Baseball Coach Is off to Belgium, but His Eye's on Australia
Diekemper, Lee, Daily Herald (Arlington Heights, IL)
Byline: Lee Diekemper Daily Herald Correspondent
Pete Caliendo is an ambassador of sorts - a baseball ambassador.
In a few weeks, Caliendo will assume his duties as the national director of baseball development and coach of Belgium's national baseball team.
On the surface, his title sounds like one granted to a figurehead. But Caliendo's task is not simple. He will be responsible for overhauling Belgium's baseball program at every age level. Caliendo's ultimate goal is to produce an Olympic team for the 2000 games in Sydney.
"It may not be realistic to make the 2000 Olympics," Caliendo said. He is president, general manager and executive director of the Youth Pan-American Baseball Association, headquartered in Roselle. "But (Belgium has) the guys to probably get to a future Olympics."
Caliendo's initial challenge is to turn a sport that is just above cult status into a mainstream sport. Of the 10 million Belgians, 3,000 play organized baseball. Soccer and basketball are more popular sports in their country.
"Our first goal is to increase the participation in baseball," he said. "Soccer hurts the most. Basketball has hurt a little bit. (Baseball) is just now being introduced to the schools. We're trying to get the kids to play baseball at recess, in gym class and get the kids attached to baseball. Like any other sport, you have to get them young. If you don't get them young, you don't get them."
There are six levels of baseball in Belgium, including a professional league.
One of the ways Caliendo plans to improve the skills of Belgian players is to bring in American players to demonstrate the game.
"Players will improve just by playing and practicing with better players; the fundamentals become just as good," Caliendo said. "It will bring up the level of baseball a little bit. If the Belgians can face Americans, that's an improvement."
Playing or coaching baseball in Europe is nothing new to Caliendo. Upon graduating from the University of Illinois-Chicago in 1985, where he played baseball for four years, Caliendo traveled to Europe to play professional baseball in Italy. ("I made about $500 a month," he said.) After his professional stint in Italy, Caliendo returned many times to play with and to coach members of a American Baseball Federation team.
"Pro baseball in Italy is equivalent to Class A or college baseball," Caliendo said.
In the past five years, he has made several trips to Europe to participate in coaching clinics in Belgium and Italy. …