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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?

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