Mike Sundman, 1951, was born and raised in New Jersey but commuted to high school in New York City which meant the early end of playing baseball. He holds a BA degree from Columbia University and an MBA from New York University. His career was Corporate Development. At Ciba-Geigy (Novartis) he was Head Business Development and co-established the company’s first 10-15 alliances with biotechnology companies. At Basler Insurance he was SR VP Corporate Development and led the international divestiture program in 1997-1998. He founded his own consulting business in 1999.
In his Interview Mike Sundman talks about the history of baseball, about the strategy of baseball and about how to approach younger talents with this special sport. Mike Sundman explains what the difference is between softball and baseball and he obviously likes Hornussen, a very old and traditional Swiss sport, that is in its principals quite similar to baseball. But, with a glimpse in his eyes, he adds that the baseballers would drink the beer after the game…
Xecutives.net: Mr. Sundman, you have been in Switzerland for decades for professional and family reasons and are very familiar with Switzerland and the USA. For some years now you have been coaching young baseball players of the Therwil Flyers Baseball-Team, one of the few baseball teams here, and have intensively studied this sport. How did you come to this sport yourself?
Mike Sundman: Actually, I am only a coach since early 2015. It is very rewarding. As a kid in New Jersey USA everybody knew baseball. It is still “the national pasttime.” Note we don’t say national sport since we Americans also have football (fall) and basketball (winter). Baseball (summer) is unique in that it dates back to before modern clocks and there is no set time limit as to how long the game lasts.
Xecutives.net: Baseball is a very old sport. It is said, that ancient cultures had known similar games, such as the Egypts. This is not surprising at all, as the game itself with a ball and a stick is something fascinating, and on first sight easy. But what is the reason the sport is so common in USA and other countries such as Japan and Asia in general, but not in Europe?
Mike Sundman: Well I can only guess, but think it has a lot to do with World War II. Soldiers stationed in Japan played baseball and the locals were invited to participate, I guess. Same thing happened with the Korean War. Today the best players from Japan and Korea play in USA. And the Caribbean has always been an American playground. Some of the world’s best players come from Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Aruba is full of baseball fields which I guess explains why the Dutch are so good.
Xecutives.net: Some people might know cricket or softball. What is the difference to baseball?
Mike Sundman: Good question! Softball is basically the same as baseball but the ball is larger (but not soft!) and flies less far so the field can be smaller. Softball is actually the most frequent form of baseball played in USA (barbecues, reunions, old-timers, girls, etc.). Cricket I believe was at least indirectly the source of baseball and I played a bit when living in England and really like cricket a lot. The direct source for baseball was the English game rounders. Not sure if rounders derived from cricket or the other way around. The key difference in cricket is each batter gets only one turn at bat per game (brutal) and there are two batsmen playing at once. The bowler (pitcher in baseball) throws X times in one direction then switches direction so both batsmen are playing. Also, the ball can be hit in any direction (360 degrees; no out of bounds).
Xecutives.net: In Switzerland we have a similar game, the «Hornussen», very old and traditional national sport, that also had been described by author Jeremias Gotthelf. What does Hornussen have in common with Baseball?
Mike Sundman: Oh man, I love Hornuss. I happened upon it live shortly after arriving in Switzerland. I was invited to play but since I knew basically no German I declined. The biggest commonality I guess is beer, but baseballers wait until the game is over (laughs).
Xecutives.net: We are currently reading a lot about the USA and its politics. For many, the gap between Democrats and Republicans is incomprehensible, the whole political issues are weird for some people who are not familiar with this continent. Is baseball a sport that helps bridge the gap in the USA?
Mike Sundman: (Laughs) Well it is weird and don’t get me started please. I don’t think politics enter baseball since everybody basically loves baseball (maybe my views are biased….).
Xecutives.net: There is even more politics! I’m talking about the colour barrier. Until 1947 black people were not allowed to play in white Baseball teams in USA. Then a famous coach and trainer changed this. Did baseball have an impact on the developments regarding the overcoming of racism?
Mike Sundman: Baseball like basketball and football have had a very positive impact on integration, not just black and white but over the year’s immigrants to USA from everywhere. I don’t know who the famous coach you mention was but my favourite player as a kid was Stan Musial of the St. Louis Cardinals. The team brought in the first 2 to 3 black players and they were playing cards by themselves in the locker room. Stan walked over, sat down and said “deal me in”. If you watch baseball today you don’t see white and black and Hispanic, you see one team. Of course, this helps the nation a lot.
Xecutives.net: You’re coach of a whole team of young and motivated baseballers. They come from all over the world and they live in Basel, most of them have parents working for the pharmaceutical industry or for University. I’ve seen them playing and this was great fun and very exciting! What motivated you as a top manager some years ago to dedicate yourself to the Therwil Flyers Team, one of the first four baseball teams in Switzerland?
Mike Sundman: I always loved baseball. When I first came to Switzerland in 1989, I came to a Flyers game and brought my son and taught him how to throw and catch and hit. But his friends played soccer so that is what he did too. A few years ago, when approaching retirement, I thought that I finally have time to give something back and approached the Flyers and it has worked out fine.
The first tragedy in my life was needing to commute from New Jersey to Manhattan to attend high school and in Manhattan there are very few baseball teams (but several informal softball fields as mentioned before) and that was the end of baseball for me. So, I am glad to be back and trying to bring to kids the love of the game I had to leave behind. And you’re right, they are doing absolutely great!!
Xecutives.net: The training does not only consist in sport activity. It is a lot about strategy and for people who do not know the sport, the baseball rules are quite complicated. How do you convey strategy and rules to even very young children playing Baseball.
Mike Sundman: Oof! It takes patience (laughs). First, I need to get it straight in my own head after decades away from the sport. It is complicated. My focus is on helping the younger kids develop the basic skills (throw, catch, hit, run). The better they can do the basics the more they have their heads free to absorb the tactics. But you’re right, the rules are not easy to understand and it takes years to catch all the details you need to succeed in baseball.
Xecutives.net: What is it, professional national league players must have in order to be part of the Baseball elite? What skills are needed?
Mike Sundman: That is way beyond me. But watching the pros it is reassuring to see how often they execute the basics the same way we teach our 8 to 12 years olds to do.
Xecutives.net: Baseball is a team sport. On first sight it looks simple. Somebody hits a ball and the other team must get it. But on second sight, one, who is interested will find out, that the game is very complicated. Who made the rules and are those rules changing, like often in Football?
Mike Sundman: Football (soccer) is a more physically demanding sport with players running 10 or so km per game. Baseball is less demanding physically but more demanding in some ways mentally. There are over 120 games in a season for professional baseballers. I don’t think the basic rules of the game have changed much in 100 years but the rules about equipment have evolved with technological advances. Golf is similar.
Xecutives.net: What will happen in Europe and Switzerland in the future regarding this sport? Will baseball be a common sport also on our continent? What would it need to be so?
Mike Sundman: I think baseball will remain a “randsportart” in Europe. But that is ok. Nothing against soccer. But kids and parents come to realize that in baseball slow kids can contribute, fat kids (not too fat…) can contribute, any kid who wants to play and works at it can find his role. And at the adult level how it has evolved in Switzerland!! 30 years ago I could differentiate the Americans/Caribbeans from 200 yards way. Today many swiss players have the same physiques and play the same way.
Xecutives.net: Mr. Sundman, thanks a lot for giving your time for this interview. I wish you and your baseball youngsters and the whole Therwil Flyers team all the best and I’m looking forward to attending the next game!
(C) 2019 by Christian Dueblin. All rights reserved. Other publications are only permitted with the express permission of the author.