Baseball is a wonderful game which can take you from the dusty sandlots of Sulphur Springs to the bright lights of Paris.
If you don’t believe it, just ask Josh Riley and Alex Aguilar.
They just returned from a whirlwind week of travel, tourism and most importantly baseball. After all, it was their skills on the baseball diamond which paid for the trip and made the whole adventure possible.
Riley and Aguilar, both Sulphur Springs graduates, traded in their blue and gold Wildcat uniforms to play baseball for a week for another team. One from Croatia.
They were on the Nada Splits in the recent Confederation of European Baseball Tournament held in June for five days Paris, France. Riley and Aguilar were late additions to the team and used waivers for slot for non-Croatian players. The other non-Croatian player was another American, Clint Stroud of Bonham.
“It was the best vacation ever. How can you beat it? asked Riley. “We got to a free trip to Paris. In the daytime we got to see the sights, go to the museums, the Palace of Versailles and the Eiffel Tower. Then in the evening we played baseball on a great turf field. It was just a perfect trip. It was the opportunity of a lifetime.”
Riley is the currently assistant varsity baseball coach at his alma mater, Sulphur Springs. He loves his job and has no dreams of making a comeback on the diamond, but enjoyed the recent experience.
Riley and Aguilar made the team due to contacts from their days playing college baseball.
“I played with an outfielder at Arkansas Tech named Ivan Racic,” Riley said. “He is from Croatia and helped get us on the team. They were looking for players to fill out the team and remembered us from college.”
Riley joined the team as a second base/shortstop and Aguilar as a relief pitcher. Neither had played ball since 2010-2011.
“We had about a month to train,” Riley said. “I am around baseball through my coaching, so I was still in pretty good shape. I worked on hitting. I thought that was the most important thing, to try and have my timing down for international competition.”
Riley compared the tournament to college level in talent. Most pitchers threw around 88-90 mph. Hitters all used wooden bats, not aluminum as many were used to in college.
“We played well. We did not make the championship, but we had a good tournament,” Riley said. “It was a very good experience. To see and play in baseball at that level. Baseball is still so new to over in Europe. But they like it and they are enjoying learning the game. Things we take for granted. I’d never played on a field with the dimensions were in meters. That was different. But the baseball was the same as we grew up playing. Three strikes, three outs and all that.”
Riley was the MVP in the tournament, hitting .360 in four games with a perfect 1.000 field percentage. He had seven hits, and seven RBIs, he blastedcone homer, three doubles, one triple and was two for two on stolen bases. He had 14 total bases and posted a slugging percentage of .706.
Aguilar did well in limited duty, appearing in only two games. Aguilar had an earned run average of 0.00. He pitched four total innings, allowing one hit, no runs and striking out five. Opposing hitters only batted .071 against him.
The Croatian team won 8-7 over Portugal and defeated Switzerland, 5-4. The squad lost 7-5 to host team, France and fell in the finale to Austria, 8-3.
“The guys on the team were great. It was so cool to see their interest in baseball,” Riley said. “The game was near Paris, but out in the countryside. It was pretty and very unexpected to see this nice baseball complex with turf.”
“The Eiffel Tower at night is so cool, I will remember that,” Riley said. “The palace of Versailles is just so big and lavish. We went on the short tour - that lasted four hours. We still did not get to see it all and we were there most of a day. The whole team went, it was a really unique experience.”
Riley said the city of lights has embraced baseball. Kids are now playing the sport, not just soccer not too far from the Louvre Museum.
Aguilar commented, “I was glad I got to do it. It was a different place, that’s for sure. I kind of liked how all the people in Paris had their own individual attitudes. Words really can’t describe the uniqueness of Paris. Then the Palace of Versailles was just mind-blowing. It was statue and carving one after the other. Gold on top of gold. It was just a dream come true to get to see all that.”
Aguilar, who played college baseball at Henderson State, was proud of the way he competed in international action.
“I was very happy with my play. Considering I had not pitched in a while,” Aguilar said. “I did well, had no arm problems. I was special to play on a team with Josh and Stroud. Three guys from northeast Texas playing ball in France. We laughed about that some times.”
Aguilar said, “It was super cool for me to play baseball again with Josh, a childhood friend and former teammate. I am so glad that Josh invited me and I got to do it. The guys on the Croatian team were so nice. They treated us like professional baseball players. They have such respect for the game. Many of them did not start playing baseball until they were 12 or 13. We’ve have been playing baseball most of our lives.”
The two former Wildcats made their mark on the tournament during the final day. The game was a 8-3 loss to Austria, but the Sulphur Springs players stepped up their game one more time to make memories to last a lifetime.
“Josh hit a 3-run home run in his final at-bat,” Aguilar said. “I was pitching well and struck out the side. That was a good feeling.”
Riley said with a laugh, “I guess in meters, my homer went about 122 meters which is over 400 feet. I got a fastball and made really good contact. That was my only home run, it felt good.”
Riley said he has been invited back to coach next summer.
“I will go back,” Riley said. ‘I have an offer to play and coach from Croatian and also from a team in Austria. I can’t pass up a chance to play ball and see Europe for free.”
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