“You know I’m a journalist, right?”
That was Gabriel Fidler’s response to getting offered the head coaching job of the Hungarian 18-and-under national baseball team.
A 2000 graduate from The King’s Academy, Fidler was writing for his international baseball website and working in academia in Europe when he got offered a lectureship in Budapest last summer. Ahead of his move, he called the country’s federation to ask if it wanted help running its baseball program’s communications.
Instead, Hungary offered him a coaching gig — a role in which Fidler had virtually no experience.
“Their response was essentially, ‘Just the fact that you’ve spent a lot of time in actual baseball stadiums means you’ve seen more baseball than anyone in the country,’” Fidler said. “’So maybe you could just give it a try.’”
Just like that, Fidler’s life took yet another wild turn, courtesy of baseball, as he led the squad to its best season in a quarter of a century.
Fidler, who is currently in London teaching history remotely to schools in France and Hungary, grew up in England. His dad’s job in the military landed him in the United States and, eventually, East Tennessee, where he attended TKA.
That’s where Fidler got his start in sports — a passion derived from his dad’s New England upbringing and, therefore, love of all teams Boston.
“He’s one of those guys who just likes all the sports, but baseball is definitely the one that rubbed off on me the most,” Fidler said. “I got my love of sports straight from him, and I got all my teams straight from him, basically without any actual agency in the matter.”
However, Fidler wasn’t much of an athlete himself as a teen, so he got involved through stats keeping and sports photography. He did play baseball for TKA his senior year, which he said was more a product of the Lions’ short roster than his talent. Fidler went hitless that season, and he would stay so for the next 16 years.
“My successes are definitely not on the field,” Fidler said. “The seeds of (my path in sports) were definitely sewed at The King’s Academy, where I didn’t do any sports writing, but I did do all of the other stuff.”
Fidler graduated from Lee University in 2006 at the top of his class. It was during that stretch that he got into sports journalism.
After getting his master’s from the University of Tennessee, Fidler started his own website called “Extra Innings: Baseball Around the World,” which covers national team baseball and is credentialed by MLB and the World Baseball Softball Confederation.
He has covered baseball in 10 countries and events such as the 2014 European Championship in Czech Republic; the 2016 World Baseball Classic Qualifier in Brooklyn; the 2017 World Baseball Classic in Mexico, San Diego and Los Angeles; and the 2018 U23 World Cup in Colombia.
“My interest is primarily in baseball in unusual places, like Pakistan,” Fidler said. “I try to travel to places that are a bit off the beaten track. … The coaching has been very much added without any intention whatsoever.”
Before taking over Hungary’s national U18 squad, Fidler’s resume in sports was extensive in just about every way except coaching. While getting his PhD in history at Durham University in England, he founded and played for the school’s baseball program. It went on to win the British National University Baseball Championship, ending Loughborough University’s 24-game winning streak for its first title.
Fidler played no small role in that feat. He hit .400 that season — his first time experiencing any sort of athletic success.
Right after getting his first hit, Fidler called his parents, who still live in Blount County, from the bench.
“‘Did you get a hit?’” he recalls his mom asking excitedly, to which Fidler responded,
“‘Not just a hit.’”
“A double? A homerun?” she pressed, her voice tinged with mounting anticipation.
“’Yes,’” Fidler confirmed before adding,“’I hit a grand slam.’”
What Fidler heard on the other end of the line, he said, was faint squeaking and screaming as his parents jumped around “in celebration of my first hit after 20 years of trying.”
Fidler happened to be with his parents when he was offered the coaching job in Hungary. At that point, his only experience coaching was for Durham University’s second team of beginners — a job so simple, Fidler said, anyone who knew the basic rules of the game could have done it.
The news was met with silence. Then, his parents started laughing, and Fidler joined them.
“I said, ‘This is the most ridiculous thing that’s ever happened to me,’” Fidler said. “It has made it pretty fun for them to see this totally unpredictable, wild ride baseball has brought me on.”
Fidler quickly got to work. He used his connections as a sports reporter to reach out to well-respected coaches for advice, and he spent his weekends observing club teams across Hungary to pull together a squad of his own.
His assistant coach, Balázs Halmos, spoke fluently in English and Hungarian, helping to ease the communication barrier between Fidler and his players.
Fidler also picked up some basic phrases in the language. He got plenty of practice saying, “Hajrá Magyarok,” which means, “Let’s go, Hungary.”
However, things got off to a rocky start in the team’s first exhibition game against Slovakia when, in a communication mix-up, Slovakia brought its senior squad to the matchup.
“They showed up expecting to see the regular team, and I brought out a starting nine of 15-16-17-years-olds,” Fidler said. “We played large, bearded men in their 30s who had been playing baseball for 20 years.”
Hungary lost 27-0 — the team’s largest margin of defeat in history. What was worse, the U18 European Championship Qualifiers in Poland were just six weeks away.
“And I have to somehow figure out a way to get these guys in the kind of shape where we don’t just go there and get absolutely humiliated,” Fidler said. “Given that I felt like a complete imposter to begin with, I thought, ‘This is just going to be the worst July ever.’”
With players spread out across the country, the team had little time on the field together before the big tournament. In its first game against Ukraine, Hungary got mercy-ruled. Its second game against Austria went about just as poorly, resulting in two straight losses with three games to go.
For a shot at competing in the championship, Hungary needed to win its third game against Russia.
“Me and the other coaches chewed out the players for looking scared and not concentrating and not doing what we’ve done in our extremely limited practices,” Fidler said. “But, at this point, the team is actually starting the come together.”
Fidler noticed players were beginning to bond off the field. He said they picked a silly fight song from the 80s of a famous Hungarian wrestler “screaming at himself to get himself pumped up at workouts,” and they blared it from a giant Bluetooth speaker while warming up against Russia.
The elements of an epic comeback story were there. However, that newfound chemistry didn’t translate into their performance against Russia. Hungary got run-ruled in what Fidler considered a winnable matchup. Instead, it was their worst loss yet.
“I’m thinking, ‘Gosh, Hungary doesn’t often win a lot of games, but this might end up being the worst results we’ve ever had,” Fidler said. “After that, we chew out the players again. … For whatever reason, on day 4, it clicks.”
Its fourth game against Slovenia was back-and-forth. Hungarian players blasted their fight song between innings, shaking the dugout fence and screaming along to the lyrics while Fidler shouted at them in broken Hungarian to keep the energy up. Hungary held on for a narrow victory before ending on an even higher note with a dominant win over Poland.
Still, a 2-3 record seemed like little of which to be proud. Fidler said he felt like he had let the team down. That is, until he learned the squad had notched its best finish in the U18 European Qualifiers since 1995.
Those two wins brought the team’s grand total over the last 25 years to eight.
“It turned out to be great in the end — surreal, but wonderful,” Fidler said. “I really enjoyed the experience despite being totally and utterly unprepared for it.”
Baseball has given Fidler no shortage of unique experiences.
Some of his favorite memories include having streamers hit his face in the Dodger Stadium infield as Team USA celebrated winning the 2017 World Baseball Classic. He also served as media coordinator for BaseballSoftballUK for the 2019 MLB London Series, and he got to watch his favorite team, the Red Sox, take on the Yankees in London Stadium — the first regular-season MLB game to be held in Europe.
However, Fidler’s favorite moment occurred during the European Qualifiers opening ceremonies when, clad in his Hungarian jersey, he stood with his team behind him as the Hungarian national anthem played.
“They don’t know, in worldwide baseball terms, Hungary is pretty low on the ladder,” Fidler said. “All they know is they’re Hungarian and they’re wearing jerseys in red, white and green.
“I encouraged them to just go out and enjoy wearing their country’s name on their chest.”
Fidler’s baseball coverage can be found at extrainnings.co.uk.