With their collegiate playing days over, many student-athletes look ahead to graduation and life outside the sports realm. For former Cal State East Bay baseball players Ray Stokes and Marco Cartagena, however, the next step was a trip to Europe to experience baseball abroad. During the past summer, Stokes and Cartagena '08 tried their hands at life and baseball in Germany and Italy, respectively, traveling, learning and playing in a foreign language on a continent better known for its love of goals than homeruns.
Stokes, who finished his three-year Cal State East Bay career in 2006, spent the summer in Heidenheim, Germany, playing in the Bundesliga First Division for the Heidenheim Heideköpfe. The Pioneers' career stolen-bases leader helped guide his squad to the league title, starting in center field for Heidenheim.
Cartagena's summer home was Padova, Italy, where he played in the Serie B league for Padova Tommasini. As Padova's center fielder, Cartagena started all but two games, batting .330 with 47 runs, 33 RBI and 35 stolen bases in 38 attempts.
In Serie B, Cartagena played among a diverse group, suiting up with Cubans, Dominicans, Slovenians and Italians, along with other nationalities. One of two Americans on his squad, Cartagena recognized that baseball talent and passion are still developing in Italy, where fans remain devoted to the professional and national soccer teams.
"Italy’s a baby in terms of baseball," Cartagena said. "The reason they want to bring (foreign players) in is to create an atmosphere like we have in the U.S. Baseball is just getting off the ground. They are doing a lot of things to improve it, but it’s not soccer. It’s becoming a world sport, but it’s still not at the level of soccer in Italy."
Unlike the Serie B, the Bundesliga consisted mainly of native players. Stokes played alongside three fellow Americans with Heidenheim and saw some talented German players. Though the sport is still up-and-coming, Stokes said he was impressed by the skill level in Germany.
"It was a positive experience," Stokes said. "We won the championship, and the players there are really improving skill-wise. It isn't like playing (in the U.S.), but the skill level is only a couple of notches below that."
Stokes has a good basis for comparison after being drafted in the 16th round of the 2006 draft by the San Diego Padres. The former Association of Division III Independents Player of the Year has played with the Padres' rookie and single-A affiliates in Eugene, Ore., and Fort Wayne, Ind., respectively.
While abroad, both Stokes and Cartagena had the chance to travel and experience the culture of their adopted homes. Cartagena made stops in all the classic Italian cities, taking the train to Rome, Verona, Bologna, Venice and Florence. The Italian way of life suited him, he said.
"Florence was my favorite," Cartagena said. "The architecture is amazing. The lifestyle is much easier. (In the U.S.), we're always on the go but over there they're very relaxed. It's more about enjoying life, and that was great."
Stokes also got a chance to tour Germany and Italy, finding the people and places enjoyable and interesting, despite the language barrier.
"Everywhere we went there were friendly people and good beer," Stokes said. "The German players spoke English and helped us out with the language."
Both players relied on coaches' connections to make their way to European leagues. After beginning the season playing in Canada, Stokes' coach connected him with contacts he had in Germany, while Cartagena's high school coach played in Italy 20 years ago and helped him get set up there. Now that he's back on U.S. soil, Stokes is looking forward to returning the favor in the future.
"It's great to be able to come back and tell the guys what I went through and open avenues for other players from (Cal State) East Bay," Stokes said.
For both players, the future remains connected to the diamond. Stokes, who is working towards completing his sociology degree at East Bay, will be looking to earn an invitation to spring training with a major league team. Cartagena, who received his bachelor's degree in 2008, is working toward his teaching credential and hoping to coach.
No matter what lies ahead for Stokes and Cartagena, both will take the memories and experiences of their European playing days with them. The pair of European travelers have proven that even when the terminology is different, the game remains the same.
"It's a once in a lifetime opportunity," Cartagena said. "Baseball is baseball no matter where you’re at. You can be playing in Alaska, or Italy or anywhere, and it’s still baseball."