If baseball had the popularity in Britain that football, rugby, and cricket enjoy, then Brant Ust would undoubtedly be a household name, not least because of his tournament MVP performance at the 2007 Euros, which spearheaded Great Britain’s silver medal finish – their equal best A-pool result.
From his first baseball experiences in a backyard in Buckinghamshire to a Minor League career that has seen him reach the AAA-level with both the Detroit Tigers and Seattle Mariners organizations, Brant’s story is as fascinating as it is unconventional.
Thanks to Matt for his help with the questions and to Brant, of course, for taking the time to share his thoughts with BaseballGB.
Where did you grow up and how did your baseball career develop?
I was born in Brussels, Belgium and just before I turned two we moved to Gerrards Cross, Buckinghamshire, UK where we lived until I was ten years old and from there we moved out to Seattle, Washington, USA. I started playing baseball from the earliest days of my childhood; I have two older brothers so we played countless Wiffle ball games (which usually ended in fights/beanballs) in our backyard. I am sure these games drew curious stares from our English neighbours.
I first started playing organized baseball in the Little Leagues that were set up at RAF West Ruislip/RAF High Wycombe in the 80s. People always assumed I didn’t play baseball until we moved to the States but I correct them saying my first baseball games or overall experiences with baseball were on British soil. In fact, we were the Little League UK Champions in 1988, losing in Germany for a chance to go to the Little League World Series. I still have the team jacket at home. Once I got Stateside I was excited to compete against ‘homegrown’ baseball talent. I was also excited to be able to play American football, but baseball was always my priority and first love, and propelled me to attend the University of Notre Dame on scholarship and later get drafted.
How did you first get involved with the British national team?
The initial contacts with GB Baseball started around 2002, with interest in the upcoming 2003 European Championships as a possibility. The biggest problem was that many of the European tournaments were during the professional season, which made it tough to break away for weeks after being contractually obligated to my team in the States. Finally, in 2007, things worked out perfectly, and because it was an Olympic qualification, IBAF and MLB had worked so that the timing would allow each country to put together its strongest side.
The European Baseball Championships in 2007 was a great success for the team and for you personally. What were your expectations heading into the event and what was it like playing for Team GB in a tournament for the first time?
The 2007 Euros were the most fun I have had playing the game of baseball. I had international baseball experience with Team USA, so I knew that these tournaments were fun, fast and unpredictable. As for the GB team, besides Mike Nickeas [another player with Minor League experience], I really had no idea what type of team we were going to have. All I did know going in was that Stephan [Rapaglia, Head Coach] and Alan [Smith, General Manager] had exhausted every resource, and tirelessly worked to attempt to put together as good a team as GB had ever entered in a tournament, and I think the results were indicative of their efforts.
For me personally, it started that first workout and exhibition game we had before the opening night Spain game. I could sense the focus, the intensity, the ‘nothing to lose’ attitude which carried us through the tourney. After our opening night victory against a strong Spanish squad, in front of an electric crowd, we were filled with confidence. In sports, a team with confidence and momentum can do great things.
You had previously represented Team USA. What experiences did you gain from that event and what are the main differences between being involved with the Team USA set-up and the Team GB set-up?
I was fortunate to partake in two stints with Team USA, in 1998 as a member of the National Team and again in 2005. Both experiences were memorable. It is where my appreciation and respect for international baseball started.
The Holland 2005 World Cup was an intense experience. We had a solid squad and were in the toughest pool, ending in a 4-way tie for first; therefore we faced Cuba in the opening game of the medal round. It was great playing for Davey Johnson, a true baseball man. My best games came against the Spanish, Japanese and Cubans, so I was proud of my performances against the world’s best, and even though our tourney ended in defeat to the Cubans it was an exciting two weeks. I was honoured to have represented the United States.
It prepared me for the challenge that was ahead of us in the 2007 Euros. It made me fully aware of the commitment and honour in representing Great Britain. I was also prepared in understanding the format and way in which international baseball tournaments are played, which is different from the 162 game pace played professionally in the States, in ways such as the importance of scoring every inning, the complex tiebreakers, and the significance of runs scored/allowed.
The biggest difference between the two experiences would be that Team USA is fortunate to have a lot more financial backing from numerous outlets in the US, whereas GB Baseball really has to make a concerted effort to provide for every detail that goes into running a successful National Team.
The silver medal finish meant that Team GB made the Final Olympic qualifying tournament, but a lack of funds meant we could not take our place in the event. How disappointing was it to not be able to take part?
It was very disappointing. We felt that we had taken this tremendous step forward with our Euros result, only to take a half step backwards. It was frustrating to think another team was going to reap the rewards of our hard work and play in a tournament that we could have been competitive in and maybe shook things up.
I was in spring training at the time with the Seattle Mariners, and some teammates that played for Canada, Chinese Taipei and Australia came back and wanted to know WHY GB wasn’t there. It was a shame to have to tell them it was simply funding. It is also never good from a PR or image standpoint to not be able to attend an elite level tournament.
What are your expectations (personally and for the team) for the 2009 Baseball World Cup?
There is excitement amongst GB Baseball for the upcoming tournament. There are definitely winnable games in our bracket. The emphasis now is on putting together the strongest squad to represent Great Britain on and off the field. I trust Stephan, Alan and the rest of the GB Baseball staff will do this, and who knows, maybe some magic will happen again in Moscow.
What other baseball plans do you have for the 2009 season?
I haven’t completely decided on my baseball plans for the 2009 season. That is something I will have to thoroughly explore with my wife, Jessy, and in doing so figure out what is in our best interest as a (growing) family.
It is a challenging time for baseball in Britain, with the sport being removed from the Olympic programme, but what role do you think the national team can play in helping baseball’s development in the country?
Olympic funding being cut was a punch in the gut, especially with the 2012 games approaching. However, it isn’t productive to dwell on what could/should have been. I feel it is in the best interest of baseball in the UK to explore every opportunity and become ever more creative in its endeavours and attempts at growing the game.
An example of this is the GB Baseball versus cricketers exhibition in Taunton, Somerset this past October. A great crowd and a well-organized event provided a fun afternoon where baseball was on display. Baseball in the UK has never had the intent of replacing other sporting interests, but merely offering a new, unique and already internationally popular option to keen sports fans. All you need is a ball and a bat…
In 3 weeks’ time, BaseballGB will publish the second in a series of Q&As with Great Britain team members.