By John W. Miller
The state of baseball in Europe’s capital is strong.
I spent much of July and August at Kangaroo Field in Northeast Brussels checking in on the club where I played, coached, umpired, and organized between 1994 and 2011.
When I moved to Pittsburgh from Brussels at the end of 2011, I had burned out, and thought I’d left the Kangaroos behind.
This summer, I got sucked into a joyful reunion. I threw batting practice. I coached bases. I drank beers and talked baseball deep into the night, looking up at hazy night and around at the foxes that have invaded the parks and trails around the field. I even caught two games.
Once again, I got infected by the spirit of the Brussels Kangaroos; buoyant, ambitious, and fun.
The club is thriving, with nine baseball and softball squads and over two hundred players. There are teams for adults and for children, male and female, beginner and elite.
The top men’s baseball team is carried by Cedric and Kevin Desmedt, two brothers who as boys lived next to the field and grew into two of the best righthanded pitchers in Europe. They went off and played college and pro baseball on three continents, from Ohio to Melbourne. Now they’re back in Brussels, determined to build winning players and teams. They play and coach with passion and intent. Their practices are serious and athletic. This is not a breezy batting practice show. The team is a mix of young Belgians and older players from Japan, France, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
The club is led by president and first baseman David Nielsen, a Belgo-Dane who once formed a tight boyhood trio with my two young brothers, Jacob and Moe. I coached all of these guys, and there is a bond now between us, born of the baseball-shaped holes in our hearts.
From scratch, I and my friends had built a youth baseball organization that anchored the last two Belgian teams to win European Little League baseball championships, in 2004 and 2006, and trained dozens of terrific ballplayers, including a cluster of national team stars like the Desmedts, a Belgian batting champion, Vincent King, and, incredibly, a future major leaguer, Chicago White Sox reliever Ryan Burr, who as of mid September had made 26 appearances for the AL Central leading ball club.
Now David and his crew are building something else, more stable, more organic, more Belgian. “The Kangaroos are a family club,” David told me. “It’s a place where you can start as a kid and play your whole life. There are whole families in the club.”
And this summer felt like a family reunion. My brother Jacob, a guitar player and singer by trade, is co-coaching an adult third division team with Nicolas Pisvin, somebody else I coached as a child.
Jacob and Nicolas run a team that has to be seen to be believed. It includes over 20 players, including adult beginners, and it manages to be serious in its ambition, while roaring with madhouse joy. These guys play hard. They holler. They chant. When somebody gets hit by a pitch: “Equipo!” When they score a run: “Boing! Boing! That’s the sound of Kangaroos!” They run a boombox out of the dugout. And they win.
Jacob was an ace youth infielder until age 14 before giving it up to focus on music. For more than 15 years, his involvement in baseball was limited to cheering on his beloved Red Sox. This spring, he accepted a coaching role with the Kangaroos. And he’s brilliant at it, figuring out where all the pieces fit, and encouraging players with that deep, stubborn understanding that baseball is difficult, but worth it. I played two games for Jacob’s teams, suiting up in catchers’ gear in a competitive game for the first time in 10 years. For the first time in our lives, it was Jacob lecturing me: “John, in the real world, what matters is that you don’t get hurt.” I escaped alive. And we won both games. Equipo!
In 2021, the men’s team, for the first time ever, qualified for the “Gold League”, the elite series with the top six teams in the country. “We’re at a point now where we also want better results and real quality on the field,” David, the club president, said. The club also has men’s and women’s softball teams in the country’s top leagues.
On my first Saturday in Brussels in July, the undefeated Hoboken Pioneers came to town, with a stacked lineup including national team shortstop Benji Goffiaux and former Mets’ minor leaguer Thomas De Wolf. In the first game of a doubleheader, they mercy-ruled the Kangaroos, 11-1. A beatdown.
In game 2, Cedric Desmedt tossed a 6-1 complete game win. Cedric, who I got to know as a big teenager, has become a hulking beast, and here he was, dealing, mixing all his pitches, breaking bats, handing the Pioneers their first loss of the year.
This game was what my generation had dreamed of 20 years ago. Our club. A family club. At the highest level in the country. Triumphant.
John W. Miller is a journalist and filmmaker from Brussels, now based in Pittsburgh. From 2007 to 2011, he wrote the Old World Pastime column for mister-baseball.com [link to series]. For more on Kevin Desmedt, extrainnings.co.uk covered him regularly during his U.S. career [link].