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.
On Sunday, I hitched a ride from Brussels to Regensburg, in southern Germany, to check out the annual tournament of the national elite academies overseen by Major League Baseball.
(A reminder: A few years ago, MLB decided it would be smarter to develop the sport by training elite talent in academies, and gambling on a trickle-down effect as the skilled shared their acquired learnings, instead of trying to teach newbies at schools and scouts to play hardball.)
Four Belgian academy coaches brought their team, and I went along with Rik Ruts, who’s been coaching since the last time the Orioles won the World Series. (Another reminder: That was 1983.)
Over and across the Rhine valley, to Regensburg, where, nestled by the Danube and the Bavarian Forest, lies a jewel of a European ballpark, home of the Legionnaires, Germany’s best ballclub.
The diamond is perfect, it seats about 1,000, and there’s a cozy batting cage complex down the right field line. The field belongs to the local government, but overall, the story of the small stadium is pure German capitalist industry and effort. “We do almost everything with volunteers,” Martin Brunner, who oversees most baseball operations in Regensburg, told me. He pointed at a gentleman pouring beer at the concession stand. “That guy is a high-powered lawyer, but he’s also a volunteer.”
“In Belgium, this is a dream,” one of the Belgian parents told me, shaking his dead in mock despair.
I spent the previous week on a crazy frat-house ski vacation in the French Alps. High-octane carousing, singing, dancing, and sliding, very fast, down the silky slopes.
Sunday afternoon was like the anti-ski vacation. The air was warm. The breeze was soft and sweet. No frat songs. And, as the day slowly ticked away, Holland played Germany, and Belgium Sweden. It felt like Florida.
I hung out with the half-dozen or so scouts who make a living checking out European talent. It didn’t take long for the familiar rhythms of baseball chatter and inquisition to reinstate themselves.
It is a mysterious and wonderful feature of baseball that so many questions remain open, often unanswered and always subject to interpretation, tinkering and theorizing.
Like sinking into a warm bath, it was comforting to launch a stream of conversation.
“Would you bet a grand,” I asked, “that Stephen Strasburg will win 50 games in the Major Leagues?” (A baseball friend I posed the question to the day before had said no way.)
“Easily. Actually, he’s gonna be good,” a scout friend said, taking the bait. “You know the ulnar collateral ligament, which he tore, isn’t actually involved in throwing.”
The scout stood up to show what was wrong with Strasburg’s throwing motion. As his front foot hit the ground, the right hand was pointing down toward the ground. The upward jerk to prepare the launch of the ball toward home plate had frittered away the ligament over the years, the scout explained. “That injury was a long time coming, it didn’t start in Washington.”
Strasburg could have the same injury again, the scout concluded, but he’ll still be an ace pitcher.
Another scout sitting nearby perked up his ears. “I don’t believe in teaching mechanics,” he muttered.
Still another: “Every human being is different. No two people do things the same way.”
Meanwhile, on the field, skinny European teenagers played their considerably flawed version of the game. The scouts gunned their pitches – “only broken 80 once today” – and noted players’s foot speeds home to first. “They need to play more baseball in high-quality environments, and not have coaches try to compensate by oversculpting their mechanics,” I offered. A couple scouts nodded.
The games — a 3-3 tie and a 9-8 Swedish win over Belgium — ended. The sky was still blue. Players marched to their locker rooms. Scouts kept on talking.
In Bavaria, this was baseball. For real.
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