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Jul '11 04

Old World Pastime – Little Big League II



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.

For the second year in a row, I ran the Belgian Little League Championships. We set up shop in Hoboken, Belgium, the original place name for the eponymous locale in New Jersey where baseball was supposedly invented.

It wasn’t a bad tournament. Brussels and Wallonia were again weaker than the two Flanders squads. This is logical. The true home of Belgian hardball is Antwerp, home to a half-dozen communities where the game is actually popular.

The weaker two regions have some talented kids. But they lack the intense focus and coaching motivation and muscle you need to nurture the game to a higher level.

Flanders has that focus right now. A generation of younger coaches, now in their 30s, has set up an elite training program.

Every Friday night, the best players are invited to scrimmage with a pitching machine. Coaching is not about talking to kids.

It’s about getting them enjoyable and consistent reps at a higher level. If you can figure out how to deliver that – be in the backyard, as part of a serious game, or in a goofy practice — you’ve got yourself a winner.

It’s not about what you say. It’s about what the kids do. More importantly, it’s about what they want to do. That’s why I love Little League’s global tournament. It motivates kids.

It’s difficult to get my fellow Belgians to grasp my passion for taking care of this 11-12-year-old age group. It’s a special age to me, life’s only intersection of sharp, hard skills, and childlike enthusiasm and innocence.

The energy and focus of my friends, instead, is directed toward running the insanely-long adult season that, like the war in Afghanistan, just goes on and on and on. April to September, sometimes October. No other amateur season in the world is so long. It’s stupid.

My buddies who coach and administer these teams are burned out, as I was when I tried that game. They are not coping. They have no energy to devote to creating a cool environment for 12-year-olds to prosper.

Instead, they worry themselves sick about whether they’ll have nine for Sunday, and whether their 22-year-old shortstop is going to the beach next weekend.

I want to scream: Your six-month season is a lie. It is a failure. People burn out. They don’t have fun. Play a few months. Stop the season. Then go on vacation. Play a few practice games in September. Then rest.

So it goes that our Little League tournament has the kids screeching with joy, and that many of the adults who are running baseball in this country are not there to watch, or are too trench-eyed to appreciate what they’re seeing.

After running through their round-robin games, Flanders East and Flanders West played for the championship, and the right to represent Belgium in the 2011 European Little League Championships in Kutno, Poland. The winner of that tournament goes to the Little League World Series in Williamsport, PA, in August.

It was a good, high-level kids baseball game, better than last year’s final. Plays got made, doubles ripped to the opposite field gap, and bunts successfully defended. I like.

The boys (and a few girls) knew they were playing for something big. They were focused, and intense. The crowd of 200+ was into it. Ballplayers were growing on this field. That’s not always apparent when you’re playing on Saturday mornings in the mud, five months of other muddy Saturday mornings behind you, with nothing at all at stake, except the approval of a lonely, frustrated father.

West knocked the ball around hard, and carried the day, 11-4.

To the sound of a loud “We are the champions”, they ran around and popped kiddie champagne corks, their screams filling the fresh Belgian July air.

Got some good baseball stories? Tell me at oldworldpastime@gmail.com

Photo by Frédéric de Laminne, www.event-pics.be




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