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.
Antwerp-cold sheets of rain blew off the North Sea as I chattered in the third base coach’s box, directing traffic in my 14th season of European club baseball.
Along the way, this 30-year-old Belgian-American has grown into things like jobs and a marriage. But every spring, I suit up for my hometown team, the Brussels Kangaroos.
It’s been that way since 1994. I played baseball in an American-run Little League in Brussels until I was 15. (My parents moved to Brussels from Maryland in 1976.) The Little League ran out of age groups, and I found the Kangaroos.
Typically for Europe, the club was the pet project of a bunch of guys who decided gloves and balls were their thing. The club started in Belgium’s fourth division. Their main rival bore names like the Huy Cardinals and the Black Harpies from Gosselies, a steel-working suburb of Charleroi, in Belgium’s industrial heartland. We played on soccer fields. Sometimes, the mound was so worn out pitched threw out of holes. One field had a small canal running 20 feet behind home plate; foul balls plopped into the water.
The baseball was worse than bad, but it was a progression from playing catch between classes at the University of Brussels, which is what these guys had been doing before. This bunch of Belgians — stubborn as Cal Ripken and Carlton Fisk — climbed the ladder through Belgium’s four divisions. They reached the top league in 2000, as I was returning from college.
For the past seven years, we’ve been Chicago Cubs-bad, going something like 80-150, including a bone-crunching 4-30 season in 2001. The catcher, the foreign correspondent, has been a solid defender and thrower, but a .170 hitter.
So this year I’ve hung up the cleats, and taken over as head coach. Luckily, we started a youth program from scratch in 1999. Since then, we’ve won several national championships over Belgium’s Antwerp powerhouse clubs like the Merksem Greys and Mortsel Stars. Several of those players are now hitting their late teens, and are the core of this year’s team.
On Sunday, we faced the defending national champion Greys on the road in our first pre-season contest. Both teams ran through their rosters. We took advantage of a weak link in their bullpen to push across 6 runs in the 5th and 6th before rain put the stops on a 6-6 tie. We hustled home, happy to be out of the cold and mud.
It’s spring in Belgium, and time for another baseball season.