Vimpeli is a small, sleepy village of less than 3,000 people in the Southern Ostrobothnia region of western Finland, yet the local pesäpallo team have been Finnish national ‘superpesis’ champions for two years in succession - and they have their sights firmly fixed on making it three-in-a-row this summer.
The club reckons average attendance at its games is around 2,000 -- a clear indication of the central role the sport plays in this provincial town.
“This village breathes pesäpallo”, explained Sami-Petteri Kivimäki, the 34 year-old head coach of Vimpelin Veto, when he spoke to Yle News just before second-placed ‘ViVe’ played third-placed Joensuu at Vimpeli’s Saarikenttä (Island Field) stadium.
Kivimäki said he believes the huge support of the local community has been a key factor in ViVe’s success, and with a stadium capacity at Saarikenttä that almost exactly matches the local population, Kivimäki’s assertion that “everyone in this village is a part of this team” rings particularly true.
ViVe are unbeaten at home this year, and they use their home field advantage to the full. Due to pesäpallo’s ‘first bounce’ rule, a ball can end up in the Savonjoki river next to the Saarikenttä stadium river and still be considered “in play” - a tactic ViVe like to employ.
A new game for a new nation
The rules of pesäpallo were developed in the early 1920’s by Lauri Pihkala, a former track-and-field Olympian, after he recognised the crucial role sport could play in helping the newly-independent Finnish nation carve its own distinct identity.
Although similar in some aspects to baseball - a sport Pihkala had encountered during a visit to the United States - with bats and gloves, pitchers and fielders, bases and home runs; pesäpallo’s many unique rules set it clearly apart from other bat-and-ball games.
In pesäpallo, the pitcher stands beside the batter, and throws the ball vertically into the air, giving the batter a much better chance of connecting with the ball and determining which direction it will go. The offensive game of the batting team is therefore much more tactical in pesäpallo than it is in baseball, and subsequently the defensive game requires more strategy and anticipation.
When the batter hits the ball, the first bounce is all important as the ball must first make contact with the ground within the designated “play area”, even if it then subsequently goes out of bounds.
A baseball-style ‘home-run’, when the ball is driven high and far, would be a foul in pesäpallo. Pihkala spread his new sport throughout Finland via schools - where the physical and mental attributes of the sport were considered highly beneficial to the development of the nation’s youth - and through the military and civil guard, where the tactical aspect of ‘taking bases’ was good battlefield training for young soldiers.
Finns embraced the sport’s combination of athletic ability and mental agility, and pesäpallo fields - with their distinctive shape and zig-zag base patterns - began to appear in villages and towns across Finland.
Pesäpallo proved to be particularly popular in rural areas, and summer evenings spent at the village field supporting the local team soon became an integral part of Finnish culture.
Focus on youth
The ViVe team have played together for many years, often from a very young age, and they therefore know and understand each other very well.
“It means that we trust each other, and we have a lot of confidence in each other, because we have won together too,” says Kivimäki.
That local pride is on prominent display in Vimpeli. Kivimäki attributes his side’s success to their focus on developing young local players, and bringing them through to the first team.
“Our junior coaching is excellent,” says Kivimäki. “We don’t have to buy players from other teams that much as the young players coming through are so good.”
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In the starting line-up for ViVe against Joensuu, Olli Heikkala is one such example of a player who has come through the youth ranks to play in the first team. Heikkala, from the nearby village of Veteli, joined the ViVe senior squad at the tender age of 17 and is now a two-time Finnish champion.
“My role within the team has been getting bigger and bigger all the time, with more and more responsibilities," says Heikkilä. "That has been the key.”
Heikkala also recognises the important role played by the pesäpallo-obsessed local community in the success of the team.
“We have won two gold medals because this whole village lives for the team. Over coffee here they talk only about pesäpallo.”
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The pitcher throws the ball up, the batter swings, and the fielders must try to anticipate which direction the ball will go.
The game against Joensuu brings a crowd of 2,626 to the Saarikenttä stadium, leaving few empty seats. In the first period, ViVe race into an early 3-0 lead but are pegged back when Joensuu score two home runs in quick succession.
There is a tense final innings of the first period as Joensuu almost draw level, but the home side hold firm to take an overall 1-0 lead. In the second period, an astonishing first innings sees ViVe bring home 5 runners in a matter of minutes.
Again Joensuu rally, and bring the score to 5-4 - helped by the imposition of one-run penalty on ViVe after a home supporter touches an “in-play” ball when it enters the stands.
Despite this, ViVe’s defence remains strong and they add two more home runs of their own to take the second period 7-4, and win the game 2-0.
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After the game, head coach Kivimäki is asked if Vimpeli can really win three-in-a-row.
“Absolutely”, he says with a smile. The ViVe supporters, shuffling happily out of the stadium after witnessing yet another home victory, clearly believe so too.