John Miller, who is playing and coaching for the Brussels Kangaroos in the Belgian 2nd Division and is a reporter for a big American newspaper, is now also the Little League Commissioner for Belgium. He is also back chronicling the 2010 season in his “Old World Pastime” column on Mister-Baseball.com for a third straight year.
On Friday night, I drove up the E19 highway to Antwerp for meetings with some of the guys who run baseball there. I had to straighten out some details regarding the Belgian Little League Championships, which I’m organizing, July 9 to 11 in Merksem, an eastern neighborhood in Belgium’s port city. More on that tournament later. The trip raised my spirits for another reason.
Antwerp is the historical home of baseball in Belgium, the place where a dozen or so clubs have kept the game going for 80-some years. Belgian baseball has ebbed and flowed. It was strong for many decades, with third-place finishes in 1977, 1979, 1983, 1985 and 1995. Several times, Belgium narrowly missed making the Olympic Games.
Despite catching on in places like Brussels, Namur and Merchtem, Belgian baseball has been on the downslide since then. For years, the clubs clashed in a mercantilist battle to hire the best players for four-figure amounts of cash, burning up precious resources instead of setting up strong youth programs.
But, from what I saw Friday night, there are now some good reasons to think the game might not only survive, but improve and flourish in this corner of Europe.
Filip Van Der Meiren, a 32-year-old former national team secondbaseman who now runs youth baseball in the north of Belgium, and his colleagues have, since last year, set up a new Friday night weekly training camp for some 50 kids under age 13.
The “Flanders Baseball Academy” picked the players from a pool of almost twice as many who tried out. The camp has an impressive 13 coaches, making it the largest accumulation of kid coaches and players I’ve seen in 10 years of working on and caring about youth baseball in Belgium.
Every Friday night in the spring, the coaches divide the kids into four groups, separated by sharp colored T-shirts. Two play, as teams, against each other on the field, with a pitching machine, to save arms and speed up play, flipping straight balls down the middle. The other two practice skills on side fields. It’s regular practice stuff: hitting stations, fly balls, rundowns, and so on.
What was special was what was happening on the field. Two teams of kids, putting the ball in play, running plays out, making plays, running on and off the field, and having a blast. Except for an umpire – this drives me crazy — who called a weirdly tight strike zone on the pitching machine, it was a flawless tableau. The coaches wisely got out of the way and let the kids play.
These Friday night events are in addition to the regular seasons and Little League All-Star seasons these kids are playing. In other words, it’s extra, fun baseball at a higher level with a ton of coaches.
Baseball is not like brewing beer. There is no complicated, magic formula of ingredients you pump in to automatically produce a thriving, high-quality baseball culture. Not is it rocket science.
It’s a game that cries out for strong, consistent participation. It requires dozens and dozens kids in a community to play, a coach for every four kids, nice fields and smart planning, repeated two or three times a week over several years, and the game will effortlessly grown up and mature.
The goal can’t be to produce flashy, amazing players — but organize a steady stream of fun, well-run baseball games, and the players will improve. The cream will rise, and the quality of play will speed up and blossom.
My Friday night was a good laboratory study, and, if I’m right, Belgian baseball could be on its way back.
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