By BOB REDD
Bluefield Daily Telegraph
Foreign players are not uncommon in professional baseball in the United States. There have only been two in MLB history born in the former Czechoslovakia, which in 1993 split into the current Czech Republic and Slovakia.
Stepan Havlicek is the first European player drafted by the Tampa Bay organization and should he climb the baseball ladder and make it to “The Show,” he would be the first major leaguer from his homeland in more than half a century.
Havlicek first heard about the game of baseball as a youngster from an American teacher.
“I was studying in primary school and my teacher, he was from the United States, he said, ‘We have this game here...’ One day he came to me and asked if I wanted to try. I said yes. I got a ball into my hands and I threw strikes,” Havlicek said.
A small sport in the Czech Republic, baseball is played by city teams and according to Havlicek, there are about 20 clubs throughout the country. He started playing when he was 6 years old and was discovered by scouts when he was 14.
“I was playing for the national team and going to the European Championship, the scouts from the U.S., they saw me over there,” Havlicek said. “One day they came to me and said, ‘You’re good. You sign?’ And I did.”
The left-handed pitcher has spent parts of the last three years with the Rays’ Gulf Coast League team, playing partial years until last season when he came for spring training and played through the end of the season. This year, he just arrived in the United States three days ago, having gone back to the European continent to complete his education.
The son of a policeman and an office worker, Havlicek has an 18-year-old sister who is a ballet dancer. His hometown of Blansko, with a population just over 20,000, is about two-and-a-half hours from the Czech capital, Prague.
In the Czech Republic the major sports are ice hockey and soccer, neither of which Havlicek played. He hopes that baseball will continue to grow in his native country.
“The baseball in the Czech Republic is getting better every year,” he said. “We get coaches from the States and teams get better every year. I hope that baseball is going to get on a level like hockey and soccer some day.”
Asked to describe the differences between the game in the U.S. and in his home country, Havlicek said, “The baseball (here) is very different. We’ve got a big clubhouse, we’ve got trainers that care about you. It’s very different because it’s a professional sport.
“In the Czech Republic nobody knows what baseball is. People ask me, ‘What sport do you play?’ I say ‘baseball’ and they say, ‘What is that?’”
Havlicek also shares a surname with former NBA great John Havlicek.
“I’ve heard about him since I’ve been here in the United States, he played for the Boston Celtics,” Havi, as he likes to be called, said.
And the two players from Czechoslovakia that played in the majors? Carl Linhart, a pinch hitter for the Detroit Tigers in 1952, and Elmer Valo who between 1940 and 1961 played outfield for nine different teams.
— Contact Bob Redd at