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Oct '11 20

Old World Pastime – Doubleheaders, Part 2 (My longest column ever!)



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.

I apologize for casting “shame” last week on the Merksem Greys.

They are a proud and excellent baseball club, full of able men and women, and undeserving of such a label. When I ran the Little League tourney there last year, I rolled out the balls and three dozen volunteers popped up to make Antwerp feel like Yankee Stadium. It was magic.

But still, they are dead wrong about leading the charge for keeping Belgium’s insane six-month season of baseball every Saturday and Sunday afternoon at 330pm. And I’m mad because it’s a crazy proposition, followed nowhere in the amateur universe, and it’s hurting baseball. So I’m sorry, but I still think I’m right.

“Be a man and have an open debate,” writes the Greys’s Lucas Verbist, who also wonders “what stick is up? Not enough free drinks when visiting?” I’m not quite sure what that means, but, no, I don’t think it’s about the free drinks, Mr. Verbist. I just really like baseball.

You, dear readers, know my views, so here we go, an open debate, with the arguments advanced by the Greys and their supporters in an avalanche of comments and emails following my column last week, along with my response. I even did some reporting!

We are the best, therefore we’re right. As RoeBEL53 puts it, “Which team has own developed youngsters in its 1st team today still playing pretty nice baseball? Which team delivers most of the players to the National Teams?”

Yes, the Greys have a wonderful club. But so what? They are a happy fish in a sad pond. And it’s true that other clubs, including my good friends at Namur, rely heavily on foreign players. And, well, shame on them for that.

But that’s a different question. The question here: what will get the most and best athletes playing baseball? I posit that it’s an attractive competition that doesn’t require you to dump the rest of your life.

A functional baseball season allows players to reasonably commit to attending every practice and game their team organizes. Where does that happen in Belgium? Nowhere, not at the Greys, not at the Kangaroos, not at the champion Hoboken Pioneers, and it poisons the culture. Better a three-month season will full attendance than a six-month season with half-attendance.

We do it like the Dutch do it. The Dutch first division does not play six months, so it’s not like Belgium, but, yes, it usually plays at 2pm on Saturday and 2pm on Sunday. I called Steve Janssen, an old friend in European baseball. Steve, an Antwerp native, is easily Belgium’s most accomplished baseball coach. He has coached Europe’s best club, Rotterdam Neptunus, to a national title. He has been the pitching coach for the Dutch national team.

The Dutch national team, faithful readers of this website will know, just won the World Cup in Panama. Steve was there, a Belgian sporting the orange. I congratulated him. “A dream come true,” he said.

Steve declined to discuss the current debate. He has friends all over Belgian baseball and has closed that chapter in his life, he said.

So the Dutch play on Saturdays and Sundays, right?

Yes, but unlike Belgium, it’s a way more professional league. Also, those games are at 2pm. “In Holland, 75 percent of the guys are showered and home to their families by 5pm, while in Belgium 75 percent of the guys go to the bar with their buddies.”

Unhealthy, I said. “Well, it’s a different culture,” he said. “Belgium doesn’t have an elite sports culture.”

So how do you change the culture?

You need a new plan. “Sometimes you gotta take a step back,” said Steve. “You know, the Chinese word for change means opportunity, but also danger.”

He should know. After the 2006 season, Steve was asked by the Belgian federation to draw up a plan for restructuring the league.

His idea: doubleheaders on Saturdays and a U-23 league on Sundays. “That way, the older guys could get Sundays off to spend with their families or coach, and the younger guys could play three times a weekend,” he said. “Think about that, the guys you’re gonna count on in the future are playing three times a weekend, isn’t that great?”

I thought so then, and I think so now. But back then, the clubs, again led by Merksem, fought innovation. Steve got so frustrated that he quit, a catastrophic loss for old, stubborn Belgian baseball.

Dear Merksem Greys and friends, sorry, but on this one I’m going to side with Steve Janssen, Belgian, ballplayer and world champion.

Doubleheaders are too long and hard. As pitdb writes, playing for “6 or even 8 hours on a field, as player, coach or supporter, is over the top.” Yes doubleheaders are a lot of baseball, but is it more “over the top” than the insane six-month Saturday-Sunday season? I don’t think so. It’s not a perfect world. So please pick the less crazy alternative.

And what’s wrong with seven inning games? Bart1977, from the U.K., writes that seven-inning doubleheaders have been a godsend for British baseball, despite the lack of sponsorship or concession sales. He credits the structure for helping to win the European cup qualifier and qualifying the World Baseball Classic.

A majority of Belgian clubs support the current structure. “The position of the Greys was taken after an intensive technical meeting with members of the coaching staff, playing and the board,” writes Peter Verheyleweghen of the Greys. “I must assume that the other 5 clubs did their homework as well.” Six of the eight D1 clubs support letting the weekend warriors play all weekend, he says.

Mr. Verheyleweghen gets the number wrongs. Namur, Brasschaat and Hoboken, the national champs, want doubleheaders. So did Merchtem, until the Cats got demoted. The Antwerp Eagles, newly in D1, changed their minds and are now opposed.

Jerome Legris, the federation president who has diligently and objectively surveyed the landscape, says 35% of players support doubleheaders (even if they have to pay higher fees to compensate for less revenue), 30% are against and 35% have not responded.

So the truth is that clubs and players are pretty evenly divided. Up to the leaders to make a decision and have the courage to try something different.

We’ll lose concession revenue. “Baseball, but obviously any sport drives on beer consumption,” writes RoeBEL53. “How many extra sponsors and fans will be attracted to the game of baseball in a double-header scenario on one day?”

People will drink less beer, he concludes. “How do you get 2 times drunk in a day?” Really, is that a sports argument?

Luckily, it’s the argument easiest to knock down. Switching the elite league to one day a weekend actually allows for more baseball, not less, and at more convenient times, because you free up a huge chunk of the weekend.

“Why don’t clubs who want to simply create an extra league with more games to generate more beer revenues?” writes Dave Gutmann, a former Kangaroos coach.

Andy Johnson writes to propose a European interleague the Greys could play in. “Why is it that there can’t be a Dutch, Western German, French, Belgian competition and another East German, Czech, Croatian, Polish competition?  The logistics are the hard part but I think you could certainly find a way for a team like the Greys to play in both competitions throughout a season.  They could even use their younger players for the Belgian league and their older players for the interleague for example.”

Adds Andy, “you have to admit that it must suck to be in their shoes if they feel that they are in a position to increase the intensity.” Yes, but the issue in Belgium is not quantity of baseball, it’s quality, with as many players as possible attending every practice and playing every game.

Finally, between 1999 and 2011, I spent thousands of hours coaching other people’s kids on Saturday and Sunday mornings, usually alone while their parents slept in.

Would the parents of those minimes, cadets and juniors, a. show up more and b. drink more beer and c. show more interest in baseball if games were on Saturday/Sunday afternoons instead of chilly early mornings?

Uh, duh.

Dear Belgian baseball, I love you, but you’re sick and old — and you don’t want to change.

That’s a problem. Because if you’re never, ever willing to try something different, to evolve, you will die. That’s how life goes.

Your stubborn unwillingness to adapt and make baseball attractive to as many good athletes as possible drives thousands from the game they love.

So, yes, please, it would be cool if you did the right thing.

To celebrate, I’d drink a beer. In Merksem.

I’m not gone yet, so please do challenge me at oldworldpastime@gmail.com. What did I miss?


3 Comments »

  1. Comment by SYSTEM-R
    October 20, 2011 | 4:21 pm

    While I’m not even living in Europe now, I don’t have enough knowledge of reality about what’s certainly going on for Belgian baseball now. So sorry folks, I can’t hand out any clear answer to the “main” doubleheader issue, but I still have a thought about the European Extra League that Mr.Gutmann, Mr.Johnson, and Mr.Miller mentioned.

    As a Japanese student grew up in UK, and now majoring sport business at the university, I think this idea is one of the most demanded issue for the entire European baseball culture to develop it more as a business. You guys may know that baseball is huge here, but that’s not always the same at the old continent. Even the Dutch victory defenitely changed the mood in their country, baseball in Europe is still going behind some other major sports such as football, rugyby, tennis, basketball, etc. Therefore European baseball has less-sized market, so instead sticking to your “own” zone, you must find a new one outside, using more benefits of the Schengen convention.

    Yes, you already have European cup. That’s a fantastic event indeed. But think about it is just a cup tournament. If you’re thinking about selling more foods, drinks, and any others, then there’s many inconvenience; the number of games played there is not enough, and even if there’s still possibility-I don’t know if it is admitted or not, only host team can do such sellings. What we really need is an international league, and it will also give much benefits to Belgian baseball too.

    I think that Europe must become a 3rd Dynasty of baseball, besides North/Central America and east Asia. That’s the best way to make baseball more big. It is of course not easy, but new structure of EEL can help this. And if it’s going to take place, then I will join that project too.

  2. Comment by Peter V
    October 21, 2011 | 11:32 pm

    Appreciate the well deserved apologies from John Miller.

    Here are my last comments on his article “Double-headers part 2” as I believe the real debate needs to be held in a meeting room with all Belgian clubs and the KBBSF. I put my comments in the same order as they showed in John’s article.

    “It’s true that other clubs, including my good friends at Namur, rely heavily on foreign players, shame on them for that”. Greys has played with only one foreigner this year and all others were (young) Belgians, the majority trained in our own club. We, including quite a few other clubs have asked to limit the foreign players to only 3 non-trained players (foreigners) so that at least 6 or 7 Belgians should be able to play in a game. This season we played against several clubs with not even a handful of Belgians in their line-up. Not sure if you heard about the newly published “Foreign Player Rule” in Belgium where maximum 3 non-EU nationals can be in a line-up at anytime. This means that a team can consist of 9 non-Belgian players. If we try to grow Belgian baseball and think that implementing double-headers is the cure, should we then at least not get rid of this ridiculous foreign player rule? Is there a limit of foreign players in other European countries?

    “Better a three-month season with full attendance than a six-month season with half-attendance”. To the best of my knowledge the double-headers will also be played for six straight months and will also be 42 games in total so where is the difference?

    “Belgium doesn’t have an elite sports culture”. Sure Belgium has an elite sports culture but not in baseball. As long as all the money, media attention and political support goes to the other sports like football, cycling, basketball, etc… it will be very difficult to grow our favorite sport. There is indeed a huge gab between ourselves, Holland and other topleague baseball countries but this will be difficult to close without being as financially supported as they are.

    “Steve Janssen’s idea: double-headers on Saturday and a U-23 league on Sunday to have the younger guys play 3 times a weekend”. This idea is now copied by the Belgian federation but on one hand they want to free up time to have a social, family life and on the other hand they want players to be on the field for 3 games a weekend? Isn’t that a contradiction? How fast will these young players get a burn-out and quit, taking into account that they have to practice in their own clubs but also practice and play for the academies and National teams. And also not to forget: what about school?

    “A majority of Belgian clubs support the current structure – Mr. Verheyleweghen gets the numbers wrong”. At least 5 of the 8 first division clubs support the current structure. We understood that one person, who represented his club during the last KBBSF meeting, apparently did vote in his own name and did not follow the club’s position. This is however not confirmed but 5 out of 8 is still a majority, right?.

    “Propose a European interleague where the Greys could play in – find a way for a team like Greys to play in both competitions throughout the season”. Logistically and financially it will not be possible for any club in Belgium to play in a European interleague. It looks like there is a misunderstanding regarding our position on this subject. Let it be clear that Greys is not looking to increase the intensity or is in favor of an additional or better competition. We just want to stick to a structure that in our opinion proved its right the past season. We do not want to take the risk by implementing something completely new and jeopardize the loss of players.

    “Your stubborn unwillingness to adapt and make baseball attractive to as many good athletes as possible drives thousands from the game they love”. Who is stubborn? The ones that don’t want to change something they believe is good or the ones that want to push through their opinion not having any kind of proof that this will work. By the way, “drives thousands from the game they love”? John Miller has been around here so he must know that Belgium does not even have thousands of players…

    Again, the debate should be held somewhere else and hopefully, since Belgium is a democracy, all clubs will still have the chance to discuss this issue with the Belgian federation before the final decision is taken.

    Greys took and will always take their responsibility in the discussion on how to develop Belgium baseball and we hope the other clubs and the KBBSF will do the same. In the end, somebody needs to take a final decision and we can only hope it will be the right one.

  3. Comment by pitdb
    November 25, 2011 | 1:34 pm

    To start BB games @ 1 or 2 pm would be a lot better! I have no idea where that 3.30 starting hour comes from….

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