By Tommy Keeler Jr. - firstname.lastname@example.org
Greg Van Sickler had a decision to make.
The Shenandoah University baseball standout and James Wood graduate was working out. preparing to be at his best for the Major League Scouting Bureau tryouts held in Winchester. However in late February, Van Sickler received an offer to play baseball for the Namur Angels in a league in Belguim.
Van Sickler decided to go to Belgium, and he definitely hasn't regretted it.
"Experiencing baseball on the other side of the world has been incredible," Van Sickler said through a Facebook message. "Despite being so far away from home, there is a sense of comfort and homeliness when I am on the baseball field. It's the same game played here, as it is back in the United States. When we practice and play our games, I feel right at home like nothing has changed."
Van Sickler had a great career at both James Wood and Shenandoah University. With the Hornets, he led the team to the NCAA Division III College World Series twice and was a Division III All-American.
After graduating from SU, Van Sickler said he went to several MLB tryouts, but didn't quite make the cut. So Van Sickler took a job working as an admissions counselor at Shenandoah. In February, he decided to quit and give baseball another shot, because he felt like he hadn't fully pursued a career in baseball.
It was only two weeks after he quit his job at Shenandoah that Namur coach Chris Dassy gave Van Sickler a call and the opportunity of a lifetime.
The professional league Van Sickler plays for in Belgium is League Francophone de Belgie de Baseball/Softball. Van Sickler plays in the premier league, which consists of seven teams. He has a host family that he stays with in Namur. His only American teammate Jake Hummel, from Peoria, Ariz., is his roommate.
Van Sickler said it's been great to have an another American on the team and to hang out with this season.
"I don't know if I could have survived this long without him here," Van Sickler said. "It is great to have Jake here to simply talk to one another for the simple fact of conversation. It is comforting to make jokes with sarcasm and puns that the people over here do not quite understand. We get along really well, too. He is rather quiet, where I am quite outlandish, so it's a good fit for us and for our host parents and their kids."
Van Sickler said his host family does speak English, which has certainly helped. He said it was a huge transition being in another country, where a different language is spoken.
"At first, I was terrified of greeting anyone I saw in Europe because I could not communicate with them," Van Sickler said. "In the United States, I took for granted the fact that I could simply order a pizza if I wanted to. When you are thrown into the mix like this, it can be very overwhelming."
In the last few months, Van Sickler said he's getting more and more comfortable in Belguim. He said he can now go to the grocery store and feel comfortable. Van Sickler said he does not speak fluent French, but he's learned enough to get by.
"I can venture off on my own now throughout the city, and feel comfortable enough to acknowledge people that walk by," Van Sickler said. "In restaurants, I just point to what I want, and they understand. I have mastered how to say, 'I do not speak French. Do you speak English?' What is so fascinating, that I never really considered until I arrived in Europe, is the number of different languages spoken. In the United States, if you drive from Virginia to California, they still speak the same language 3,000 miles away. If you head two hours south in Belgium, you hit the German border and everything is in a completely different language.
"Being here has given me a tremendous global perspective on life."
Van Sickler said he's had a great time traveling and seeing different parts of the country and other nearby countries. He said he visited an aunt and cousin in Germany and went snowboarding at an indoor ski resort close to her house. Van Sickler said the Tour de France came right through their town, so he was able to watch it from the curb. Van Sickler said he also recently went on a 10-day trip with his host family and roommate to Southern France. And they have plans to go to Disneyland Paris next month.
On the field, Van Sickler said the Angels are doing well. They are 17-7 and two games out of first in the league, which lasts until the end of August. He said he's playing well and leads the team with seven homers and bats leadoff. There is a rule in the league that for each two-game series with an opposing team, one full game has to be thrown by Belgian pitchers. So Van Sickler and Hummel always pitch on the same day.
Van Sickler said that all but one of their teammates speak English, so that helps a lot.
"What is fun, is the end of game speeches by the coaches," Van Sickler said. "Many times, they speak to us in French because they can communicate better that way. So Jake and I have to stand there without a clue, but he translates to us to give us the gist of it."
Van Sickler also coaches a youth team for the league. The group of kids are 12-14 years old. He also helps out with a team of 5-10 year olds. He said he only has one player on the 12-14 year old team that speaks English, who he uses as a translator. However, none of the 5-10 year olds speak English.
"They are my absolute favorite to work with because none of them speak English, but simply by body language and gestures, they understand almost everything you want them to," Van Sickler said. " What is amazing is how baseball itself is a universal language. I mostly point and use body language to express how to do things to the kids. I communicate on the most basic of levels with them, almost like a caveman would, minus the grunting.
"It has been a very exciting challenge for me to teach kids the fundamentals of baseball when they don't speak English."
Van Sickler said he's enjoyed the Belgium experience so much that he's hoping to land a spot on a team in South Africa, Australia or New Zealand during the winter.
Van Sickler said the trip to Belgium has taught him a lot.
"I have a much greater sense of confidence within myself, because I have grown tremendously as a person since I first arrived," Van Sickler said. "Although I'm a very outgoing guy, I was very reluctant at first to leave the house alone because I was quite literally on my own. I had never been in an environment before where I felt so helpless. My first few weeks, when the townspeople spoke to me on the streets, I would almost go into hiding like a frightened turtle because I could not communicate with them. Presented with the same situation now, I try to say as much as I can to them in French. It is a different way of thinking now for me. Rather than trying to avoid the situation, I welcome it and actually enjoy the language barrier because of the challenge."