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Sep '11 19

Old World Pastime – On Leaving The Kangaroos



John Miller, a Belgian-American journalist, and a player/coach for the Brussels Kangaroos, is in his fourth year of writing Old World Pastime, a take on baseball as lived in 21th century Europe.

Without an end, there is no beginning — and no story. There are no battles to win or lose, and no joy or sorrow.

So it goes that on Saturday, I played my last game for the Kangaroos. At least for now.

I have accepted a job with my newspaper in Pittsburgh, for reasons professional, financial and personal. I start November 1.
So this, dear readers, is the last season of Old World Pastime. I’ll do a half-dozen more, then depart, flipping away my column like a ball back to the pitcher’s mound after a high fastball swinging strike.
Pouring sweat and soul into playing, coaching and organizing baseball in a tiny European country was, I realize now, an eccentric way to spend one’s twenties and early thirties.

But it is what made total, beautiful sense when I moved back to Belgium from Mount Saint Mary’s College in Maryland in 1999.

My college baseball experience was not that fun. In three years, I got into four games. It was a lesson in stubborn masochism.

And so when, at age 22, I got a job in Brussels writing for a small magazine, I eagerly noted that a. My best friends from the Kangaroos, with whom I’d started playing in high school, were eager to tackle the first division. b. My little brothers were 11 and 12, and needed a coach. So did their friends. And c. I badly wanted to play.

And so, a bit insanely, building a baseball community in Brussels became a principal life goal. We were not many in the club back then – a few dozen – but there were many families with a lot of boys and a few girls who wanted to play. And everybody fell in love with baseball.

And we spent Tuesdays and Thursdays and Saturday and Sundays, year after year, lining the fields and hitting groundballs and playing catch. And so many winter nights obsessing about the following season. Who would coach. Who would play. In heaven, if I am asked to name my top ten human experiences, getting a day of baseball rolling on sunny freshly cut grass is right there.
On and on it went. We won championships, fought to stay in first division and took youth teams to the World Series in the U.S.
In the end, the Kangaroos lost their mojo. People burned out. Good players left. As Gloucester says in Shakespeare’s King Lear about the inevitable, often inexplainable decay of human relationships: “Love cools, friendship falls off, brothers divide: in cities, mutinies; in countries, discord; in palaces, treason; and the bond cracked ‘twixt son and father.”
But all those games happened. And the friendships happened. They are still there, and real. I am not a man of wealth. But I am a billionaire in friendships, especially through baseball.
Without even trying, three quick, easy examples:

Last night, walking through Brussels, I was approached by Khader, a Palestinian in his 20s who played for us for several years. We greeted each other like family.

On Saturday, after the game, Nathan, Jimmy, Davy and I drank some Leffes and talked and talked. Nathan drove me home. He was 15 ten years ago, when we won the Belgian cadet national championship. Now we are both men. We have lives to talk about.

Also on Saturday, Tony, an umpire I’d been feuding with, approached me to wish me luck. I said my piece. He listened, and apologized. We shook hands. I might have hated the guy an hour before, but the world of Belgian baseball is too small to carry grudges. We’ve known each other for 15 years. I’ve probably caught 25 games with Tony behind the plate, chatting away between pitches. Com’on, man, on the corner, gotta give me that!

I’ll be reflecting more on leaving, but your thoughts are always welcome at oldworldpastime@gmail.com

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