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Nov '10 15

Old World Pastime – The Big Leagues come to Antwerp

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Old World Pastime

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.

Things Major Leaguers can do after the end of their grueling 162-game season: golf, hunt, Mexico.

So what were Adam Jones, Jeremy Guthrie, Rick VandenHurk and John Baker doing running drills for 200 Belgian kids at the “Extra-Time” sports complex on Louisalei in southern Antwerp on an apocalyptically rainy Saturday in November?

I’ll say it again: Belgium in November?

Credit VandenHurk, the Orioles righty with a baseball fire burning in his belly. Yes, he’s in the bigs now, but it took side-winding righty seven years of bone-crunching work to get there after he went to Florida as a 16-year-old prodigy in 2001.

His climb to the top is the story of all Major Leaguers. It’s why we admire these fellow citizens of ours, even if they got head starts with their unfair premiums of athletic talent. The strength of character and sheer will for excellence you develop on your way to Yankee Stadium are why we encourage children to idolize ballplayers.

Except, if you live by the North Sea, you and your kids are not seeing a lot of big leaguers.

And thus it came to VandenHurk to dream up this crazy scheme.

How did it start?

Listen to Jones, the talkative, gregarious Orioles centerfielder: “I knew about the Dutch from the World Baseball Classic, so when Rick came over, we were shagging balls in the outfield before a game, and I was like, man, you do have baseball over there, huh?”

VandenHurk: “All over the league, guys were asking me about European baseball. And guys want to see Europe, so I thought let’s figure out a way for them to teach baseball and also see Europe.” A lot of players expressed interest in coming, including Barry Zito, Chase Utley and Nick Swisher.

Last summer, Rick called his dad, Wim, a successful businessman, who set up stops in Haarlem, Rotterdam and Eindhoven, the VandenHurk’s home town. They recruited sponsors, got MLB on board and battled all elements, including the cost-inflating insistence of the MLB players’s union on five-star everything for their members.

The list of players eventually came down to six: the four I saw Saturday, plus Greg Halman and Brady Anderson, who went as far as the Netherlands, but didn’t make it to Antwerp.

“Boy, this was a lot of work,” Wim said on Saturday. “But look, all those kids: lots of sleepless nights over there.” He pointed across the gym, where Guthrie, the Orioles righthander, was tutoring wide-eyed preteen pitchers.

“Pay attention to how you throw,” the Orioles righty was saying. “Because pitching and throwing are basically the same.” When you’re gone so far, it’s amazing how you realize that the simple answers were there all along.

I talked to Guthrie and the three others. They all said they were motivated by an opportunity to give back to the game. “I love Europe and would like to help more,” said Guthrie, who confessed a soft spot for Spain.

Their presence seemed to inspire everybody there. “All this baseball, here in Belgium,” said U.S. ambassador to Belgium Howard Guttman, who came equipped with a tattered Rod Carew left-handed glove. Dressed in jeans and a T-shirt, he hustled from ballplayer to ballplayer, talking up a storm. “Amazing,” he said.

The big leaguers fielded questions. What was your best season? How many players on a team? Who’s your favorite player?

What do you when you get hit by the pitch? “Don’t rub it,” said VandenHurk, a twinkle in his eye. He then repeated it in Dutch. “Niet wrijven.”

A Belgian coach helping out — one of couple dozen local baseball types who worked hard for weeks to make the day happen — watched in awe. “He’s so down-to-earth,” he said. “Not at all like a typical Dutchman.”

The 25-year-old VandenHurk is an impressive young man and cross-cultural ambassador. One group had couple kids who spoke only English. VandenHurk started repeating himself in both languages to make sure every member of his audience could understand every word.

How many money do you make? “400,000 dollars,” said VandenHurk. “But those guys make several million.” He pointed at Guthrie and Jones.

Guthrie had the best answers to that question. “Enough to buy a lot of Playstations.” And later, to a Belgian reporter: “That’s what Google is for.”

Guy Van Drom, the press liaison for the Belgian event, recalled a recent visit by another pro American athlete. “We had Dennis Rodman,” he said. “He was two hours late, played for three minutes, wouldn’t even have his picture taken with any kids.”

These ballplayers were the opposite of that churlish hoopster. They patiently held their grins and autograph postures the whole day. “It’s refreshing,” said Baker, the Marlins’s catcher. “In the U.S., everybody knows everything, everybody’s a coach. Here, the questions are sincere, they really want to learn.”

At the end of the day, Jones picked out seven-year-old Kobe Roef, who had made several nice catches during outfield drills. He gave her his Orioles hat. On it, he wrote: “You are my MVP.” She beamed with pride.

The Orioles had donated hats and T-shirts. Kids and parents headed out into the late afternoon darkness, an army of orange ducking under the rain, brains abuzz with something they could never have experienced on facebook.

Reporters don’t clap — we are not meant to be impressed by kings and rock stars. But watching VandenHurk and his merry men in their crisp whites enchant the masses, I put my hands together.


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