By John W. Miller
The state of baseball in Europe’s capital is strong.
I spent much of July and August at Kangaroo Field in Northeast Brussels to join the club where I played, coached, refereed and organized between 1994 and 2011.
When I moved from Brussels to Pittsburgh at the end of 2011, I burned out and thought I had left the Kangaroos behind.
This summer I soaked up in a joyous reunion. I threw batting practice. I coached bases. I drank beer and talked baseball until deep into the night, while in the hazy night I looked up and looked around at the foxes that had invaded the parks and trails around the field. I even caught two games.
Once again, I became infected by the spirit of the Brussels Kangaroos; lively, ambitious and fun.
The club thrives, with nine baseball and softball teams and more than two hundred players. There are teams for adults and for children, male and female, beginner and elite.
The top men’s baseball team is led by Cedric and Kevin Desmedt, two brothers who lived as boys along the field and grew into two of the best right-handed throwers in Europe. They played college and pro baseball on three continents, from Ohio to Melbourne. Now they are back in Brussels, determined to build winning players and teams. They play and coach with passion and purpose. Their exercises are serious and athletic. This is not a windy batting practice show. The team is a mix of young Belgians and older players from Japan, France, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.
The club is led by president and first baseman David Nielsen, a Belgo-Dane who once formed a close-knit boy trio with my two young brothers, Jacob and Moe. I coached all these guys, and there is now a bond between us, born out of the baseball-shaped holes in our hearts.
From scratch, my friends and I built a youth baseball organization that anchored the last two Belgian teams to win European Small League baseball championships, in 2004 and 2006, and trained dozens of great ballers, including a group of national team stars such as the Desmedts, A Belgian batting champion, Vincent King, and, amazingly, a future major league, Chicago White Sox reliever Ryan Burr, who made 26 appearances for AL Central’s leading ball club by mid-September.
Now David and his crew are building something different, more stable, more organic, more Belgian. “The Kangaroos are a family club,” David told me. “It’s a place where you can start as a child and play your whole life. There are whole families in the club. ”
And this summer felt like a family reunion. My brother Jacob, a guitar player and singer by profession, co-coaches with Nicolas Pisvin an adult third division team, someone else I coached as a child.
Jacob and Nicolas lead a team that must be seen to be believed. It includes more than 20 players, including adult beginners, and it manages to be serious in its ambition, while roaring with madhouse joy. These guys play hard. They scream. They sing. When someone is struck by a pitch: “Team!“When they score a run:”Boing! Boing! That’s the sound of Kangaroos!They ran a boombox out of the dugout. And they win.
Jacob was a top youth player until he was 14 years old before giving up focusing on music. For more than 15 years, his involvement in baseball was limited to the encouragement of his beloved Red Sox. He accepted a coaching role with the Kangaroos this spring. And he’s brilliant at it, finding out where all the pieces fit, and encouraging players with that deep, stubborn notion that baseball is hard but worth it. I played two games for Jacob’s teams and adapted for the first time in 10 years in a competitive game in the catchers’ outfit. For the first time in our lives, it was Jacob who gave me the reading: “John, in the real world, what matters is that you do not get hurt.” I escaped alive. And we won both games. Team!
In 2021, the men’s team qualified for the “Gold League” for the first time ever, the elite series with the top six teams in the country. “We are now at a point where we also want better results and real quality on the field,Said David, the club president. The club also has men’s and women’s softball teams in the country’s top leagues.
On my first Saturday in Brussels in July, the unbeaten Hoboken Pioneers came to town, with a stacked series that includes national team shortstop Benji Goffiaux and former Mets minor league Thomas De Wolf. In the first game of a double header, they ruled the Kangaroos 11-1 by grace. A knock.
In Game 2, Cedric Desmedt threw a complete game victory of 6-1. Cedric, whom I got to know as a great teenager, became a great beast, and here he was mixing all his fields, breaking bats and causing the Pioneers their first loss of the year.
This game was what my generation dreamed of 20 years ago. Our club. A family club. At the highest level in the country. Triumphant.
John W. Miller is a journalist and filmmaker from Brussels, now based in Pittsburgh. From 2007 to 2011, he wrote the Old World Pastime column for mister-baseball.com [link to series]. For more on Kevin Desmedt, extrainnings.co.uk regularly covered him during his American career [link].
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