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Wings and Finns: Growing the game in Rochester

Finnish Baseball president, head coach visit Nats' Triple-A affiliate
Red Wings mascot Spike flanks Finnish Baseball and Federation president Jukka Ropponen (left) and head coach Tero Honkanen.
@BensBiz
May 12, 2022

Jukka Ropponen, president of the Finnish Baseball and Softball Federation, is on a lifelong mission to grow the game in his home country. Last week, in service of this goal, he visited a Minor League Baseball team located over 4,000 miles away. Ropponen and Finnish National Baseball team head coach

Jukka Ropponen, president of the Finnish Baseball and Softball Federation, is on a lifelong mission to grow the game in his home country. Last week, in service of this goal, he visited a Minor League Baseball team located over 4,000 miles away.

Ropponen and Finnish National Baseball team head coach Tero Honkanen were special guests of the Rochester Red Wings from May 3-7, learning about all aspects of the Triple-A Washington affiliate's operation during a stretch of games against the Scranton/Wilkes-Barre RailRiders.

"Minor League Baseball is perfect for us, because if you had done the same thing with a Major League team, the scale would be way beyond what we do," said Ropponen, speaking on a Zoom call that also included Red Wings general manager Dan Mason. "The thing I'm looking at mostly is how you build the loyalty. How do you get people to come to the baseball game who are not baseball enthusiasts? How do you make the event so fun that people will come in any case?"

As for how these two paragons of Finnish baseball found themselves in Rochester specifically, it can all be traced back to amateur men's league hockey. Ropponen and Mason were teammates in the late '90s, when the former was on a work assignment for the Rochester-based Eastman-Kodak company.

"I was trying to stop the pucks," said Ropponen. "And Dan was trying to score at the other end."

Ropponen (left) and Honkanen, on the field for the National Anthem prior to a Red Wings game.

Ropponen said hockey is Finland's religion, with soccer the second-most popular sport. Third is pesäpallo, a version of baseball unique to the country. The pesäpallo playing field is long and narrow, there's no pitcher's mound, the basepaths are laid out differently and batters don't need to run after hitting the ball unless there are two strikes. Ropponen grew up playing the sport, but moved to Sweden in 1977 in order to learn baseball. In 1981 he founded the Finnish Baseball and Softball Federation, and over the next decade he was one of the country's best players at bat and on the mound.

"[Baseball] is the true sport," said Ropponen. "And there's the international side of it. Pesäpallo's a great game ... but if you have any international desires, you're lacking a lot when you play a national sport. With [the Finnish Baseball and Softball Federation] our top teams from men's and women's leagues get to go right away to the European Cup competitions, national teams, play in the European qualifiers."

The game of baseball had grown exponentially in Finland over the past four decades, but Ropponen still believes there is much more room for growth (in part because pesäpallo players have a skill set that translates well to the baseball diamond). But for Finnish players to truly excel on an international level -- and, eventually, in the Major Leagues -- they'll need expert-level instruction.

"Tero Honkanen, the head coach of our national team, he's been spending time with the Red Wings manager [Matt LeCroy] and the coaching staff," said Ropponen. "Learning more about how they work on the hitting and pitching and bringing new and better habits back to our environment, back to Finland, to improve the level of our game there."

"Matt LeCroy, [hitting coach] Brian Daubach, [pitching coach] Rafael Chaves and [development coach] Billy McMillon deserve a lot of credit for working with Tero," added Mason. "Showing him what it takes for a professional baseball player here in the states."

Red Wings manager Matt LeCroy (left) and Honkanen.

Ropponen, meanwhile, learned about how the Red Wings promote the game on social media and at the ballpark. The team played as the Plates one night, a recurring homage to the Rochester culinary specialty that is the Garbage Plate. Milo the Bat Dog received rapturous applause every time he appeared on field to fetch a bat, and fans on the concourse often paused to take a picture alongside a sculpture of a horse made with baseball gloves. While there may not be a Finnish equivalent to these various spectacles, they gave Ropponen plenty to think about. (Mason's suggestion of a bat bear in lieu of a bat dog, likely facetious, was rejected due to safety concerns.)

"Understanding how the Red Wings do their marketing, how they put people in the stands, how they use social media, it's a big part of my agenda," said Ropponen.

Ropponen and Honkanen have returned to Finland with a better understanding of how to keep evolving and promoting the game of baseball, optimistic about what the future may hold. If any more assistance is needed, the Red Wings will be at the ready.

"It's been really cool to take part in this cultural exchange," said Mason. "I've never been to Finland but I would relish the opportunity to make a trip. Who knows? But we'll still be in touch, sharing ideas to help each other grow the game."

Benjamin Hill is a reporter for MiLB.com and writes **Ben's Biz Blog**. Follow Ben on Twitter **@bensbiz**.