The World Series winner, the venture capitalist and their baseball dream for Team Poland

The World Series winner, the venture capitalist and their baseball dream for Team Poland

By Oghale Apr24,2024

As the story goes, the first baseball glove wasn’t purchased in Poland until the early 1970s. That glove came from what was then Czechoslovakia and was exchanged for a bottle of vodka; Poland, of course, was behind the Iron Curtain at the time, and America’s National Pastime wasn’t exactly the kind of import popular in Soviet circles.

But as Poland pushed away from the Soviet sphere in the 1980s, the western game gained popularity in parts of the country. Much of Poland’s early familiarity with the sport came from Cuba due to its ties with the Soviet Union — Cubans living in the country would share their skills, teach the native Poles the game. The first Polish players used soccer cleats and other makeshift equipment. But in 1987, Hall of Famer Stan Musial and Polish-born MLB pitcher Moe Drabowsky went to the city of Kutno for a baseball clinic, and the pair brought along equipment donated by MLB commissioner Peter Ueberroth’s office.

That visit would prove transformative. Almost 40 years after Musial’s trip, if there is a Cooperstown or St. Louis of Poland, it’s Kutno, located about two hours from the capital city of Warsaw. Games are held regularly at Stan Musial Field, and the city plays host to the European Little League Training Complex.

Kutno, then, is where Dennis Cook is headed this week. A left-handed reliever, Cook pitched for nine teams across 15 big-league seasons and pitched in two World Series, winning a championship with the 1997 Marlins.

Now, Poland’s new national baseball team manager will set foot on Polish soil for the very first time. His mission? Qualifying for the 2026 World Baseball Classic. It is an understatement to say he has his work cut out for him.

“They have a league,” Cook said of Poland. “I’m not going to tell you how good it is because I don’t know.”

Cook, who is not of Polish ancestry, is traveling to Kutno for the country’s senior team and under-23 team tryouts. It’s possible that he may unearth a few diamonds in the rough. But the reality is that if Poland is to realize its dreams of making the World Baseball Classic, American players may be the key to helping Poland jump-start its program.

In that, they have a model: Team Israel.

While baseball has never had a large foothold in Poland itself, many Polish Americans have made an impact on the sport in the United States, starting with, of course, Musial. Others of Polish ancestry include Hall of Famer Carl Yastrzemski and his grandson Mike Yastrzemski. Joe and Phil Niekro were also of Polish descent, as well as many other big-leaguers, like A.J. Pierzynski, Bill Mazeroski, Ted Kluszewski, Mark Gubicza and Hall of Fame spitballer Stan Coveleski, among others.

Stan Musial is an icon in the Polish baseball community. (Focus on Sport / Getty Images)

Team Poland is currently ranked 72nd in the world by the World Baseball Softball Confederation, tied with Finland and behind four teams tied for 68th including Nepal, but ahead of seven other teams, including 74th-ranked Romania all the way to No. 80, Estonia.

Following play in 2012, Team Israel was ranked where Romania is now. Four years later, the team qualified for the 2017 World Baseball Classic, where it would win its group, beating Europe’s traditional power from the Netherlands.

Israel didn’t just sprout baseball players. By using the WBC’s liberal eligibility rules, which allow citizens and those eligible for citizenship to participate, Team Israel put together a group of players with Jewish heritage to compete and help spark the game’s growth in their country.

Before the 2017 World Baseball Classic, Israel was ranked No. 41 in the world. However, it advanced to the second round and finished sixth. The team finished fifth in the 2021 Olympics. Although Team Israel didn’t make it out of pool play in the 2023 WBC, it did secure its place in the next WBC by finishing fourth in its five-team pool.



Team Israel is a WBC underdog, but has a gameplan thanks to Jewish MLB staffers

“We look at them as inspiration,” said Paul Braigel, who was first an advisor for the federation and then was asked to be the team’s third coach, along with veteran big-league manager John McLaren.

Braigel has less experience than either Cook or McLaren, both baseball lifers. But the venture capitalist from Chicago has always been a dreamer. A decade ago, he decided he would try to qualify for the Olympics. He used data to see which sports he could potentially pick up and find a way to qualify. He settled on cross-country skiing and received citizenship from Colombia to found the country’s national team and become its de facto champion — based on the fact nobody else was competing for the title. He raced at the 2017 World Championships in Finland, but he fell just short of his Olympic dreams.

While Braigel could not speak Spanish when competing for Colombia, he does speak Polish. His parents emigrated from Poland to the United States in the ‘70s, settling in Chicago. According to the 2020 census, more than 200,000 people of Polish descent reside in Cook County, Ill., where Chicago is located.

Braigel’s nieces play softball, and he wondered one day if Poland had a softball team. He found out it did — and that it had a baseball team, too. 

“I reached out to them, just said, ‘hey, can you guys, what are your plans? And how do you guys know what you want to do with baseball and softball?’” Braigel said.

He inquired about the federation, developed relationships and offered his support. Now he’s on a coaching staff with a former World Series champion in Cook and the third-base coach of the United States’ first World Baseball Classic team in McLaren.

And he is well aware of how Polish baseball will need to operate to have a chance. Because Braigel’s hometown of Chicago has such a large Polish community, the group is considering holding a tryout for American players with ties to Poland in the city later this year.

“I think the way to build it is to have a mix of Canadian and U.S. players with (Polish) passports and the Polish kids already playing over there,” said Cook.

The federation, Braigel said, can assist in getting players citizenship if their parents, grandparents or great-grandparents emigrated from Poland.

“How do we tap into, you know, kids like me, right? Born in America, your grandparents, you’re kind of from abroad. And you grew up with that in your household, but you weren’t connected,” Braigel said.

Former Polish President Lech Walesa throws out the first pitch at Fenway Park in 2022. (Winslow Townson / Getty Images)

Self-described as “totally nerdy,” Braigel started years ago by building a database of pro and college players with Polish heritage, including scanning rosters for Polish surnames. Braigel said he’s cast his net far and wide to try to find players. He’s also done work to help players find him, including building out a website for the Polish baseball team and a Facebook page for the Polish American Baseball & Softball Federation that includes a form for those with Polish ancestry who want to be involved, along with a video explaining the process of gaining Polish citizenship.

“(The main goal is to) make people aware that we exist,” Braigel said. “I don’t think a lot of people know we have a team because historically they’ve not invested many resources in it. We came aboard, put some money behind it and also helped hire people. We’re trying to do a … professional thing.”

That’s where Cook and McLaren come in. Both have extensive international baseball experience and are something of international coaches-for-hire.

Cook, 61, retired from pro baseball in 2002, but still kept his eye out for opportunities to play where he could. After learning that Sweden had a national team, he reached out about playing in the qualifiers for the first World Baseball Classic. Although Cook’s maternal grandparents were from Sweden, he lacked the requisite passport to play at the time. He was asked if he had an interest in managing the team instead, and an international career was born.

Cook managed the team in the 2009 World Cup and the European Championships in 2010, 2012 and 2014. He also served as a pitching consultant for Germany’s bid to qualify for the 2017 WBC.

“We had one guy from the US, but the rest were Swedes,” Cook said of his first international team. “They played hard. Big and strong, they just needed to learn how to play the right way and have someone that made them believe they could win.”

While baseball’s international growth has mostly been in Latin America and Asia, its roots in Europe aren’t as deep. However, the World Baseball Classic has seen teams from the continent make strides in international play, with Italy advancing out of pool play in 2023 and beating traditional powerhouse Cuba in the process. All five European countries in the last WBC won at least one game in pool play, though only Italy advanced.

The game is growing in places like the Czech Republic, Spain France and Italy, said Cook.

“There are some good teams over there,” Cook said. “It’s fun to be over there and start from the grassroots. To see what’s happened since I got over there in 2006 or 2007, to see what it is now compared to what it was then is incredible.”

(Top photo of Dennis Cook in 1990: Otto Greule Jr / Getty Images; Photo of the 2023 Polish National Team courtesy of the Polish American Baseball Softball Federation)

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