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.
It is rainy and gray, but the days of summer are long, and we wait for the 180-day Belgian baseball season to resume, and while we wait, we see old friends and eat and drink. Tell a few stories, too.
So on Thursday night, Manu, Jean-Mi, Jimmy, Larry, Frank and I gathered for a Belgian supper, washed down with a barrel of malted barley. The six of us were teammates in 2000, when the Kangaroos decided to crack open this country’s first division, not the world’s best baseball league, but good enough still to crush teams not past that basic quality level of making plays, throwing strikes and hitting the ball hard.
In April of 2000, the Kangaroos weren’t quite there yet. The team was started in the late 1980s by students at the Universite Libre de Belgique. They had played in the 1990s mostly for fun in division four, three and two, but always for competition, too. Getting better mattered. Thus, finally, the first division.
It was painful at first. We had little pitching and no experience playing at a higher level, and we played with metal bats in a park with a 265-foot leftfield fence. There were games when the rival teams, worked-out semi-pro athletes coming off national team tournaments, would smack a dozen homeruns, then run into outs on purpose to escape Brussels as fast as possible. If not for the 20-run mercy rule (after five innings), we’d have lost games by 50.
We were also, looking back on it, brave and ballsy. It’s easy to show up and rake against lousy pitching; it takes guts to stare your own shortcomings in the face, and keep playing. Beat us 31-1? Go screw yourselves — and see you tomorrow.
One story repeated Thursday night involved a game against the Brasschaat Braves, champions of the day. Frank, our head coach, intentionally walked the baseball loaded losing 12-3 in the bottom of the seventh. We wanted to set up a force out to, at all costs, prevent the mercy rule and and play at least one more inning. The Braves were furious.
But it worked. We played two more innings – another half-hour of baseball on planet earth — and lost in nine. We drove home as if we had won the seventh game of the World Series. Sometimes, winning means understanding that victories come, at different places and times, in different shapes and sizes.
Frank arrived in May of that year, fresh off his master’s degree in sports management from the University of Springfield. He is now the highly-regarded, and wildly successful, head coach at Pomona College near Los Angeles. I like to teaze him that he learned everything he needed to know in Belgium in 2000. We battled, and fought, and cried, and by September we were no longer pushovers.
On a warm Saturday afternoon at Kangaroo Field, before a crowd of what I remember now to be 58,327, we beat the Borgerhout Squirrels 10-8, our first victory against one of the better Antwerp teams. Frank pitched. Jean-Mi homered.
After a few beers, the topic Thursday was favorite memories. Those two games topped the list. Larry, who now works as an economic analyst, had another one. The day after that 10-8 victory, he pitched and beat Borgerhout again. “That’s when I decided to quit,” he said Thursday. “I always said I’d give it up if I won just one game in the first division.”
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