Federation Focus: New movement aims to boost baseball, softball in Finland

Federation Focus: New movement aims to boost baseball, softball in Finland
In the first edition of the Federation Focus series in 2021, the newly elected president of the Finnish Baseball and Softball Federation talks about the relationship with pesäpallo - the Finnish version of baseball - and how the sports can develop together and how the COVID-19 pandemic has impacted their year, including the delay in celebrating their 40th anniversary of activity.

While baseball featured as a demonstration sport on the programme of the 1952 Olympics in Helsinki, Finland, the organizers actually threw a curveball with a baseball variant called pesäpallo, a Finnish version of baseball invented in the 1920s by Lauri Pihkala, the first professional athletics (track and field) coach in Finland. Pihkala himself, at the time 64 years old, officiated the ceremonial first pitch of a demonstration game on 31 July 1952.

A Finnish team was actually involved in an exhibition baseball game against the US soccer team at the 1952 Games however baseball wasn’t officially introduced in Finland until 1981.

“The anniversary was in 2020, but we couldn’t organize a celebration due to the pandemic. We plan on playing an international game as the main event of the celebration at the end of our season. We will announce the opponent and the dates as soon as possible.”

Finnish Baseball and Softball Federation president Jukka Ropponen on how Finland will celebrate 40 years of baseball activity in the country

The Finnish Baseball and Softball Federation (SBSL, Suomen Baseball ja Softball Liitto) is, in fact, a section of the Pesäpallo Federation (PPL, Pesäpallo Liitto). The Finnish Ministry of Education and Culture recommended in 2013 that smaller sports organized their operations under larger national federations in order to make governance easier. The Competition Committee of PPL names the President and the Board of SBSL for a three-year term.

Pesäpallo is a combination of two words: pesä means base and pallo means ball.

“It is the second-biggest summer sport in Finland right after soccer and the fourth-most popular team sport overall. Pesäpallo has over 18,000 registered players and the top league is professional,” Jukka Ropponen, the President of SBSL, told the World Baseball Softball Confederation.

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Ropponen played baseball in Sweden and became a perennial winner of the best pitcher award in Finland. Born in 1959, he is an expert in international business, internationalisation and international growth. He has also been a top ice hockey goalie coach. He served as the first SBSL President in 1981 and 1982.

“It was actually one of my conditions to have a formal and tight relationship between baseball and pesäpallo, before I took over the presidency of SBSL again,” added Ropponen. “The reason is simple. In a small country like Finland, we can’t afford to waste time, fighting against each other. We’d rather work together on behalf of the Finnish people to provide them with as many opportunities as possible to participate in sports activities from the beginners’ level all the way to possible professional and international careers.”

“It is great to have a well-organized world governing body for the sport. On top of all the well-organized opportunities to compete on the international stage, we are really looking forward to any help smaller countries can get to develop the game. Things like equipment help, online education programmes for coaches and officials, can be the key to start growing the number of people participating in our sports in Finland again."

Jukka Ropponen on the World Baseball Softball Confederation

Ropponen added: “Baseball is mainly played in urban areas and larger cities. It is, of course, very much an international sport, unlike pesäpallo. These two sports really work well under the same umbrella. Together our sports can meet the goals set by the Finnish Olympic committee much better.”

Which are these goals in short?
“We are expected to grow the number of registered players and to be able to compete at the European Championship. Pesäpallo and baseball offer a joint players development path, no matter which sport they choose to play. The transition from pesäpallo to baseball and vice-versa can also be quite fast. Many current baseball players have started as pesäpallo players, and after moving to larger cities like Helsinki, they have switched to baseball instead of giving up the sport.”

“Soccer or hockey provide tremendous international opportunities for talented athletes and have plenty of internationally famous Finnish athletes as role models. But we plan to build that development path all the way to top pro level for young athletes so that they can see the opportunities in pesäpallo and baseball, no matter which sport they get started with.”

Ropponen continued: “Once we have tackled the issue against other sports, it does not really matter if kids start with pesäpallo or baseball. We will make it easy for them to try both sports and move from one to another. What sport they will start with, will most likely be defined on how strong the local pesäpallo and baseball clubs in various areas are and how good and attractive their programmes are.”

Second time in charge
Having been the inaugural president of SBSL in 1981 and 1982, Ropponen, the first member of the Finnish Baseball Hall of Fame, entered his second presidential term in August 2020.

“I took over the position when the season was just about over, and I need to give credit to the previous president, Tony Jones and our Secretary General, Ville Saarman for executing both men’s leagues and one youth programme during the pandemic outbreak. Our leagues opened in June, with a one-month delay. The season was shorter than during a normal year. We also had plans for larger grassroots programmes, but we had to settle on just one because of the COVID-19 restrictions.”

After a tough, coronavirus-affected year, Ropponen confirmed that softball and Baseball5 will have a major role to play in the federation's development plan to help grow the sport across the country. “We plan to reintroduce softball in Finland. We have a long term plan for the Women’s Softball National Team. We will start by introducing softball to women’s pesäpallo teams. After the summer, we also plan to introduce Baseball5 in schools, in Helsinki and other major cities.”

And as far as the national league and national teams are concerned, Ropponen has his eyes set on the overall level of play improving thanks to the benefit of long daylight hours. “Our summers are great for baseball as we have all the natural light we need. The season starts in May and ends in September. The pesäpallo season has the same schedule.

“We have our Finnish Championship league and also Division-II, which is also known as Fat Lizard league, named after the Brewery that sponsors the league. We plan to run both leagues in 2021, as well as three or four youth programmes. We are working on the funding right now.

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“Internationally, we will open the season at our new Helsinki, Myllypuro baseball stadium in May, when Norway and Estonia will join us at the Nordic Challenge 2021 tournament. After that we will participate in the European Championship Qualifier in Bratislava, Slovakia.

“The game in Europe has changed and developed a lot since I played. However, cooperation with pesäpallo gives us a chance to develop our level of play a bit faster and catch up with the rest of Europe.”

The Finland men's baseball team is currently ranked 61st in the WBSC World Rankings, down from a high of 52 in 2016, while the women's national team is ranked 15th, having peaked at 12th position in 2014. In softball, the Finland men's team is ranked 23rd while the women's national team is 68th, having been as high as 38th in 2018.