Stephan Rapaglia has been Head Coach of Great Britain since early 2004. He is a former professional pitcher in the Houston Astros’ minor league organization as well as in The Netherlands and Germany. He has also coached in the US, both for Division I Iona College and for the Johnstown Johnnies (of the independent professional Frontier League).
Thanks once again to Matt for his invaluable input into the questions and to Stephan for kindly taking the time to speak to BaseballGB.
What were your first impressions of the British set-up when you became Head Coach in 2004?
When I first got involved with British baseball in 2004, I was surprised to learn how few British ballplayers were competing in the top domestic league (i.e. the National Baseball League). Some teams had several British players on their rosters, but other teams had just a couple of British players at most.
Unfortunately, while some progress has been made over the last 4 years in terms of increasing the domestic talent pool competing at the top level, largely as a result of the efforts of the British Academy and a few of the more forward-thinking British clubs, GB remains today in a very different situation from that of most its European competitor nations, the top domestic leagues of which are populated primarily by domestic ballplayers.
What were your expectations heading into the 2007 Euros?
As virtually all of the key members of our 2005 Euros squad were returning, and as we had added a few new high-level ballplayers and staff members to the mix, I would have been devastated by anything less than a medal round finish (i.e. a top-6 finish). I believed, however, that we were probably the 4th or 5th most talented team in the 2007 Euros, and that we had a real chance to compete for the title.
Was there a “watershed” point in the 2007 Euros when you realized that Team GB was probably going to achieve something special?
The watershed moment came very early on – when we defeated our Spanish hosts in a hard-fought, back-and-forth game on the opening night of the event in front of a large and raucous crowd. Because of the format of the tournament, beating one of the tournament favourites under such circumstances was of monumental importance.
As Head Coach, there must be many on-the-field and off-the-field decisions that have given you great pleasure in seeing them work out. Is there one that stands out?
That is a very difficult question to answer, as I tend to think more about my mistakes and about ways in which I can improve as a communicator and as a tactician. But, I certainly feel good about having persuaded Brant Ust (2007 Euros MVP) and Mike Nickeas (2007 Euros All-Tournament team) to join GB for the first time in 2007. Our successes in Barcelona were undoubtedly the result of a complete team effort, but Brant and Mike were difference-makers. And, I take great pleasure in the fact that these two guys, who came to us directly from their respective AAA and AA teams in the US, have stated that the time they spent with GB is at the top of their list of baseball experiences. This is a testament not only to our on-field success in Barcelona, but also to the quality of the people that we are fortunate enough to have in the GB programme.
In your role, you have joined the Great Britain team not just for the major competitions, but also for events such as the exhibition games against Johns Hopkins in 2007 and the GB try-out at Hemel Hempstead in 2008. How important has it been for you to attend these other events?
I consider these domestic events to be enormously important. Alan Smith (GB’s General Manager) and I have tried to further two basic goals during our tenures with the GB programme. First, we wish to see GB achieve as much success as it can at the international level. And, second, we wish to further the development of GB-based ballplayers who have the requisite skill and level of commitment to participate in the GB programme. Events such as the JHU friendlies, the Hemel Hempstead trial and the recent Taunton event (against Marcus Trescothick’s “Bangers”) are consistent with this latter goal, and, as they occur on domestic soil, they serve the additional purposes of exposing elements of the British public to the great game of baseball and to the GB programme.
How does attending an event such as the one-day GB try-out at Hemel Hempstead fit in with your week-to-week schedule in the US?
Candidly, it does not fit in very well! I work full-time in Connecticut as a real estate lawyer, so any time spent with GB Baseball involves weekends and/or holiday time. For brief events such as the Hemel Hempstead trial, I typically catch a red-eye flight from New York to Heathrow on Friday evening and then return to New York on Sunday afternoon. This type of schedule does enable me to avoid missing work, but it also means that I occasionally lose a weekend with my 3 little girls.
What are you most looking forward to about the 2009 Baseball World Cup?
It will be a true privilege to have the opportunity to compete against some of the top baseball nations in the world. For example, our first game in Moscow will be against Japan, the reigning World Baseball Classic title winner. I’m very excited to see what we can do against the world’s best. I’m also just looking forward to working with our players and other coaches again. That, too, is a privilege for me.
What realistic aims should Team GB have for the tournament?
Assuming that we have sufficient funding to prepare adequately for the event and to put together our strongest-possible roster, we should advance to the second round. And, from there, anything is possible.
What do you think the future will hold for Team GB and British baseball as a whole?
I am reluctant to speculate about the future of Team GB, but I will say that Team GB’s near future will be shaped largely by our performance in the 2009 World Cup and by the reinstatement (or lack of reinstatement) of baseball as an Olympic sport.
As for British baseball as a whole, I think the future depends primarily on the continued growth of domestic youth baseball, as youth participation is crucial to attracting popular attention and funding support for the game. The BBF has made significant recent headway in terms of increasing youth participation, and I am hopeful that strong performances by Team GB on the international stage will also play a role in attracting British children to baseball.
In 3 weeks’ time, BaseballGB will publish the third in a series of Q&As with Great Britain team members.