By Contributing Writer: Nick Stevens
Imagine living in a country where baseball did not exist. Scary thought, right? For the majority of the 20th century, baseball was non-existent in the European nation of Czechoslovakia, becoming the Czech Republic after the fall of communism in eastern Europe. While the game of baseball has slowly gained prominence throughout the Czech Republic, the country has yet to have a single player on an MLB active-roster.
Photo: Nick Stevens
Martin Cervenka, hailing from the capital city of Prague, was recently selected by the Baltimore Orioles in the minor league phase of the 2017 Rule 5 draft. He spent his first seven seasons within the Cleveland Indians’ organization after becoming the first European-born player to sign with the franchise.
Cervenka elected free-agency after the 2017 season, choosing to sign with the San Francisco Giants. Less than a month later, he became a Baltimore Oriole.
To provide some background, baseball was not played in Czechoslovakia until it was brought to the country by an American in 1919. World War II and the subsequent political turmoil of eastern Europe forced baseball to take a backseat for several decades. The sport was even banned for a period of time while the nation was under communist rule. It would not be until 1979 when Czechoslovakia fielded a semi-pro league and participated in international competition.
The nation competed in the World Baseball Classic qualifying tournament for the first time in 2012. The national team was outscored 6-28 as they lost their first two games, eliminating them from the tournament.
They returned four years later, earning their first and only win, a 15-3 mercy rule victory over Germany. In fact, Martin Cervenka homered in the lopsided win. While the Czech Republic failed to advance to the 2017 World Baseball Classic, they outscored their opponents 22-12, gaining momentum and notoriety for the next WBC.
Only three native-Czech players have ever played in Major League Baseball: John Stedronsky (played 4 games for the Chicago White Stockings in 1879), Carl Linhart (played 3 games for the Detroit Tigers in 1952), and Elmer Valo (played from 1940-1961, career .282 hitter, 58 home runs).
All three of these players were from Czechoslovakia, not the Czech Republic, meaning Martin Cervenka could be the first from his native country to play in the majors.
When he signed a minor league deal with the Indians in 2009, he was playing in the second-division of the professional baseball league in the Czech Republic. Similar to European soccer, teams in the premier division are relegated to the second-division and vice versa based on standings at the end of the year.
Between 2011-2016, Cervenka slowly moved through the Indians’ system, reaching only High-A Lynchburg. He never played more than 96 games in a season and hit under .185 in 4 of his first 5 seasons. Adjusting to baseball stateside proved to be a difficult transition, especially offensively.
Cervenka finally appeared comfortable in 2017, setting career highs in every statistical category. He played in 112 games for the Lynchburg Hillcats, slashing .278/.343/.418/.760 with 8 home runs, 24 doubles, and 4 triples. He ended the year by being named an MiLB.com Organizational All-Star for Cleveland.
I haven’t watched Cervenka play, so I can’t provide a first-hand scouting report. However, seeing that he threw out 40% of baserunners last year in Lynchburg, it’s easy to see why the Orioles used a no-risk, minor league Rule 5 draft pick on him. With the anticipated promotion of Austin Wynns to AAA Norfolk and departure of minor league catchers Yermin Mercedes, Audrey Perez, and Chris O’ Brien, expect to see Cervenka begin his Orioles’ career with Double A Bowie.
He’s not a prospect that will push for a starting job in Camden Yards, but Cervenka’s story is unique and could open a lot of doors back in his native Czech Republic. Finding some way to crack the majors with Baltimore could also benefit the Orioles by giving the organization a deep connection to the burgeoning baseball world in eastern Europe, specifically in the Czech Republic.
If you’re a history buff like myself, the story of European baseball is fascinating. I urge you take a dive into the bigger story. Michael Leboff of MiLB.com interviewed Cervenka during the 2017 season, in which he detailed what baseball life was like growing up in Prague. You can read that story here to serve as a good jumping off point.
Stay up to date with Cervenka’s career by following @BabyBirdland, @CoachNick_14, and @CABoemmelJR.