‘Bigger than baseball’: Rays return from Europe
They didn’t bring home the trophy, but the Ridgefield Rays walked off the field with the respect and friendship of their international hosts.
The Rays, a local youth baseball team with Ridgefield Babe Ruth, returned from an European baseball tour this summer, where they played in two weekend tournaments in Brittany, France and The Netherlands.
“It was good to see how they play baseball over in Europe,” said Gavin Egerton, 15, a third baseman and shortstop. “They play more of a small ball.”
The field size is the same, but the pitch is closer for younger players, and the rules are slightly modified, explained Babe Ruth President Dan Corbin, who accompanied the team to France. “One of the kids they brought in from Paris was throwing gas from 55 feet away,” Corbin said.
It was a baseball trip bordering on diplomatic mission.
During their stay in the host village of La Guerche, the team presented the town’s mayor with the key to the town of Ridgefield. First Selectman Rudy Marconi had given the team the ceremonial key before they left.
The feeling of good-will spread to the pitch as well. Steven Galistinos, who helped organize the trip, recalled how during one game a member of an opposing team was injured by an errant ball. The Rays quickly took a knee — to the shock of their European opponents.
“They had never seen such a thing,” said Galistinos. “I have to say they were almost brought to tears … they had never seen kids do that.”
Food became a point of cultural exchange among the players and their host families. “They had some of their foods that they gave us,” said Steven Eiben, a first baseman.
“I’ll never eat a croissant in America again,” said Corbin with a chuckle.
While living with his host family, Eiben said he used Google translate to communicate. “They didn’t really speak any English at all,” he recalled.
During the 12-day trip, the Rays stayed with families in La Guerche, a small town of fewer than 5,000 residents in the Brittany region of France. It’s not far from the Normandy beaches where Allied forces fought their way ashore on D-Day, some 74 years ago — a place the Rays chaperones made sure the team visited.
“There weren’t a lot of dry eyes, let’s just say,” said Corbin.
Galistinos said some of the team’s host families still remembered hearing stories from their parents of how the American soldiers liberated the area from the German occupiers. “It’s still so fresh,” Galistinos told The Press.
He reminded the team’s French hosts that “the French had actually helped us” during America’s War of Independence. Before they left, Galistinos gave the town a copy of a French map which marked the positions of French encampments around the town of Ridgefield during the Revolutionary War.
“The mayor of La Guerche commented that the U.S. has been helping us in world wars, and over the course of history has been a very strong ally,” recalled Dave Eiben, Steven’s father, who sits on the team’s board. The mayor appreciated that the Rays were bringing that friendship “out onto the playing field,” Dave Eiban said.
‘We went to war’
At the end of the trip, the team traveled north to Amsterdam, where they faced off against teams from France, Germany, and the Netherlands.
The last two games pitted the Rays against highly competitive German teams — which were “insanely fun,” recalled Steven Eiben.
“We went to war,” said Corbin, with a laugh.
The decision to go to France almost didn’t happen.
Originally, the team had considered going to Cuba, “but that fell apart for various reasons,” said Galistinos.
He came up with the idea of playing in France after meeting representatives from the French Federation of Baseball in the French consulate. They were handing out tickets to a Yankees game, he recalled, hoping to find French-speaking players to help the sport grow in Europe.
“I think, big picture we’re trying to shape the program to be bigger than baseball,” said Dave Eiben. “We’ve done volunteer work here in Ridgefield … we’re trying to stress baseball, giving back to the community, and academics.”
For Corbin, it’s a little simpler. “I’m just trying to keep baseball alive,” he said. “Baseball’s struggling with soccer, lacrosse — it’s a thinker’s sport. It takes a lot of patience. As attention spans get shorter, and gratification becomes more instant, people want to play more action packed games.”
Standing; Ryan Donovan, Dan Corbin, Ethan Snyder, Oz Jensen, Steven Eiben, Noah LaValley, Gavin Egerton, Tiger DeFranco, Bridger Rowan, Coach John O'Leary Kneeling: David Collazo, Jessie Alfalla, Gino Lorenzini, Justin Leonard — Dave Eiben Photo.