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’ve been out of Belgium, traveling in the U.S. to attend my grandfather’s memorial service. It was a fitful celebration, and it was wonderful to catch up with uncles, aunts and cousins. The global family is something of a new invention, and, thanks to the Internet, we can be friends, and that’s nice.
Baseball, of course, remains part of the architecture of my brain wherever I go. I saw a couple games in Baltimore, something I hadn’t done in a half-dozen years. Camden Yards is still a magnificent ballpark, but somewhat empty these days. Luckily, the Orioles played the Royals, and well enough for victories in both games.
One pleasant part of maturity is recognizing that, as Belgian coaching maestro Steve Janssen, now a pitching coach in the Netherlands, once told me, Major League Baseball “is still the same game, just faster.”
It is the same game, and I see that more as I get older. Take the outside fastball. Go to any level. Nobody can really hit a decent fastball on the black. It’s just too difficult.
OK, let me amend. Nobody can hit an outside fastball thrown at their level. Yes, A-Rod can hit MY outside fastball. But he can’t hit a major league fastball on the black. Sometimes, he will. If he knows it’s coming, ok, that’s easier. And, you do need to come inside sometimes. But, as a rule, the outside fastball is a viciously hard pitch to hit, from Little League to the Belgian second division to the Majors.
Look at the greatest starting rotating in recent history, the Atlanta Braves of the 1990s. All Tom Glavine did, every time out, was flip that heater on the black.
In the 1995 World Series, Greg Maddux beat the Indians 3-2 in Game 1. In Game 5, Albert Belle came up in the first. He sat on an outside fastball from Maddux and hit a homerun to right field. Spectators, and Tim McCarver, were aghast. Belle was a premium hitter of his generation, and that was his exceptional feat of the series.
Yes, it is the same game, but from a few hundred feet, one can see that big leaguers are, well, not like you and me. And there are those who stand out as special amongst the special. Eric Hosmer, the Royals’s 21-year-old rookie phenom, strode across the dirt like a knight on a medieval jousting ground. It doesn’t take a professional scout to take one look at this guy and say “Major Leaguer.”
At my college, Mount Saint Mary’s, there was a extraordinarily talented basketball player named Melvin Whitaker who could have played at a big-time school but wound up at the Mount after slashing somebody with a knife during a playground fight.
I remember Melvin playing pick-up basketball in the gym. He was 6ft11 with long arms. He played a zippy point guard, skipping down the floor with lightning-quick feet. The day I saw him do that, I grasped what it meant to be a professional athlete. They are different from you and me.
But they’re still playing the same game.
Next week is mail week, so send anything you’d like to see published in the column to firstname.lastname@example.org