Since graduating in May 2011, three-time All-America (and 2010 Academic All-America) Greg Van Sickler has been pursuing his dream of playing professional baseball. As he prepares to return from Australia, Greg gives us a recap of his activities of the past 18 months…
PERTH, Australia – It’s ironic how sometimes you have to go so far to find something so close within yourself. Traveling the world has undoubtedly been one of the most remarkable experiences of my life. However, I had no idea the decision I made over a year ago would lay the foundation for some of the greatest life lessons I have ever learned.
Having spent my entire life growing up in Winchester, as well as attending college at Shenandoah University, I hadn’t ventured outside of the northern Shenandoah Valley too often for an extended period of time. Of course the annual beach vacation or baseball road trip kept me away for a week or two while I carry the best coolers around me to keep me hydrated, but never had I gone more than a fortnight without sleeping in my own bed. The only world I had been exposed to was more or less along the confines of Interstate 81. For 22 years, Winchester was my only home.
The phone call I took in March 2012 was the beginning of a journey I never saw coming. I accepted an offer to play professional baseball in Belgium. Originally, I quit my job a month prior to the call in search of one last shot playing professionally in the United States. When the offer came to play in Europe in March, I was at a crossroads. Do I stay in the U.S. and pursue baseball at a pro tryout in June, or leave everything behind to travel across the globe?
The fear of being so far from home overwhelmed me, and I was terrified to leave the only place I’d ever known. My decision came on the heels of the question I asked myself at the time, “Which one would I regret more not doing?” One of the key concepts I learned from the Byrd School of Business was ‘opportunity cost’- essentially it’s the cost of the option you give up when you make a decision. With this in mind, I realized I would forever regret giving up a free trip to Europe. As the fear of leaving my only home continued to loom in the wake of my decision, I mustered the courage to accept the offer and boarded a plane across the ocean.
In all honesty, I almost booked a flight back to the U.S. my first week in Belgium. The culture shock was immense. Everything was different—the food, the people and especially the language. The first encounter of meeting someone who does not speak your native tongue is a very intimidating moment.
My host family in Belgium had a young son and daughter, ages 6 and 8, who did not speak any English. This also presented quite a challenge. However, despite all the immediate obstacles, I wanted to prove to myself that I could overcome it all, and I stayed the full six months of the baseball season. To this day I could not be happier I decided to stick it out.
I met some amazing people, made unbelievable friendships, and experienced a plethora of remarkable moments I’ll never forget—walking the streets of Dusseldorf, Germany during the UEFA soccer tournament, taking a cruise on the Rhine River, sipping French wine on the sands of the Mediterranean Sea following a morning hike in the Pyrenees Mountains, strolling through the park in Disneyland Paris and sitting curbside as I watched the professional cyclists of the Tour de France fly right by me.
My success playing in Belgium awarded me the opportunity to continue playing in Australia this past winter. After conquering my fear of leaving home, I knew I could not pass up the opportunity to play ‘down under’. Three weeks after returning home from Belgium, I was on a plane headed even further across the world—a new culture, a new environment, a new challenge.
I welcomed it with a much more open mind. My trip to Australia has been nothing short of spectacular. The people here have been incredibly gracious and hospitable. I had the unique privilege to play for the top Australian professional team – the Perth Heat – alongside a handful of U.S. imports from numerous MLB teams including the Yankees, Orioles, Diamondbacks and Pirates. Playing with true major league baseball players was certainly a surreal experience for a small-time player from Division III. I learned that even at the more elite levels of baseball, I can still hold my own on a field with some of the best. It has given me a tremendous amount of confidence as a player. At the very least, I can now say I’ve hit a homerun on three different continents!
I have truly been blessed with the opportunity to continue my passion of playing baseball. A ball and a bat have taken me to places that only exist in most people’s fantasies. As each trip has exposed it’s own unique hardships and challenges, so too, have surfaced the persistence and confidence needed to meet those challenges head on.
In Belgium, I had the challenge of coaching a youth team comprised of kids who only spoke French. This was not an easy task. However, with help from teammates and the initiative I took, I taught myself enough French to communicate with my players. I don’t speak it fluently, but on a baseball diamond I sounded like I belong.
With my host children who didn’t speak English, we communicated through the book Cat in the Hat that I brought over from the U.S. We would sit down on the couch and I would point to a picture in the book and say it in English, and they would say it, then they would pronounce it in French and I would attempt to repeat it. It was amazing how such a simple children’s book could be the gateway between two different worlds.
In Australia, baseball was easier to teach because of the dominant English language, but a unique challenge for me was driving a manual transmission on the opposite side of the road on the opposite side of the car! As it sounds rather elementary, but when you sit in the driver’s seat for the first time having never driven a manual car before and pull out into traffic hoping you’re on the correct side of the road, there’s a certain fear and anxiety that consumes your body. Each trip has presented its own hurdles, but after experiencing such a wide variety, I have learned to embrace each new challenge I face and now view it as an opportunity to grow instead of a burden to withstand.
It took a plane flight to the other side of the globe for me to discover and embrace the values I hold to be the most important in my life. Others may not have to travel as far, but regardless of what you think may be holding you back—fear, anxiety, money, doubt—I encourage you to take that leap of faith. It sounds cliché, but I’ve learned it’s truly better to try and fail than to always live with the doubt of wondering “what if?” When I decided to quit my job and board a plane to Europe, my decision could not be justified at the time.
However, when I sat in the terminal in Belgium waiting to board the plane home after my six-month stay, I sat with a huge smile on my face. I could not have been prouder of myself for taking that chance and rolling the dice. Now as I sit on the beach watching the Aussie sun slowly fade behind the ocean curtain, I reflect on my nine-month adventure in Australia. That same smile stretches from cheek to cheek across my face. Both of these trips have opened my eyes to a whole new world and way of life.
I never would have experienced all of it had I decided to cast aside my heart’s ambitions and let my fears get the best of me. I would still be sitting at a desk fantasizing about a trip I should have taken had I chose to give up. Despite all the hardships and heartaches along the way, it was worth it to discover who I am as a person today. That is why I challenge everyone, especially the recent graduates and upcoming seniors, to put fear aside and take that chance, whatever it may be, a trip, a job, a relationship, etc. There is incredible opportunity in front of your young life, but you have to be willing to stretch beyond your comfort zone to take advantage. You will undoubtedly face hard times along the way, but when you’re at the finish line looking back, you’ll have the same smile I do knowing you took that chance. It’s through all these experiences that I’ve come to learn a motto I now live my life by—You get ONE shot at life, live it with no regrets.