Dubai is an international city renowned for its incredible wealth, soaring skyscrapers, suffocating heat and Arabian culture.
It’s not known for baseball.
“I wouldn’t even say it’s anything close to the U.S.,” said junior Ben Anderson, a resident of Dubai. “We have one field, one league, we play maybe 10 games in a season and that’s it.”
Anderson and two other American players – Jack Chapleski and Collin Bianchi – from the World Baseball Showcase Colts, who played the Cody Legion baseball team last week, live in Dubai. Also on the team are Etienne Thomas, an American living in Tunisia in North Africa and native Philipino Jakob Poturnak.
The Colts, coached by Steve Fish, are typically made up exclusively by international and American players living abroad to give them a higher level of competition. But due to the travel restrictions in response to COVID-19, the rest of this year’s team is made up of members from Oregon and Washington.
A foreign life
Baseball in Dubai is a purely recreational sport.
“In Dubai, it’s a lot less competitive and a lot less refined,” Chapleski said. “It’s kind of just fun for a lot of the kids and it’s really up to you if you want to put in your own effort.”
Anderson has spent nine years in Dubai, while Bianchi has been there for eight, and Chapleski for 16.
Chapleski said he was introduced to the game by his father, who grew up playing ball in the States.
“He just heard about the league and signed me up and I guess from there my love for the game grew,” he said.
Chapleski, a senior, sees many similarities and differences between his lifestyle in the United Arab Emirates and that of a typical American teenager. He crams for tests and hangs out with friends in his free time. It’s when he steps onto the playing field that he notices the greatest difference.
“With sports it’s a lot more up to you and your own will,” he said.
Although an American citizen, Chapleski was born in Japan and has never lived in the United States.
Bianchi, a sophomore, said he lived in a small town outside Houston before moving abroad, experiencing both country and city life. He said it’s been a relief getting to travel through less dense areas like Cody this summer.
“Especially now,” he said.
Although Bianchi goes to an American school where most people are familiar with baseball, only a few play it. To those he meets who don’t know what it’s like to play, he describes it to them as “a game of failure.”
Dubai would be described as a baseball hotbed, though, when compared to Tunis, Tunisia, situated along the Mediterranean Sea in the suburb of Carthage, where Thomas has lived for the past two years.
“Great views, great food, it’s real nice,” he said.
There are no leagues or club teams in Tunis so he trains on his own throughout the year when not playing with the Colts in America. This is the senior’s fourth season on the team.
Thomas, a catcher, said he’ll often do long-toss drills on the soccer field at his school, drawing confused looks from some of his classmates.
“They’re just watching me,” he said with a laugh.
After growing up in Dubai playing baseball with Chapleski, Anderson and Bianchi, Thomas moved to Bangladesh where he said there is little to no baseball. In order to continue his passion he made contact with Fish.
Thomas has spent nearly his entire life living in cities and said coming to Cody was a new experience for him.
“I’ve never really been in a town like this,” he said. “But it’s really cool. Old western, modern western.”
Thomas, who is fluent in French and Arabic, said living globally has helped him become “super open-minded,” as he’s been exposed to more cultures and religions than he can count.
“Being appreciative of what the U.S. has for its citizens and also what I get with my experiences overseas,” he said. “Being in so many different places you get to know people really quick so I’ve been better at opening up, trying to meet new people.”
Poturnak, an incoming junior who has been playing baseball since he was 6, is a member of the Philippines U18 national team and gets to play against some of the top talent in Southeast Asia.
Still, he said most of his friends have no idea about baseball and he usually doesn’t bother trying to explain it to them.
“They usually have no interest in baseball at all,” he said with a smile.
The next level
All five of the internationals said they have noticed the higher level of baseball in America. For them, this summer is an opportunity to elevate their skills, in hopes of playing college baseball one day.
“It’s a good opportunity to judge where I’m at against the rest of the U.S. kids my age,” Anderson said. “It’s more of a mental opportunity just to know, ‘OK, this is what I’ve got to work towards. This is the level of play I have to aspire to.’”
This is shortstop Poturnak’s second baseball tour in the U.S., and he finds it’s going much better after being injured most of last season. He slapped a hard single to left in the Colts 5-2 win Wednesday over the Cubs.
“It’s definitely a lot better competition here,” he said. “It’s a really good experience, especially getting to see all the high velocities from pitchers.”
Chapleski, an outfielder and pitcher, said he has found the extra commitment to practicing and playing his “hobby-turned passion” refreshing.
“Definitely need to work on the hitting standpoint,” he said. “That’s something all the kids in America really know how to do. They know how to swing the bat.”