By IAN WILSON
You could call it the luck of the Irish that Adam Macko ended up in Alberta.
The left-handed pitching prospect did indeed play baseball in Ireland in 2012 and 2013, winning a Little League championship that first year and finishing second the next.
And if it’s true that luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity, than you can certainly call Adam lucky. But that seems rather dismissive of all the hard work that he put in before arriving in Canada … and since he got here.
Here for Adam is the Vauxhall Academy of Baseball, one of the premier baseball schools in the country.
How he ended up here is a lengthy and intriguing story, so grab some popcorn – or some Lucky Charms – and we’ll tell you all about it.
A LEAGUE OF THEIR OWN
Slovakia’s capital city of Bratislava sits on Europe’s second longest river, the Dunabe, and is close to the Austrian and Hungarian borders. It features a beautiful historic downtown and if you were to move to the city of 450,000 people, you might be greeted in the traditional Slavic custom with bread and salt.
When it comes to sports, the local soccer fans cheer on SK Slovan at Pasienky Stadium and hockey fans have HC Slovan to throw their support behind. The city hosted world hockey championships in 1959, 1992 and 2011. Tennis, basketball and volleyball are also popular Slovak sporting options.
One thing you won’t find an overabundance of in Bratislava is baseball diamonds. They are there, but you have to look for them.
This was Adam’s hometown.
On his first day of Grade 1, Adam discovered baseball when he noticed team tryouts happening at school. He hit some plastic balls off a tee into some netting and played catch. After the tryout, he signed up.
“When my parents came to pick me up, I announced, ‘I have signed up for baseball,'” Adam recently told Alberta Dugout Stories.
“Both of my parents were stunned.”
His father, Vladimir, confirmed the reaction.
“Baseball? In Slovakia? Impossible!”
Vladimir knew of the sport and even played it … sort of.
“As a 10-year-old I used to play baseball, a little bit, on an Atari 600 game console with very poor graphics,” said Vladimir. “I didn’t understand the rules at all.”
Little did father or son know that a lifelong love of the game had begun … for both of them.
Adam continued to play baseball at school, but his competition was limited.
“We only ever played one other team that was 30 minutes away,” he said. “Every time we played, we played in the finals and were guaranteed silver. The competition was scarce, so I tried to make the best of it and challenge myself as much as I could.”
It’s not that baseball isn’t present in Slovakia, said Vladimir. It’s just not a major sport or one that was growing rapidly when Adam was a child.
“Parents want the best for their children,” said Vladimir.
“We didn’t think about any serious involvements in any sport. We just wanted to keep him active. He chose his way and we stuck with it. And he liked it.”
In 2012, the Macko family – 11-year-old Adam, Vladimir, mom Milena and Adam’s sister Tereza – packed up and moved to Ireland. They were also accompanied by Adam’s step-sister Tana, her husband Rasto, and their son Jakub. The long-term goal was a move to Canada, but Ireland worked in the short term.
“We wanted to live in an English-speaking country while waiting for our visa to Canada,” said Vladimir.
“Ireland is a beautiful country, but they have baseball, too.”
The family settled in Bray, south of Dublin, which was home to the Greystones Mariners baseball club. It was the oldest and best baseball club the country had to offer and Adam excelled there, winning a Little League title.
“I remember the first couple of practices when I had to translate a bit for him. He did not know English at that time,” said Vladimir, adding there was more competition and more games in Ireland than in his home country.
That’s when Adam started to take the game more seriously. Studying video online became a big part of his development.
“I never paid attention to how much time I’ve spent by the laptop studying baseball and watching videos on YouTube because it’s something I loved to do,” said Adam.
“Studying my favourite pitchers’ moves and replicating them was the most exciting thing for me.”
Adam sought out any Justin Verlander videos he could find. That was his favourite pitcher, until he discovered David Price.
“I would put the camera in front of me and practice until I was satisfied in getting the task close enough to either Justin Verlander or David Price,” said Adam.
“David Price is more my idol now, but they are both still my favourites. They are both very good teammates and always looking to get better, which I try to reflect in my game.”
As a baseball parent who didn’t fully understand the sport or its nuances, Vladimir said video footage was crucial to helping Adam learn the game.
“I wanted to help him so bad, but didn’t know how,” he said, adding his son found every Verlander clip he could online to replicate.
COMING TO CANADA
After spending a year in Ireland, the Mackos made their way to Canada.
“It might sound silly, but it was a dream,” recalled Vladimir, who took a job in July 2013 with A&B Concrete Pumping in Acheson, Alberta, near Edmonton.
It didn’t take long for Adam to find a baseball home. He joined the Spruce Grove bantam triple-A Whitesox as a 13-year-old and his coaches quickly took notice of his special abilities.
To make a team of that calibre in his first year in Canada – after coach Kevin Inch spotted him at a winter baseball camp – was an achievement in itself, but things were only starting to look up for Adam.
“Kevin was his very first coach in Canada and he has had a huge influence on Adam. Kevin was a coach, mentor, friend,” said Vladimir.
Success on the field followed. Adam was part of tournament wins in B.C. and a provincial title, and he earned a place on Team Alberta at the Western Canada Summer Games and the Canada Cup. He also pitched twice at the prestigious Tournament 12 showcase event.
“Alberta gave us a great opportunity to live in this country, and for Adam it was a huge step up in baseball,” recalls Vladimir.
FIRE UP THE JET
Another big step was coming. Kevin (brother of former Vauxhall Baseball Academy grad Steven Inch, the school’s highest drafted player, a 2009 6th-round selection of the Philadelphia Phillies) got in touch with Les McTavish, the school’s director of operations and head coach to tell him about Adam.
“I remember Steven and Kevin calling me just when (the Macko family) had moved to Canada and they said ‘hey, you gotta see this kid, he’s incredible,'” remembers McTavish.
“You never hear of players from Slovakia and you never hear of players from Ireland … but as he continued to mature and grow, he came down for a visit and as soon as you meet Adam, he’s infectious. He has this great confidence about him. Then as soon as he got on the mound it was clear this kid knew what he was doing.”
Becoming a Vauxhall Jet was an unexpected, but exciting development for Adam.
“Vauxhall has been nothing short of amazing for me,” said Adam. “I eat, sleep and play baseball with coaches who have taught me more than anybody else and teachers willing to help you out at any time. Vauxhall, to me, is the best program in Canada if you are interested in playing baseball at the next level.”
Vladimir, meanwhile, was also making his mark on Alberta. As a concrete pump operator, he did numerous pours at Rogers Place; helped build Edmonton’s tallest building, the JW Marriott; and he continues to work on Stantec Tower, which will be Western Canada’s tallest skyscraper when completed next year.
McTavish calls Vladimir an extremely hard-working and supportive father, who does everything he can to provide for his kids.
That work ethic appears to have rubbed off on Adam.
“Adam’s a great student, very diligent in all the work that he does daily. He doesn’t take a day off, he never does. He’s very focused and driven, to go along with the talent,” said McTavish.
The 17-year-old Purdue commit was awarded the Reno Lizzi underclassman scholarship – an honour given to well-rounded student athletes – at Vauxhall’s recent team banquet and both his coaches and family are proud of the achievement.
“That’s another milestone in his life,” said Vladimir. “He never stops surprising us with what he is able to do on the field and how hard he works. I can’t imagine we could be more proud of him.”
The next developmental step for Adam is to see an uptick in his velocity. For the 6-foot tall, 165-pound southpaw, hitting the gym will help but he also has to be patient as his body grows.
His fastball jumped from the 82-84 mile-per-hour range to 85-87 mph last year, topping out at 89 mph.
“He’s mature long beyond his years and if the velocity jumps, look out,” said McTavish.
“The talent he has, he wasn’t just given a lightning bolt of an arm. Adam works extremely hard at things and everything that he is getting and proving – all the accolades and scholarships and everything that came his way over the last year or two – is not by chance and certainly not by luck. He’s earned every bit of it.”
Added McTavish: “I’m proud of everything that’s come his way. We’ve had maybe a part in things, but Adam and his family deserve all the credit. They’ve created their own luck and his story is just beginning.”