John Miller, head coach of the Brussels Kangaroos and a reporter for a major American newspaper, is chronicling his team’s 2008 season in a column that will appear every Monday on mister-baseball.com. It is the first of several Mister-Baseball Blogs this year.
It’s tournament time in Europe. In Antwerp, Team Belgium beat Austria 3-1 on Saturday to win the continental B pool championship and move up to the A division. Here in Brussels, we’re hosting a youth invitational this week with Belgian and French national teams (see website)
But nothing matches Baseball week in Haarlem (see www.honkbalweek.nl), a cozy Amsterdam suburb. Held every two years (its sister, Rotterdam’s World Port Tournament, is in odd-numbered years), it draws the likes of Cuba, Japan, Taiwan, USA and the highly-skilled hometown Dutch.
In 2000, I watched Mark Teixeira, Ryan Howard, Bobby Crosby, Xavier Nady, Chris Burke, Mark Prior and Kirk Saarloos, as a prelude to their five-star careers, beat Cuba for the crown.
So Amsterdam is where I headed on Friday night, to watch the semis: Cuba vs. Japan.
I liked Japan’s pre-game routine. One coach hit groundballs to the infielders, two at every position, while another coach batted flyballs to the outfielders. (Usually, outfielders go first.) When the infielders were done, the outfielders took their positions and closed down the sessions by firing long throws to second, third and home. Most of the time, they had two balls going at once, and always at high-amp full speed.
The Cubans ambled off their team bus smoking cigarettes and chatting with their Dutch fans. On the field, though, they were slashing, muscular monsters, ratcheting up their game to defeat the enemy at every turn.
The beisbol masters toyed with Japan for seven innings before right fielder Alexeis Bell launched a hanging curveball far into the Amsterdam night. Cuban closer Pedro Lazo, a hulking 35-year-old with decades of international experience and a biting side-arm slider, closed the deal.
Like many of his teammates, Lazo has decades of international experience. In the 2006 World Baseball Classic, he shut out the titanic Dominican Republic team (Ortiz, Tejada, Alou, et al.) for four innings to get a save. Here he was on Dutch soil, massive belly and frame staring down Team Japan, which hung tough in the 6-4 loss.
(On Sunday, Team USA, studded with college stars, beat Cuba, 4-1.)
You won’t see that in Belgium. Well, not any more. Under the stands behind home plate in Haarlem is the Dutch baseball and softball Hall of Fame. It’s small, but fun to visit. Besides lots of founding documents, balls, bats and scorecards, there’s a 1,000+ books baseball library, with classics like the Fireside Book of Baseball and George Will’s Men at Work, but also lesser-known tomes like Dollar Sign on the Muscle, Kevin Karrane’s book about scouting.
My favorite part, though, was the archives of old posters and pictures from the decades when Belgium was still a baseball powerhouse. From the 1950s to the 1980s, there are pictures with captions like “Belgium 3 – Netherlands 2”, posters advertising tournaments in Belgium featuring Cuba and handouts boasting of an event in Germany featuring “Europe’s top baseball teams, including Belgium, Italy, the U.S. Air Force, etc.”
The national team here is plucky and able, but they could no longer beat the professional Team Netherlands, not in a million years — and I’ve only seen Pedro Lazo while drinking Heineken, never Jupiler.
Still, the baseball tradition of this country — and especially the city of Antwerp — is rich and proud – and worth passing on to a new generation of Belgians.
Could Belgium beat the Netherlands in 100 tries? Could you get a hit off Mariano Rivera in 100 tries? I indulge all feedback at firstname.lastname@example.org