Photo by Derek Yu (CC) via Flickr

How does a guy from America start following Finnish baseball?

An unlikely story of fandom from afar

I’ve been trying for a while to tell anyone who’d listen about Pesapallo, the sport that’s a close cousin to American baseball. The sport has developed independently in Finland for 100+ years and it’s only now that Americans are slowly discovering it exists at all thanks to a succession of stories over the past two years in the Wall Street Journal & New York Times.

But my story with the sport goes back a lot earlier. The sport ended up on my radar the way most obscure sports do — I invented one. I spent a lot of time researching different sports, their origins and their development, I had an encyclopedia of obscure sports knowledge related mostly to rule development and other random facts about various sports all over the world. Pesapallo was one of that was always on my radar because of its closeness to baseball.

It wasn’t until a few years ago, that I decided to start following the sport in earnest. I have no idea why. It might have coincided with me watching more cricket & soccer. Perhaps I thought the similarities were such that it’d be less of a learning curve.

When I decided to follow #pesis in earnest.

I picked Vimpelin Veto after looking at all of the teams in the league. I wanted a team with a plausible shot at winning, but I’m not a bandwagon jumper. Vimpelin Veto play in the small town of Vimpeli with less than 5,000 people. Their stadium is surrounded by a river and balls that go into the river are in play.

I was sold.

The Saarikenttä is Vimpeli’s home stadium

Regardless of the reasons, I became a one-man evangelist for the sport at parties. Inevitably, I’d end up in a semi-awkward situation as an introvert, before I’d stumble across a dude who was into sports and we’d start talking about baseball. Once comfortable in the convo, I would pull out my phone and show them a Youtube video of this odd sport that resembled something we recognized except with quirks.

Twitter helped a lot. In 2014, I wrote an article & tweeted it hoping to get a Finnish fan who also watched American baseball to explain some of the nuances to me. A few Finns stepped up and started helping me make sense of some of the differences.

Still, Pesapallo was mostly a party trick & the language barrier made it hard for me to get immersed. The league does broadcast replays on Vimeo, so that helped. But it was hard to keep up with things besides checking in every once in a while.

Last year, at a conference in Milwaukee showing some dudes Pesapallo (and cricket)

In 2016, things changed a bit. Probably because I’ve been following more foreign soccer leagues this year than in the past. As a result, I’ve gotten more habitual about watching teams in half-dozen leagues and so, I think adding Pesapallo was a bit easier as a result.

When my fandom went viral

I’ve been tweeting semi-actively about Pesapallo for the past two years, so I didn’t think much of talking about the sport as the playoffs advanced and my favorite team — Vimpelin Veto — got closer to an elusive championship after losing five straight years to their rivals Sotakmon Jymy. (If you’re an American reading this and you support the Yankees, just become a Jymy fan and be done with it.)

Anyway, a few weeks ago the PR manager from Veto contacted me because WHAT IN THE WORLD IS AN AMERICAN DOING LIKING FINNISH BASEBALL?

He asked me to answer a few questions for an article he was doing for a newsletter. I assumed this would just go to fans of the team. Two weeks later, I wake up to this tweet of a Finnish newspaper article with me.

After the article, Finnish baseball fans started pinging me on Facebook and Twitter because they were quite amused by my interest in their national game.

The Superpesis — Finland’s major league — invited me to join them in New York City for a few days of festivities including a Yankee game (I’m a Blue Jays fan, so I passed.) & a dinner with the Finnish Ambassador in New York. Vimpelin Veto also sent me an autographed custom jersey and a bunch of Finnish baseball swag brought from Finland by the Superpesis CEO. Needless to say, I was very surprised by all of this hoopla. I also met two star players of Finnish baseball, which was a treat.

Needless to say, this experience has made me more committed to following the game. I was able to watch this year’s Superpesis men’s Final on television — live — which was a real treat, since I’d never seen live Pesapallo before. Even better (for me), was seeing Vimpelin Veto come back from down 2–1 in the championship series to win the whole thing 3 games to 2, to claim their first title since 2010 and only the 4th title in club history.

Considering we’d lost the previous FIVE championships to the same team, this was a pretty big accomplishment. Having been part of this championship run from across the pond made the entire event extra special for me.

I look forward to watching Pesapallo live in person sometime soon and could have never imagined back when I first started watching this obscure Finnish sport that it would take me on such a journey. Even teams I don’t root for have invited me over to catch a game.

Hope to take them up on it.

I don’t have a ton of moments where i have to look outside of the experience and go “wait, what is happening right now? and how is it happening to me?” But the other day provided me with a consistent array of those types of feelings.

What next?

Apparently, Pesapallo has its own World Cup. Obviously dominated by Finns, but the United States has never participated in the event despite the relative similarities of the two sports. It’s probably time that we remedied that situation in 2017.