These Kangaroos Keep Baseball Hopping in the Heart of Europe

By John W. Miller

Baseball in Europe is subcultural. On a continent that prizes cinema, cycling and Camus, baseball exists in an underground state where sweat and spirit are poured, diamonds carved out of goal lines, and where people are willing, without help from culture ministries or deep tradition, to keep alive a difficult, complicated sport.

The entire continent, 750 million people from the Azores to Knivskjellodden, has only around 100,000 players of baseball and softball, belonging to a thousand or so clubs. 

One of them is the Brussels Kangaroos, steward of America’s game in Europe’s capital. 

Between 1994 and 2011, I belonged to the Kangaroos, a club started in the late 1980s by Belgian college students fascinated by the USA and baseball. I joined at age 16 and got hooked, playing, coaching, umpiring, and organizing fervently from April to September. When I moved to Pittsburgh from Brussels at the end of 2011, I had burned out. The basement wears you down. I thought I’d left the Kangaroos behind; and they, me. 

This 2021 summer, on my first visit to my parents and five siblings in Brussels since before the Covid-19 pandemic, I got sucked into a joyful reunion. I bought a beater bicycle and, a dozen times, pedaled it out from my parents’ house in the EU quarter to the field in northeast Brussels, a complex of turf fields near the airport. The Kangaroos share the field with soccer and lacrosse teams, but when it’s baseball time, the wide expanse of pale plastic green turns into Fenway Park.

For the first time since 2011, I joined in. I threw batting practice. I coached bases. I drank beers and talked baseball deep into the night, looking up at hazy night and around at the foxes that have invaded the parks and trails around the field. I even caught two games.

Once again, I got infected by the spirit of true grassroots sports: buoyant, starry-eyed, joyful. Recently, I reviewed Tom Gilbert’s fantastic new book How Baseball Happened. It’s an exploration of how baseball was created organically, not by any lone genius, but by communities — firehouses, factories, militias — looking for fun  in mid-19th century New York. 

Well, that’s how baseball happens in Europe.

Take the adult recreation team on which I played my two games this summer. It includes over 20 players, many grown-up beginners, and manages to be serious in its ambition, while roaring with madhouse joy. (Watch this spectacular rain delay homerun trot, avec cigarette.) These guys play hard. They holler. They chant. When somebody gets hit by a pitch: “Equipo!” When they score a run: “Boing! Boing! That’s the sound of Kangaroos!” They run a boombox out of the dugout. And they win. 

The best part is that the co-coaches are my brother Jacob, a shaggy-haired guitar player and singer by trade, and Nicolas, a former cop who now works for a sporting goods store. In my 20s, I coached both these boys, along with my brother Moe, club president David Nielsen, and dozens of others. (Including Ryan Burr of the Chicago White Sox, whom I caught up with at a Pirates game in Pittsburgh earlier this summer.) This summer, Jacob, Nicolas and a bunch of others and I bonded over the baseball-shaped holes in our hearts. 

Jacob, John and Nicolas

Jacob was an ace middle infielder until age 14 before giving it up to focus on music. For more than 15 years, his involvement in baseball was cheering on his annoyingly good Red Sox. This spring, he accepted a coaching role with the Kangaroos. And he’s brilliant at it, figuring out where all the pieces fit, and encouraging players with that deep, stubborn understanding that baseball is hard but worth it. 

I played two games for Jacob’s teams, suiting up in catchers’ gear in a competitive game for the first time in 10 years. For the first time in our lives, it was Jacob lecturing me: “John, in the real world, what matters is that you don’t get hurt.” I escaped alive. And we won both games. Equipo!

In 2021, the Kangaroos’ top competitive men’s team, for the first time ever, qualified for the “Gold League”, the elite series with the top six teams in the country. The club also has men’s and women’s softball teams in the country’s top leagues, part of the nine baseball and softball squads and over two hundred players. There are teams for adults and for children, male and female, beginner and elite. 

The first team is carried by Cedric and Kevin Desmedt, two big Belgian brothers who as boys lived next to the field and grew into two of the best righthanded pitchers in Europe. They’ve both starred on Belgium’s national team. They went off and played college and pro baseball on three continents, from Ohio to Melbourne. 

Now the brothers are back in Brussels, determined to build winning players and teams. They play and coach with passion and intent. Their practices are serious and athletic. This is not a breezy batting practice show. The team is a mix of young Belgians and older players from Japan, France, Cuba and the Dominican Republic.

On my first Saturday in Brussels in July, the undefeated Hoboken Pioneers came to town, with a stacked lineup including national team shortstop Benji Goffiaux and former Mets minor leaguer Thomas De Wolf. In the first game of a doubleheader, they mercy-ruled the Kangaroos, 11-1. A beatdown.

In game 2, Cedric Desmedt tossed a 6-1 complete game win. Cedric, who I got to know as a big teenager, has become a hulking beast, and here he was, dealing, mixing all his pitches, breaking bats, chomping, spitting, cheerfully trash-talking, handing the Pioneers their first loss of the year.

This game was what me and my friends had dreamed of when we were making baseball happen 20 years ago. Our club. At the highest level in the country. Joyful and triumphant.

John W. Miller is a journalist and filmmaker from Brussels, now based in Pittsburgh. He belonged to the Brussels Kangaroos from 1994 to 2011, and from 2021 onwards.