as well as players from the other seven teams competing.
One of those locals talking baseball and sharing a beer with Europe's batting elite was Ewald Müller, who has been with the Legionäre since its inception in 1987 and is currently manager of the club's third team.
"This kind of tournament is unbelievably important for the image of baseball in Germany. It helps the sport become more popular and well known. And the atmosphere, the results and the fans – you cannot put into financial terms what it means for us," said Müller.
But the one thing that Müller found disappointing about the tournament was its spot in the calendar – namely right in the middle of the Euro 2008 in Austria and Switzerland.
"It is absolutely unfortunate. Baseball players and baseball fans (in Europe) are of course also football fans. And you can see that in the spectator numbers,” he said. “When Germany played or there was a quarterfinal, the numbers would go down. But the hardcore fans were there."
Officials in Regensburg can certainly count on Gabor Mako to make the trip to Germany next year for the world championships – just like any passionate European baseball freak, he'd be willing to drive across the Continent for a good game.