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The Slovak gridiron, diamond and court

It was second and fifteen when I entered the game. I took the snap, dropped back, faked a handoff, steeled my nerves against the rush, spotted the reciever streaking thirty yards upfield and threw the football as far as I could.
It was a tight spiral. It was on target. It went right through his hands.
"Don't worry," said Milan, my center. "You were good. He was stupid."

It was second and fifteen when I entered the game. I took the snap, dropped back, faked a handoff, steeled my nerves against the rush, spotted the reciever streaking thirty yards upfield and threw the football as far as I could.

It was a tight spiral. It was on target. It went right through his hands.

"Don't worry," said Milan, my center. "You were good. He was stupid."

Thus began my famous football comeback, six years after I'd limped off the high school gridiron in upstate New York. I had joined the Bratislava Monarchs, one of two American football teams in Slovakia. I was going to relive my teenage glory years. I was going to lead them to victory over the fearsome Prague Panthers. I was going to be a star...

Weeks earlier, Monarchs coach Ľudoviť Gulka had called begging me to play for his team. It was a surprise, and not just because I had no idea how he got my number. I thought I had left American sports behind when I came to Slovakia earlier that year. I met him that night. He and Milan were wearing Monarchs Jerseys, hats and windbreakers.

At a Monarch practice I found 40 Slovaks, as big and fast as moose, playing full-contact, full-equipment American football. They threw like girls, had hands like snakes, as the expression goes, but hit hard and wanted to hear everything I knew about football. I was sold.

Since then I have discovered a functioning baseball league in Slovakia and a multitude of superb amateur basketball players. For the Canadian or American expat, playing North American sports here is gratifying. If you are average at home, you will be above average here, and what you lack in foot speed and strength you will make up for in feel for the game.

If you are interested in joining the Monarchs call Galka at 0903-425-712. The Monarchs begin practising in January. Their season lasts from April to July, with two games every three weeks. They practice twice a week for three hours.

When I was at the helm, the Monarchs, established in 1995, were calling plays by passing around a manual from a video football game. What they need most is know-how. They play on a real football field in Bratislava's Vinohrady.

Official tryouts for Slovakia's baseball league begin next week. The Slovak Baseball Federation comprises 38 teams in 12 Slovak cities and 1,180 members. Its 12 adult teams are divided into first and second leagues. The 26 junior teams are divided into three age categories, starting at age nine.

The season runs from April to October. Adults play around 50 games, on Saturdays and Sundays, and practice three times a week. An American friend of mine caught two games for the Bratislava Fighting Flies. He describes the level of play as poor to adequate.

In his words: "They're all slap hitters. They can field. There's some good pitching. They have the basics down, but a good American high school team could beat the best team in the country."

He is now in eastern Slovakia, where games are more laid back and the grasp of the rules shakier.

"Everyone smokes when they play out here," he said. "Fielding and smoking."

In some places it is thought that if a runner is forced out at first he may to run back to home base, and if he beats the throw, bat again.

For more information about Slovak baseball contact the General Secretary of the Slovak Baseball Federation František Bunta. Tel: (02) 4446-1220 Address: Kalinčiakova 12, Bratislava, email: sbf@sbf.sk. Or go to the federation's website at www.sbf.sk

Slovakia's most popular North American sport is basketball. Courts in parks throughout the country are full in the summer, with playing levels ranging from hopeless to sufficient to outstanding. I have entered pickup games in Bratislava where I was king and others where I was dunked on.

Bratislava's men's and women's basketball leagues are bona fide professional leagues. A former member of a Bratislava junior team spent the summer trying out for NBA teams. Central Slovakia's Ružomberok women's squad is the two-time defending European champion.

It's easy to find casual games in the summer (the guys who dunked on me play by Kuchajda lake near Polus City Centre in Bratislava). I regularly take a group of 16-year olds to school in a court near Nový kostol in Ružinov (new church). For information on amateur indoor leagues call the Slovak Basketball Association at (02) 4425-8326.

A word of warning to expat athletes: I was out of shape when I signed on with the Monarchs. I was smaller than most guys on the team, and unlike them, hadn't lifted weights in years. I thought none of this mattered because I could throw a tight spiral.

After my first pass was dropped, the coach called a long bomb. I took the snap, dropped back, felt the rush, scrambled to the left and felt an enormous Czech crash into my right knee. That was two years ago now. My reconstructive knee surgery is scheduled for January.

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