Published June 22, 2012
Steindór Steindórsson used to play his home country’s most popular sports, football and handball, but the tall and stocky 16-year-old now prefers baseball, one of the more unorthodox sports in Iceland. “I’ve been playing sports since I was small, and this was different from casual football and handball. I enjoy everything about it—hitting, catching, running,” he says.
Steindór is one of about 170 players who stream in and out of Iceland’s only official baseball club, a team without a league or competition. He occasionally watches America’s Major League Baseball on television, particularly his favourite team, the Texas Rangers, or their former star pitcher C.J. Wilson.
With some determined Internet searching, it took Steindór about a week to understand rules for base stealing and tagging up. “I was aiming to be a pitcher, but my shoulder was sort of giving out, so I might become a fielder,” he says. “It’s really fun to me.”
An unexpected roster of players
In early June, Steindór hits balls to all sides of an uphill, makeshift field where 14 players take part in throwing and hitting drills. The field, tucked next to Reykjavík’s main sports complex Laugardalshöll, has no backstop or infield clay, but it does have faint baselines. During the summer, the “troll field” is home to three weekly practices, squeezing in as much baseball as possible in Iceland’s short summers.
Players, mostly young teenagers, are clad in tennis shoes and soccer shorts. Nine-year-old Bjartur Jörfi Ingvason, playing in his first practice, stands his ground firmly on the first base bag. Heiða Arnljótsdóttir, who is 58 years old and sporting bright green socks and a Homer Simpson T-shirt, trots after fly balls in the outfield.
Some players fumble errant throws and miss easy ground balls, but others lace balls off a tee with almost picture-perfect swings, showing a surprising flair for the sport in a country that has never sent a player close to the major leagues.
The club’s first inning
Raj Bonifacius, the club’s 42-year-old president, says the club has seen steady growth since he started it five years ago. “It’s all just starting out, and some kids are curious and inquisitive. They come with bats and balls and gloves to practice and they’ll play with their friends in the neighborhood and see what we have to offer,” he says.
A native Californian who has lived in Iceland as a tennis instructor for 20 years, Raj says starting a baseball club was a way to draw kids in to America’s national past time. The club began with five members, mostly just Raj’s friends who liked to play games of catch, but has now grown to 170 players from a smattering of ages.
“We’re still building on the kids we have right now in the programme,” Raj says. “Most people like to come out and play just for fun. There’s never been any professional or semi-pro level to it. The level isn’t as great to what you see in the States.”
Looking for a rally
The club receives funding from the Reykjavík Sports Council’s lottery system, about 150,000 ISK per year that Raj says goes to making brochures and advertising. Raj and one other coach volunteer to help explain the proper batting stance and pitching wind-up, and have increased turnout by teaching the sport in local schools.
Raj says maintaining a stable roster of players has been tricky as kids leave the club once practices move indoors and traditional winter sports like handball and soccer lure players away. “Icelandic weather is no good for baseball,” he says.
It’d also be nice to have another team too, he admits. The club held the first Icelandic baseball championship in 2009, which was even recognised by the Confederation of European Baseball. The two teams both came from Raj’s baseball club, dubbed the “Trolls.”
“Competition drives sports in Iceland so we’re waiting for that to happen. It’s a chicken and egg thing,” he says. “It’s tough for one club to try to do it all. When there is another club, then there’s another competitor. That’s what gets everyone going, someone to compete with.”