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The Bad News Bears Of Brussels


Letter From Brussels

THE BAD NEWS BEARS OF BRUSSELS

As a kid, I was no baseball star. "Good bat, no glove" was my manager's notation when I tried out for Little League, where I played a lonely right field.

As an adult, I've been more fan than player, though I did finally learn to catch. Others root for the hometown boys or last year's champs, but my heroes tend to be savvy skippers such as Sparky Anderson and Whitey Herzog. I marvel at their tactics even when their teams aren't winning. They do well with the players they have. To me, that's what baseball is all about.

I never thought I'd be able to manage a team the way the pros do. But this spring, I got my chance. At the ripe old age of 49, I became a baseball manager. O.K., it wasn't the big leagues. But I participated in a player draft and got to juggle the lineup every game.

"WAKE UP!" My team is a little smaller than most. All but two players are under 4 feet, in fact. I manage a Tee Ball team in Brussels, where my son Alex, 7, and other expatriate American kids are experiencing the national pastime. In all, 50 teams, staffed by 625 kids, play on diamonds provided by the Brussels Sports Assn., an American-dominated group. Children of Brussels-based chief executives and ambassadors go head-to-head with those of enlisted military personnel. Most are American, but the game has also drawn Canadians, Brits, Swedes, Belgians, and others.

This year, Tee Ball, which didn't exist when I was a kid, enabled 200 of the youngest boys and girls--5 through 8--to learn baseball fundamentals by letting them, at first, hit a soft-center ball off a chest-high rubber tee. In Tee Ball's second stage, called "the majors"--my league--the manager lobs balls toward a strike zone as Lilliputian as the players. If the batter misses three times, he or she gets a whack off the tee. A whiff at that stage, though, and the player is "Out!"

Because most Tee Ball kids don't quite "get" baseball, there's a rule that lets a fielder "kill the play"--stop runners where they are--by touching any base while holding the ball. Without it, we'd have a lot of infield homers as kids made throwing and catching errors from base to base trying to tag the runner.

As you might guess, a Tee Ball manager faces different challenges than, say, Lou Piniella. While I might long to slip in a squeeze bunt or flash the sign for a hit-and-run, I had to settle for more basic strategies: "Hit the ball," "Catch the ball," and "Run the other way." My most frequent admonition to my often daydreamy players was "Pay attention!" or the more effective "Wake up!"

My chief assistant coaches were Tom Mitchell, European sales director for Andover (Mass.)-based Smith & Nephew Dyonics Inc., and Gene Ellefson, a consultant on Russian business, so we took a businesslike approach: We matched talent to tasks. Kirk Zafirovski, 7, was the only player who could consistently catch a ball thrown across the infield, so we put him on first, the critical base in this duel of infield grounders. Martin Menezes, our champion talker, became catcher. (Behind the plate, he could distract only the batter and ump.) Davide Grody, best at throwing accurately across the diamond on a fly, got third.

BACK TO BASICS. To generate spirit, we used empowerment: We let the kids name the team. Our uniforms (courtesy of sponsor Bank of America) were bright yellow. We considered the Nuggets, which had a nice banklike quality. But we settled on the Golden Twins after some prodding from Kirk's mother, Robin, the team Mom, who had a Twins team banner left from last season. It now has the word "Golden" pasted on it.

We got killed our first game, 20-8, by the Green Machine, a team of tall grade-school mutants. Next practice, adopting a management tactic that might have impressed Martin's dad, Victor, Citibank's global retail banking chief, I asked the kids why they thought they'd lost. "We didn't hit the ball," said Davide, whose dad, Ed, is league commissioner. "We forgot to run to first," said one boy.

So, back to basics. I reintroduced players to first, second, third, and home. We competed to see who could catch the most balls and at the greatest distance. We did the same for throwing, with pie tins lashed to the backstop as targets. We had lots of batting practice.

We used input from our customers-- the parents and siblings who were our faithful fans. "Don't tell the kids they're ahead," urged one mother when we finally began winning. "They might give up." But I disagreed. I told my players not only when they were ahead but that if they stayed ahead, they might win a trophy. The incentive plan worked. The hitting improved. The kids even retired the other side in order on occasion. With a few hints, they began giving each other high fives when somebody did something right. They got confident.

It may sound soppy, but I found the whole experience wonderful. It's hard to describe the pride I felt as the kids bloomed. We started out with some boys who had no gloves and didn't know which way to hold the bat. By season's end, double plays weren't that rare. And some players were spectacular.

MITTY MOMENTS. One reason our team came so far is that their parents got into the act. They filled in as base coaches, umpires, and official scorers. They bought the postgame hot dogs and hamburgers. Even such busy executives as Kirk's dad, Mike, who runs GE Capital Fleet Services, showed up regularly at Friday night practice.

Because this was baseball and we were all far from home, this went beyond normal parental participation. Some primal cultural thing about the game surfaced. "How can your kid be an American if he doesn't know how to play baseball?" replied Marc Perez' dad, Ric, who manages European engineering operations for Westinghouse Electric Corp., when I asked why he helped out as a part-time coach. That hit home. Alex has never lived in the U.S. and, while I enjoyed my Walter Mitty moments as manager, that's the real reason I volunteered.

Alex, as I once did, needs work with fly balls in left field, but he hit .533 for the season and now knows a force play from a foul. The Golden Twins, the league's smallest, youngest team, wound up the 1994 Western Div. champs, winning 14-13 in extra innings after twice being down five runs. We lost the championship to a team that had won every game. But Kirk got the first unassisted triple play in Belgian Tee Ball history. By then, the outcome hardly mattered to me. The kids had done their best. I finished the season a winner. Eat your heart out, Sparky.PATRICK OSTER


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