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.
Before they go to heaven, some ballplayers grow up.
And so this weekend, Jean-Mi, Manu and I tore down to Lake Como in Jean-Mi’s pristine black leather-interior Audi A3 for a two-day Italian wedding.
The groom was Chris Blackbee, a lanky Australian righthander who pitched elegantly for the Kangaroos in 2006 and 2007 before moving to Switzerland, where he’s starred for the Therwil Flyers.
Chris met his bride Christine, an exuberant and beautiful American, in Brussels, so the banquets and parties and lunches and dances were full of languages and people and stories from across the planet. No shortage of jet in this set. Como, after all, is the playground of movie stars like George Clooney. Coffee Guy didn’t show, but nothing else was amiss: Prosecco by the lake, ladies in summer dresses, and Cuban cigars for the men. We ate Patanegra ham and drank Chianti, took ferries to visit ancient gardens, and admired the Lycra’d cyclists climbing 1.5-lane roads on their custom Cervelos. This, dear readers, was Europe.
But, to my delight, in the speeches and the stories came the unmistakable grassy smell of hardball. Chris is now 29 and has given a half-decade to the European game. His slider still is one of the best in the Old World.
Skills don’t just happen, and not a few toasters at the big banquet noted Chris as kid’s ferocious dreams of excellence. The hours of sweaty practice. The mission to figure out this most difficult game — and pitch. The teenage autographs for friends. (“Someday, Matty, that’ll be worth a lot.”)
Our game is tough, which is why you should never underestimate the cut-throat will of a ballplayer. If that goofy-grinned fellow from Perth can play a bit, it’s because he fought for it.
And the Kangaroos from the Lowlands bonded with the Flyers from the Alps. Such meetings usually devolve into scouting reports. What position you play? You hit lefty? How was your season?
Husbands teazed wives about walking away oblivious from a close, tense game in the ninth a couple outs before the end.
The Flyers, unlike Brussels, are in the Swiss final, and by Saturday afternoon, as the party rolled on, they had decamped in time to suit up for the first pitch.
We kept up with the Belgian final, where Namur now trails Hoboken 2-0. With four ex-Kangaroos, the Angels are our dog in that fight.
I was one of four groomsmen, two of whom were — I really like this part — catchers. The other receiver, J.B. Tucker, the Flyers’ catcher and coach, had excelled several cuts above this writer, having played for Wake Forest, Mississippi State and the Seattle Mariners’ minor league system. He hit 45 professional homeruns. The issue had not been ability, but consistency, said J.B. “That is what the pro game is about.” Happily, the giant world of baseball offers constant nuanced advancements of understanding, even at destination weddings.
As the sun rose Sunday over Bellagio, basking the sub-continent on the other side of the Alps in striking warmth, there was comfort in our friend’s big day, and the ever-giving bonds forged in our sport.
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