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.
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