There has never been a baseball player who has made the Major League after growing up, and playing baseball, in Belgium. There has been one player born in Belgium who has played in the MLB, a first baseman/corner outfielder named Brian Lesher, but he played both high school baseball and college baseball in Delaware, so he was more of an American baseball player who happened to have been born in Belgium.
A few years back Thomas de Wolf was the first ever international signing from Belgium, as an outfielder who signed with the New York Mets after playing for the Hoboken Pioneers at the highest level of baseball in Belgium. De Wolf reached low rookie ball (Gulf Coast League) at best before being released in 2012. And now, as the second Belgian international signing ever, there's our very own Sam Buelens, who is trying to do what no man has ever done before: making the step from the Belgian baseball competition all the way to Major League Baseball in North America. Many have told him it's impossible to do, but Sam's never listened to the doubters.
Becoming a baseball player
In Belgium, as in most European countries, the dominant sport is football (soccer) by a pretty large margin. A baseball player, in contrast, is a very rare sight. But Sam's mother played softball, and when, at six years old, Sam was offered baseball as an activity after school, led by the best youth team in Belgium, it took only a few tryouts to convince him to join this prestigious youth team.
Sam's father, who had been a good football player himself, was an important factor in Sam's career. From an early age he pointed Sam in the right direction, he would talk about baseball, technique and related stuff for hours, trying to give his son the chance of a succesful career in sports that he himself, through circumstance, hadn't had. Sam may be young, but he is wise enough to know that without his father's instructions and without his mother's care, he wouldn't be where he is now.
Getting found by the Blue Jays
Sam first played in front of the eyes of Major League scouts at 14, when he was attending an MLB Academy camp where he played against talents from other European countries. By getting better each year, Sam also garnered more and more interest from these scouts, especially for his speed. At 17 he ran the 60 yard dash in front of European scout Lionel Chattelle, who switched allegiance from the New York Mets to the Toronto Blue Jays in 2014. That year he was selected among 50 of the best players in Europe to go to a European MLB camp, led by Steve Finley and Barry Larkin among others, where Sam impressed.
Then, at 18, when Sam started to focus especially on his speed, he ran the 60 yard dash in 6.48 seconds, which is 70-75 grade, or "plus plus", speed according to a table by FanGraphs' scout Kiley McDaniel. The training paid off, as the aforementioned Chattelle, along with head of International Scouting Ismael Cruz, had been impressed by Sam's speed and made sure to get him a contract offer.
Life in the Dominican Republic
As an international signing, Sam Buelens played both his spring training and regular season in the Dominican Republic. Despite signing a contract with the Toronto Blue Jays, Sam has actually never been to North America yet. Living in a different country with a completely different culture and language can be a challenge, but luckily there are a few players who speak sufficient English, so Sam doesn't have to speak Spanish all the time. It's possibly not a coincidence that when asked about which of his teammates might turn into a star, Sam mentions two of those English speaking teammates. The first is Norberto Obeso, a Mexican outfielder whose batting skills Sam praises. Then there's young Kevin Vicuna, a Venezuelan shortstop who "makes almost all the plays" even at his young age (17).
Sam would've liked to have had another European on his team, but given the number of Europeans in minor league baseball, it's no big surprise he doesn't. And things aren't that different across the Atlantic Ocean.
"Apart from eating rice, beans and chicken everyday, having cold showers and living in a different culture, many things are the same," Sam observed.
One big advantage to living in the Dominican Republic, according to Sam, is the weather; it's much better than in Belgium. And also, in spring training a certain man called Edwin Encarnacion came to see the team at work, and Sam took the opportunity to get himself a picture with the Blue Jays' star:
Having kept an eye on the Blue Jays' minor league teams for quite a few years now, I had noticed that the Dominican Summer League Blue Jays never seem to be very prolific home run hitting teams, unlike their major league counterparts. Asking Sam about this, he thinks that observation might hold some truth. According to Sam the team is taught to mostly go opposite field and "from gap to gap". While noting that every hitter is different and that young hitters aren't usually big home run hitters yet, Sam thinks his team reached the playoffs because the DSL Blue Jays tried to create runs by playing small ball, instead of aiming to hit big home runs. Unfortunately, the DSL Blue Jays would get knocked out of the playoffs in two close games, losing 2-1 and 3-1 to the Astros.
Is Sam Buelens now a Toronto Blue Jays fan and does he follow the games?
If Sam hadn't been such a polite young man, he'd probably have asked me if I was stupid for asking this question. Of course he's now a Blue Jays fan! Seeing what the Blue Jays have been doing since the trade deadline has only made him happier to be wearing the same uniform. Asked about his favourite Blue Jays player, Sam tells me he's not one to pick established superstars, as they already get picked "by everyone". Instead, Sam's favourite Blue Jay is newcomer Devon Travis. Sam feels that Devon Travis, when healthy, is really fun to watch.
I want to thank Sam a lot for taking the time to answer my questions. Here's hoping he will realise his dream and be the first to make the journey from Belgian baseball all the way to the top level in North America. Good luck, Sam!