PRAGUE, Czech Republic -- The Johns Hopkins baseball team has returned home from a triumphant road trip to the heart of Europe, where it competed in the 14th Prague Baseball Week tournament.
Although the Blue Jays did not take home the title, finishing third with a 4-2 record, they agreed that it was a no-lose tournament.
Hopkins coach Robert Babb said his players have plenty of time to play ball, but maybe only one chance to visit Prague. From all accounts, the team made the most of it.
"It's been great," said Babb. "My guys have certainly gotten their money's worth on this trip as far as seeing the sights in Prague, all the sights, at all hours. They're just having a good time."
Because the trip, which cost $1,700 each, was not funded by the university, only 13 players -- including four regulars and one starting pitcher -- came to Prague.
The players who made the journey described their stay with superlatives: "beautiful" for the city and the Czech women, "great" for the opportunity to tour medieval castles and enjoy the city's night life, and "impressive" to describe the organization of Czech baseball and the new diamond where the tournament was held.
Hopkins looked like a favorite early in the week, with three straight victories over two Czech teams and the Rotterdam (Holland) Orioles. But Babb said his team was tired by Friday, when the Blue Jays lost to an amateur team from Schenectady, N.Y., 11-3, in its final round-robin game.
Injuries depleted Hopkins' ranks by Saturday's semifinal, a 13-12 loss to the eventual tournament champion Czech national team. Hopkins took third place Sunday with an 8-3 win over a team of Czech league all-stars that included two expatriate Americans. Schenectady was second.
The Blue Jays got unexpected help from Czech national Martin Strnad, who suited up and played with his new-found friends. Hopkins' John Pfeifer, a Baltimore native who plays catcher and first base, said they developed some great friendships with their Czech counterparts.
"Sometimes, we can't communicate, but there's a lot of respect for what we do and what they do out on the field," Pfeifer said. "We've made friends with several of the guys and [Strnad] shows us around the city. He wants to come to the States and hang out with us."
This kind of camaraderie embodies the true purpose of the tournament -- bringing together ballplayers from different cultures.
Things have changed greatly since Babb first brought a Hopkins team here in 1992 for a stop en route to Moscow. Prague is now capital of the Czech Republic and not Czechoslovakia, after that country peaceably split into two in 1993.
The republic's successful economic transformation also has made the city more cosmopolitan and a top tourist stop. The changes were noted by Babb, but he said the biggest changes were on the diamond itself.
Babb said the difference between the new grounds and the old " field is like "night and day. I wouldn't mind having this setup at our place."
Phillip Leek, a '95 Hopkins graduate, was the only player who had made the previous Prague trip. He laughed when recalling the field from the '92 visit.
"We were playing on dirt, and the outfield wasn't even grown," he said. "[Now,] the hops are really nice in the infield. I'm really impressed."
Pfeifer, a 1992 graduate of Perry Hall High School, said: "It's better than the ones back at school."
Leek compared the Czech players of today with those he faced three years ago: "Overall, their pitching has gotten better, their hitting is improved greatly. I'm impressed. . . . In the future, they're probably going to be a contender in the Olympic $H Games."
The event drew large crowds for Czech baseball; attendance peaked Sunday at an estimated 600.
The fans' enthusiasm and the atmosphere made more than one Blue Jay think about playing over here.
Leek, 22, said: "I've thought about that every hour I've been here. I've met some of the Americans on the Rotterdam team. They played college ball, and then came over here and decided to stay here and play. I may do the same thing."
Sophomore Scott Orlovsky came down with a serious case of wanderlust on his first trip abroad. Orlovsky, 19, whose grandfather was Czech, has begun talks with Czech national team coaches about pitching for them next summer in the European Championships.
"I'd like to travel with them," he said. "I think it'd be great. It's my first time out of the country, so I'd like to be able to see other places and other cultures."