Legion pitcher Finkelstein’s European tour leaves an impression
For Nashua Senior Amercan Legion Post #124 standout Zach Finkelstein, it was the perfect trip.
That’s because it contained the perfect combination.
“If you have a love of history, and a love of baseball, it’s unbelievable,” Finkelstein said.
He’ll pitch and also play first base in the state Senior Legion tournament at Holman Stadium that begins this Friday, and the Nashua High School South alum and McGill University sophomore hopes to make good memories.
But it might be tough to top the memory he had of touring Europe a month ago with a team comprised of college players from all over Canade. And not just for the baseball aspect. And remember, Finkelstein also won a Canadian national championship at McGill last fall.
“I find Europe really fascinating, I’m a big history guy,” Finkelstein said. “If I see some cool history movie on TV, I always turn it on.
“Places like Nuremburg, and what happened there. And going to Prague, a place that still looks like it’s recovering from Soviet oppression.”
The trip was a three country tour of Germany, the Czech Republic, and Austria, and the Canadian team began in Munich, then a small town in Germany known as Tubignen, then on to Nuremburg, then Prague, and then to Austria for one of Europe’s largest tournaments in Octagon. Then it was back to Munich for a day.
The trip was organized by the McGill head coach, Casey Auerbach, who played a couple of years in Switzerland after his college career, which was also at McGill. He came up with the idea of a European playing/sightseeing tour a couple of years ago for college players from all over Canada.
“It was to show them there’s baseball outside of North America and to experience the history,” Finkelstein said, saying he jumped at the opportunity along with three of his McGill teammates.
Finkelstein had been to Europe once before, with Nashua South – ironically organized by his Panthers baseball coach/South social studies teacher James Gaj – but not like this. The first time was to London, Normandy, Paris and Berlin, and there was no baseball involved.
The sojurn began with a flight to Munich on May 30, then eventually back to Munich to fly home on June 12.
Let’s take you through the tour through the words of Finkelstein, a lot of history and culture, with a little bit of baseball mixed in:
FIRST STOP: MUNICH
Finkelstein, ever the history buff, was in learning mode.
“A lot of stuff was destroyed in Germany during World War II,” he said, “with all the bombings from the Russians and the Americans. Munich is a city that’s partly old, and partly rebuilt. … To see that vast contrast is really cool.”
But what stood out was the visit to the Olympic Park, where tragedy occurred in 1972 – the Munich massacre by Palestinian terrorists executed 11 members of the Israeli Olympic Team. “They show you kind of where everything happened,” he said. “Now it’s more of a recreational site, kind of the way a lot of Olympic parks have turned into. It was an interesting place, where it’s a place that was supposed to be of happiness, showcasing the best of each country, then obviously tragedy occurred.” Finkelstein saw the rememberance area of that.
Finkelstein was enamored with downtown Munich, with the beer gardens where everyone sits outside “till very late at night, just hang out. It’s a whole different world. It’s a different culture. I find it to be much more relaxed. I find that in (the U.S.) we live in more of a rushed culture, for better for for worse.”
NEXT STOP: TUBINGEN
This is one of the oldest cities in Germany, not heavily populated, and “it’s what we would consider to be a college town,” Finkelstein said. “A lot of young people, it’s very vibrant.”
And the home of one of the German professional league teams, which the Canadian team played a three-game series against. The xxxx River goes through the middle of the city, and you sit on boats similar to Venice. “They row you down the river and you spend the afternoon there,” he said. “But there was more baseball than I think anything else.”
And the food. A lot of bratwurst, and “it’s heavy,” the local Legion standout said. “The food is very heavy. Even breakfast at the hotel is heavy meats. Nothing is light there. But you walk around and it’s surprising because everyone seems to be in pretty good shape.”
NEXT STOP: NUREMBERG
One game was played here, but the history again trumped baseball, with the site of the Nuremberg Trials. Fitting after Munich.
“You see justice for what happened,” Finkelstein said, “It was a really interesting to see what happened there,” he said. “What I didn’t know about Nuremburg was that it’s a beautiful city.”
A whole town, surrounded by a massive wall and moat. “It’s crazy, I never pictured it that way,” Finkelstein said. “I always pictured Nuremberg as a smaller town being put on the map because of the trials. You don’t say ‘Nuremberg, very famous, medevil, historic German town. But that’s what it is. A cool place.”
NEXT STOP: PRAGUE
On the way, the team stopped at an old time beer factory, built in the late 1600s. But then it was on to Prague.
“It was my favorite place in the trip,” Finkelstein said. “A beautiful, amazing city. I knew it was a big city, but I didn’t realize how large it was. So many cool things going on. The people were awesome, the food was great; it’s one of those places where you get there and the pictures don’t do anything for it. … It’s a special place.”
And through all the beauty, there was still history.
“They still have the Soviet street cars, like you see in a Soviet movie,” Finkelstein said. “They’re starting to replace them. You’ll see some new ones, but then you’ll see the old ones. And it’s really interesting, even outside the city a little bit, you’d see low-income housing where everything looks the same.
“They used to have fences around them because (the Soviets) didn’t want people escaping and things like that. It’s crazy. They haven’t destroyed (them) because they want to leave the rememberance of what communism caused them. For me, that was really cool to see, an eye-opening experience.”
There was baseball too, against one some of the top players in Europe.
Last but not least, the baseball was an experience. Perhaps the stiffest competition came in Prague, according to Finkelstein, as the Czech Republich league had the most competive players.
“It had the best players,” he said. “People may not know it, but the Czech League is the most competitive league in Europe.”
NEXT STOP: AUSTRIA
At one of the smaller towns, the team played in a highly competitive tournament in its first real stadium environment.
“You wonder, ‘Why would they build this?'” Finkelstein said. “But it’s there, they had concessions, everything that was going on there.”
And a music festival was going on right next to the facility. “You go to the games, then there’s this festival that was going on at night,” he said. “Really fun. That was probably one of the coolest three days of baseball I ever played – so much different than anything I’d ever done baseball wise.”
Why? In high school and college, the competition is fierce. In this event, Finkelstein felt more relaxed.
“It’s not that you’re not competing there,” he said. “But you’re playing European teams from places you never thought played baseball. Hearing languages you never hear on a baseball field – people speaking German on a baseball field, or Italian. You would think you were at a soccer game.”
NEXT STOP: HITLER’S EAGLE’S NEST
The official term for this hideway top the German Alps is “Kehlsteinhaus” which is atop the summit of Kehlstein.
“It’s one of the most beautiful views I’ve ever seen,” Finkelstein said. “There was still snow up there, in the middle of summer. You’re looking out, but you’re not just seeing the view, but understanding the history aspect of it as you walk into the house. In World War II, (Hitler) spent most of his summers there. And held a lot of state meetings there. You’re standing right next to this couch, and all of a sudden you look up and see this picture of Hitler having meetings with other world leaders at the time. To sit there and think what was said in those meetings, and how it changed the course of history.”
Plus, as Finkelstein noted, a lot of the plans of the Holacaust were made there. Pictures of Hitler meeting with his generals are reminders of that. “They’re sitting there with maps, looking at where they’re going to put camps, railroad maps of how they’re going to get people there.
“It’s disgusting – the best way to put it – but the (precision) of how this was thought out. Unbelievable to be there. Just to think that that much effort, that much time, went into that and to be there where it happened, and to see how it happened, was a cool experience. Not just for the view.”
Finkelstein got a glimpse of why Hitler chose that spot. “When you’re driving up there, it’s like driving into the clouds,” he said.
They took one bus to a certain point and then switched to a smaller special bus that was to make the remaining 20 minute trek up a steep, winding road.
The bus will stop and Finkelstein and the group had to walk into a tunnel and take a “secret elevator” to the area where the house was.
“You can understand why what happened there was able to happen,” he said. “You would never know it was there.”
LAST STOP: MUNICH (PART TWO)
The team had to return to Munich to fly home, and in this return visit, they saw one of the more eye-opening sites: The Dachau Concentration Camp.
“It’s just outside Munich, a 20-minute train ride,” he said. “A terrible place, terrible what happened. But I think it’s important that it’s a place where, if you’re there, you go. History is important as something to learn so that things like that don’t repeat itself.”
Chilling. The gates just stuck in his mind. “When you walk in, it’s like stepping into a whole new world,” he said. “You step through a gate, and all of a sudden you look around, and you’re surrounded by barbed wire fence. You can’t put yourself in the place of what those people would have thought, but you can only stand there and say how I feel right now. It’s a solemn place, a sad place, but something really important for me to see while I was there.”
It was played in different fashion. In Tubignen, the Canadian squad played the Tubignen Hawks, playing three seven inning games.
“It ‘s still baseball, and baseball can only change so much,” Finkelstein said. “But it’s different. Something that was really different for me: Here they play music in between innings, etc. There, they would play the music, you go out to warm up, I was pitching, and the music is playing.”
It would stop, and Finkelstein would throw the inning’s first pitch.
And then it the music would come back on.
“I’m like ‘What’s going on here.’,” he said. “Then I go into my windup, the music stops. I get the ball back again, and the music starts again.”
He asked some of the opposition, and he was told it gave the game more of a soccer aspect.
Finkelstein saw the players position themselves differently defensively. And umpires would also position themselves differently. “But they still were able to make the calls, so it worked out.”
Finkelstein’s team won all four games in Germany, but the toughest competition came against the Prague Eagles.
Some of the teams had North Americans, but the Eagles played on one of the biggest baseball complexes in Europe.
“It felt like you were playing at Holman Stadium,” Finkelstein said. “They took it seriously. When we played in Prague, I felt like I was playing more of a college-level baseball game.”
The Eagles beat Team Canada 8-2. What was interesting is one of the Eagles players plays his college baseball at North Carolina State – infielder Vojtech Mensik. “He is a very, very good player,” Finkelstein said.
The Austrian tournament is known as “Finkstonball”. Team Canada went 2-2 in four games. “Awesome, really good atmosphere, fans at every game, Europeans who really love baseball,” Finkelstein said. “Teams from Germany, Austria, Czech Republic, we played a team from Budapest, and there was a Russian team. I didn’t even know they had baseball in Russia. They weren’t very good, but they were there.
“And the fans were saying, ‘This is our one chance every year to see good baseball in Europe.”
At Finkstonball, umpires came from all over the world. Finkelstein talked to one who was from South Korea. “They come just for the experience,” he said.
Also, some of the umpires talked about how their dream was to come the U.S.and see a Major League game.
“And now just how it’s played,” Finkelstein said, “but they want to see the umpires.” Finkelstein pitched a game in Germany, a game in Prague, one game in Austria, and played at first base in one game in Nuremberg.
Finkelstein was impressed to see first-hand how baseball appears to have grown in Europe. But what was the biggest thing he took from the trip?
“For me, the history of all these place was unbelievable,” he said. “The biggest thing I took away was the cultural aspect. Going to a place where you don’t feel like a tourist, and experience day-to-day (European) life. The people were awesome. I’ve never had a bad experience with the people in Europe.
“They want to know as much about you as you want to know about them.”