He is skinny and left-handed, but he has speed and a good curve ball. With coaching, he can be as good as any college first-division player in the US," says Barry Plocher pointing towards Pritam Kumar.
It’s a hot Saturday afternoon and 16-year-old Kumar is getting ready to pitch again at the baseball turf at the American embassy in New Delhi. He sends down a fastball which zips past the batter, much to Plocher’s delight.
Plocher is an employee of sports brand Nike in its product development division in the US. He also coaches the Under-12 team of the Westview Youth Baseball in Portland, Oregon. He was in India for a week in April for the first time on an invitation from the Grand Slam Baseball (GSB). The GSB was formed in 2013 to nurture youth baseball in India and to coach those enrolled with it.
Kumar studies in a government school, and plays for the Janakpuri team—a mix of college and government school students. That day at the American embassy, the Janakpuri team was playing against the American Embassy School team, “Tigers".
The similarity between the two teams on the ground ends at the fact that both play baseball. The embassy school team was sporting a stripped white jersey with Tigers printed diagonally across in yellow. The Janakpuri team was wearing a mix of clothing, trying to keep the colours as similar and blue as possible. The embassy school team was organized—two full-time coaches gave instructions loudly after every pitch. The Janakpuri team relied on their personal judgement.
The Janakpuri team trains at the Government Co-Ed Senior Secondary School in Janakpuri, west Delhi. The Directorate of Education, New Delhi, has earmarked this ground as the training centre for baseball.
The centre, which has tied up with the GSB to train players, is open to anyone who is interested in playing baseball. “Any school kid, whether from private or public, can come and play baseball here," says Anoop Kumar, coach of the Janakpuri centre. He adds that players from across 40-50 schools, mostly government, come to the centre to play baseball. Last month, a new centre at the Vikaspuri Sports Complex in west Delhi was set up by the Directorate of Education.
Baseball has almost no presence in India. The Amateur Baseball Federation of India was established in 1983; it became a government recognized association in 1991. But India still does not have a dedicated baseball field, except for the one inside the American embassy.
P.C. Bhardwaj, former secretary general of the Delhi-based federation, differs. “Starting with 10 states as members in 1991, today the federation has 27 state-level associations as members.
“It is not possible to have a dedicated stadium without the help of the government. But now we have shown achievements and probably can ask for one," says Bhardwaj. As of now, any ground is used to play baseball with back-stoppers and outfield fences.
There is even a national team, which played one international tournament in 2014, and one in 1999, with nothing to show in between.
Golden and Sahni grew up in Delhi, and played baseball at the American embassy. Though Sahni considered himself a good player, when he went to the US, he realized that he was no match for the players there. “Players in the US put in 2-3 hours a day at least, but I had only given 2-3 hours a week, maybe on weekends. That is because of the lack of playing opportunity in India," says Sahni. It was then that Golden and he decided to start a programme in India and promote the game.
“We have a bottom-up approach and we believe that if we can have a pool of talented young baseball players, it will go a long way in producing professional baseball players from India," says Sahni.
“Though we are still interested in having a league, we thought it would be better to wait till maybe the end of 2016 to launch it and let the youth programme go on till then. So the talks have not really broken down," says Rakshit Kansal, business analyst with Homestead Infrastructure who looks after new ventures.
Instead, the GSB decided to focus on renewing a grass-roots programme centred around the American embassy’s baseball field. The field was built around 35 years ago by the embassy, and the New Delhi Little League, which was a volunteer-based non-profit for children of expats as well as Indians, started around 20 years ago. It had sponsors such as aircraft manufacturing company Boeing, beverage company Coca-Cola and airline Pan Am in its heyday. Back then, expats from Korea, Japan, Canada, the US, among others, had teams who played the league. Since the entry restrictions were not strict, the league flourished initially.
“But eventually the entry restrictions were heightened due to security concerns and a lot of Indians stopped participating and the league lost its charm," says Sahni.
It was last year that the GSB started managing the Little League and sought permission from the embassy to allow more players to participate. “There were 600 players and six schools in each division (Under-12 and Under-14) and four teams in tee ball which participated in the league last year," says Golden.
As of now, the GSB has been able to bring in 16 Under-12 teams and six Under-14 teams from Delhi to regularly practise at the embassy. The participants include Modern School and children from various government schools bunched up in five teams for each division. The league will have at least three more private schools next year with total participants going up to 1,000 and the GSB plans to have a high school league and move out of the embassy. “If more schools participate, then field will not be a problem," says Sahni.
The American embassy sponsors equipment for some of the government schools. Good-quality baseball bats and gloves can cost around ₹ 3,500 each. Plocher, who was contacted by a colleague at Nike who had received inquiry about equipment from Golden, has donated equipment worth ₹ 5 lakh to the GSB and also agreed to come down to India to coach teams on behalf of the GSB. “It is all for the love of baseball," says Plocher.
“Though the total number of schools (playing baseball across the country) is unclear, but in the national-level games that we go to, there are around 1,700 government school players from across the country," says Sahni.
The GSB has also managed to bring talent scouts from the US to look at Kumar and other promising players for college leagues (though none have been picked so far), and plan to have a network of coaches across the country.
“Given its similarities with cricket and a large pool of children who play cricket, I am sure India can produce many baseball players," says Sahni.