By Tommy Keeler Jr.
Greg Van Sickler went from playing baseball in Belgium to playing in Australia. The James Wood and Shenandoah University graduate has enjoyed his time in Australia so much that he's making an extended stay of it.
Van Sickler played in Belgium last year, and just two weeks after arriving home in Winchester, he was back on a plane -- this time to Australia.
"I ended up in Australia thanks to my trip to Belgium last year," Van Sickler said in a interview through Facebook. "My American roommate, Jake Hummel, had a friend from his college recommend him to the coach in Australia for the Carine Cats. So he was all squared away to play down there after Europe. About two weeks before I left Belgium in early September, I was asked by Jake if I wanted to play in Australia for Carine. They needed a utility player. I was content on Europe being the last baseball experience for me, but I realized Australia was an opportunity I could not pass up."
Van Sickler had a solid season playing for Carine, which is the Western Australian State League. He even played in the Australian Pro League for the Perth Heat for a little bit before returning to play for Carine.
Since Carine's season ended a few months ago, Van Sickler has decided to stay in Australia until July, where he has two jobs. He plans on coming back to Australia and play for Carine again next season. Carine is a suburb of Perth, which is the capital city of Western Australia.
Van Sickler said his time in Australia has been a memorable one.
"Everything I was told about this country before I came here has been true," Van Sickler said. "Australia is home to the nicest people on the planet. These people will literally do anything for you. I have yet to run into an Aussie I have not liked."
As part of the Perth Heat's exhibition season, they have matchups against some U.S. imports, and Van Sickler got the start against them in one of the games and impressed the Heat coaches.
In early December he was called up to pitch for the Heat in a regular season pro game. His debut came against the Brisbane Bandits on Dec. 7. He came into the game with the bases loaded and no outs in the sixth inning, behind starter Virgil Vasquez, who pitched professionally for the Pittsburgh Pirates.
He was able to get out of that inning, and pitched a few more for the Heat. Van Sickler said it was a great experience.
"I will never forget that experience, to actually play professional baseball," Van Sickler said. "Everyone on the team was fantastic, and at times it seemed so surreal. Here was this little Division III player from Shenandoah University going toe-to-toe with guys playing AAA and in the big leagues. I'm grateful for every moment I had with that team."
In two games with the Heat, Van Sickler went 1-0 with a 1.35 ERA on the mound. He struck out seven in 6 2/3 innings.
One of the many highlights on his trip has been seeing some of the wildlife in Australia.
Van Sickler said he enjoys the beaches but doesn't go far into the water because of the sharks. He also said kangaroos are as popular there as deer are in Virginia, and he's even seen them on some of the golf courses he's been on.
"What is very strange is looking down the fairway and having kangaroos right next to you on the tee box," Van Sickler said. "Seeing kangaroos for the first time was quite an experience. They're much bigger in person than what I've seen on television. When they get on their tails, they are close to nine feet tall. The most intimidating wildlife here, however, is on a much smaller scale. In Virginia, I don't have to worry too much about checking my shoes or boots every time I put them on, but when you live in a country that is home to the top 10 deadliest snakes and spiders on the planet, it's something that looms in your mind every time you lace up."
When in Belgium, Van Sickler had to deal with speaking a different language from the rest of the country. In Australia, things are a lot easier for Van Sickler, but he said the Australians definitely have their own lingo.
"If it's one thing I learned about Australian lingo, it's that they shorten everything here," Van Sickler said. "For example, instead of saying "Merry Christmas" around the holidays, it's customary to say, 'Merry Chrissy.' It's like that with almost every word. 'Afternoon' is shortened to 'arvo.' I get a lot of attention when I speak to Australians because of my supposed American accent. It's weird to think I have one, but if you're in a room full of Aussies and you start talking, the room goes dead silent, and everyone picks up on me talking."
Just like in Belgium, Van Sickler is once again teaching youngsters the game of baseball. The sport is not as popular as it is in the U.S., but he said he's enjoyed trying to teach the players more about the game.
"At the start of the season, most of my kids had no idea where first base was, and by the last game of the season, they could give the Yankees a run for their money," Van Sickler said. "It was such a privilege to introduce the American style of baseball I grew up on to these young aspiring athletes. It is a challenge to get kids involved in baseball and teach them the fundamentals necessary to succeed, but I really enjoyed it. It's going to be hard to leave them when I go home."
Van Sickler said he is taking some time off from playing because he wants to give his arm a rest, but he is excited about his future and playing again in Australia.
"I got a little taste of professional baseball here, and I'm starving to get back," Van Sickler said. "As my career is coming to an end, I would really like the opportunity to play in the United States somewhere. Whether for an independent team or the possibility to play professionally, I want to see how far I can get up the baseball ladder. It was a huge step for me this year playing with the Heat, and with a strong workout routine in place this summer, I want to prove to myself I can make it back. It's a strong possibility for me to play in the summer 2014 for a great team in Meinz, Germany. Wherever I end up, I'm just incredibly blessed to have the memories I have thus far."
Contact Assistant Sports Editor Tommy Keeler at 540-465-5137 ext. 155, or firstname.lastname@example.org