RALEIGH — Baseball, as explained by Nuke LaLoosh in the movie “Bull Durham,” is a simple game. You throw the ball, you catch the ball, you hit the ball.
It’s the same no matter where the sport is played, be it Yankee Stadium, NC State’s Doak Field or a random diamond somewhere in the Czech Republic.
No one knows that better than Vojtech Mensik and Marek Chlup.
While most youngsters their age were honing their soccer or hockey skills, the Czech mates were spending their summers playing a game as foreign in their home country as they are now as residents of the United States.
And yet despite their nontraditional baseball backgrounds, both are still good enough to have caught the eye of State coach Elliott Avent and become contributors to a Wolfpack team currently ranked among the top five in the nation.
“The level and approach to baseball here is so different,” said Mensik, whose first name is pronounced Woy-teh. “We don’t have anything like school teams back in Czech Republic. The (velocity) and the quality of pitching is also different. It’s been an adjustment, but it’s just baseball.”
Mensik has gotten the most playing time of the pair, seeing action in 29 of his team’s 33 games while earning 25 starts at third base heading into Wednesday’s nonconference showdown with Coastal Carolina.
A skilled defensive player, the 20-year-old freshman has also held his own at the plate by hitting .272 with four doubles, two homers, 14 RBI and a team-leading seven stolen bases.
Chlup, also a freshman, has made just 15 plate appearances in nine games — mostly as a pinch hitter — as he waits to crack the lineup in an outfield loaded with veteran talent. But one of his three hits thus far was a home run, providing a brief glimpse of the power purported to be his biggest asset.
As unlikely as their story might be, Mensik and Chlup are nothing like the two converted cricket bowlers from India that came to this country as a publicity stunt a few years ago in hopes of signing as pitchers with a major league team.
Both are accomplished players that have long dreamed of playing at the highest level in America. Chlup’s father, in fact, is a former player and coach who also served as a scout for the Seattle Mariners.
Although baseball is a minor sport in the Czech Republic, the country does have a national team, at least one major domestic league and two baseball academies — in the capital city of Prague and in Menski’s hometown of Brno.
“Soccer and hockey have a longer history here, but baseball is growing fast,” former national coach Mike Griffin said in an interview with Czech Radio. “There are a lot of opportunities internationally and young players see that there is a future in baseball.”
While baseball lore is filled with stories of coaches and scouts going to great lengths to seek out players capable of helping their clubs win championships, Avent didn’t have to leave his own home stadium to discover his two Czech imports.
They actually came to him as members of the Czech national team, which played two fall exhibition games against the Wolfpack at Doak Field as part of a U.S. tour in 2017.
“Before the NCAA let us play two games (against other college teams) during the fall season, you were allowed to schedule games with international teams,” Avent said. “When we played the Czech national team two falls ago, we saw these two players and we liked them a lot.”
Neither Mensik nor Chlup had heard of NC State before that trip to Raleigh. But both were impressed enough with what they saw of the facilities, the coaching staff and the weather to jump at the opportunity when Avent approached them about playing for the Wolfpack.
In an effort to help ease their transition to a new culture, team officials had student manager Cal Tomasic, an American of Czech descent, room with the international freshmen.
Not that they really needed the help.
“There’s not much of a difference in the culture,” said Chlup, who like Mensik learned English at an early age and speaks the language fluently. “Czech is more of a historic country, so there’s more history there. The biggest difference is the weather and the food.”
Their transition on the field, despite appearances to the contrary, hasn’t been as seamless according to their coach.
“Both Vojtech and Marek had a great learning curve, because in a country where soccer and hockey are king, the velocity of fastballs and level of breaking balls they’re used to seeing weren’t up to what they’re facing here,” Avent said. “It seemingly looks like it’s come easy, but these two guys have worked as hard as any players I’ve ever had here.”