By Steve Ruman
Martin Cervenka doesn’t necessarily view himself as a trailblazer, and certainly doesn’t consider himself to be a rebel of any sort.
Instead, the 20-year-old catcher for the Mahoning Valley Scrappers says he is simply partaking in a sport that he has loved his entire life.
Still, you have to guess that Cervenka is setting new standards and opening up opportunities for his fellow countrymen.
Cervenka’s summer home at Eastwood Field is approximately 4,500 miles from his permanent home in Prague, the capital city of the Czech Republic.
Born in a country where soccer and ice hockey rule the sports world, Cervenka found himself enamored with America’s pastime his entire life.
“My dad played softball when he was growing up, then he coached baseball,” Cervenka said. “I always grew up around the game. I loved everything about it.
“I never thought of playing baseball as being different. It’s not very popular back home, but for me, it was just what I always did.”
Cervenka loved the game so much, that while his friends grew up dreaming of playing in the World Cup or taking part in the Winter Olympics, he had visions of playing in a World Series.
“It was always a dream to play pro ball in America, but I thought it was just a dream,” Cervenka said. “I mean, I’m playing halfway around the world on a continent that no one associates with baseball.”
Then again, baseball scouts will travel far and wide if it provides an opportunity to tap into uncharted talent.
That’s just what the Cleveland Indians did when in 2008 they began scouting Major League Baseball’s European Academy in Italy. In 2009, the Indians discovered Cervenka, who at the time was a 16-year-old playing for his club team, Kotlarka.
Impressed with what they saw, the Indians signed Cervenka to a non-drafted minor league contract, then set up special provisions which allowed him to continue playing club ball while finishing out his high school career.
Cervenka was the first European signed by the Indians and the first Czech signed by any Major League team. He spent a year in the Arizona Rookie League. He began this spring at Lake County, then joined the Scrappers on June 17.
“(The United States) is a whole different world,” Cervenka said. “The culture, the food, the people ... all different. It takes some getting used to, but I love it here.”
It took a lot of getting used to Arizona’s weather. Playing in constant 100-degree heat was a new experience, and one which makes Cervenka grateful to now be in Ohio.
“Ohio reminds me a lot of home,” Cervenka said. “Lots of green, and cooler temperatures. We have the change of seasons back home, which I really like.”
Fortunately Cervenka didn’t have to adapt to the English language. Along with his native tongue, he is fluent in English, Spanish and Italian.
“I learned in school, and it’s a good thing,” Cervenka said. “It would be tough, especially trying to communicate with the pitchers, if I didn’t know English or Spanish.”
As for his game, Cervenka doubled in his first-ever at-bat as a Scrapper, and he threw out a pair of base runners in the same game.
Scrappers manager Ted Kubiak wasn’t surprised by Cervenka’s performance.
“We’ve seen the same thing at Arizona,” Kubiak said. “He handles a game really well. The throws he makes to second, he shows a lot of strong attributes. He has a lot of talent and a lot of promise.”
Cervenka also now has the added luxury of playing year-round. Back home, the baseball season ran from May to August, and consisted of about 40 games.
Cervenka estimates that about 3,000 Czechs play some level of club baseball. By comparison, hundreds of thousands participate in soccer and ice hockey.
“But baseball continues to gain in popularity, and the talent is getting better every year,” Cervenka said.
As for Cervenka’s boyhood heroes growing up? Well, they weren’t much different than the heroes of millions of boys in the United States.
“I grew up a Yankees fan,” Cervenka admits with a shy grin. “I liked Jeter and Rodriguez. I liked all the Yankees.”
Some things about America’s Pastime never change.