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Jun '10 14

Old World Pastime – Italian Summer



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.

Last month, I accompanied a dozen players and a handful of coaches from Belgium up to Amsterdam for the tryouts for Major League Baseball’s summer academy in Tirrenia, Italy.

The academy was set up to try to develop a cadre of elite players in Europe, by training them every day in a top-notch environment, and by exposing them to college and pro coaches on the recruiting trail. In five years, the academy has drawn 193 players from 26 countries.

By one measure, the academy has been a dramatic success: 36 players have been signed by Major League teams. None, however, have yet to make it to the bigs. In fact, a number of them have even quit before they were released.

That’s why bringing up European baseball to a big-league scout is apt to provoke no end of eye-rolling and double-talk. They think Europe is either a hidden gold mine or a total bust for major league talent. In both cases, that means they’re ready to tell you it’s a waste of time to scout.

That might be so, but in Amsterdam I saw scouts from at least 12 MLB teams show up on a blustery Wednesday afternoon. A slight hiccup marred the start of the activities: The dash markers were set at 60 meters instead of 60 yards. It took 15 or so very slow sprint times before anybody noticed.

The kids were solid, but not spectacular. The fastballs topped out at 84 mph. Red Sox legend Bruce Hurst sat behind the bullpen catchers, congratulating each pitcher. “Very good, you have a good coach!” he said, over and over again. Hitters sprayed the ball erratically instead of powering cracking long balls. The afternoon was more about picking kids to go to Italy, not Florida.

MLB’s European office released its Italy-bound squad this week, and one Belgian made the cut, a strong, sturdy 17-year-old shortstop named Theo de Bellefroid. He first showed up on an under-15 team I coached in Brussels in 2005. Theo had played some cricket in India, and, starting at age 12, he learned fast and well. Last summer, as the Kangaroos were falling apart at the seams, Theo was one of three guys who never missed a practice.

Last winter, Theo transferred to the Namur Angels, where he’s now the starting shortstop. The academy touts its capacity to highlight young European stars for professional American teams. But even if he heads back to Belgium without a signing bonus, forging baseball understanding and excellence over three weeks in Italy is time well spent.

What do you think about the MLB academy? Tell at oldworldpastime@gmail.com

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5 Comments

  1. Comment by RoeBEL53
    June 14, 2010 | 4:10 pm

    Good initiative, absolute wrong timing. The kid is a starting shortstop for his team and will have to leave the team in the middle of the Belgian play-offs. Coach, team – thank you for the chances and fun but during the most important time of the competition I am gone to Italy ! Wrong trade off. Organise this before the start of the season in Europe.

  2. Comment by clipper27
    June 20, 2010 | 10:06 am

    Short term goals or long term development? What is most important? There is no way that the Academy can be run before the start of the season in Europe, as there needs to be tryouts before and the players need to be prepared (arm strength etc) before the MLBEA. So in this, and other cases, someone else needs to step up and fill his spot during these three weeks where he probably will learn more than during three seasons back home.

  3. Comment by RoeBEL53
    June 20, 2010 | 7:39 pm

    One organises try-outs, selections and spring training in the US before the start of the season, not ? It might be assumed that the organisers do this with a good reason. It is very questionable why another logic would be used to do this different in Europe i.e. in the midst of a season.
    My remark does not relate to the question of development long or short term but that one does not like players leaving ones team in the midst of a competition. It is assumed that that logic also drives the way this is done in the US.

  4. Comment by Jason
    July 14, 2010 | 6:37 pm

    Sorry to get in on this late. Good points by both, and I’m glad there’s a consensus on the long-term benefits of the Academy for player development. There are several reasons for holding the Academy in August including weather, preparedness of the players, availability of MLB coaches (avoiding conflict with Spring Training and Fall Instructional Leagues), etc. But the biggest reason is that the vast majority of players at the Academy are still students and August is the one time of year when (most) school holidays are occurring.

  5. Comment by gopherhockey
    July 20, 2010 | 10:51 am

    I wish I would have seen discussion sooner. I don’t think there are many professional tryouts in the states before the spring season. Most take place after the high school/college season in early june. High school and college tryouts don’t take the kid out of school, they are part of school life. You also have to take into consideration how sports are organized here vs the US. The EU season is insanely long and drawn out. With school and the club season there isn’t much time to have the academy so it fits for every country. In addition, the academy participants are a small percentage of players in the big picture. The states has nothing like this to compare with. The only example I can think of is the U.S. development hockey program which takes kids away from home for an entire year or more.

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