Speaking with Belgium's biggest Jeff McNeil fans

June 11th, 2024

This story was excerpted from Michael Clair's International Beat newsletter. Subscribe to get it regularly in your inbox. Click here to read it this month's in full.

This past weekend’s Mets and Phillies London Series was an amazing moment for the international baseball community. While the MLB UK fan community came together en masse, wearing jerseys of their favorite teams, meeting up in pubs for brews and baseball, there were two fans who leapt out above the rest.

I write, of course, about the Belgian Jeff McNeil fan club, which went viral after they were captured on the game broadcast. Meet Christian Jacob and Ilse Leemans, leaders of the European Jeff McNeil movement.

Ilse, left, and Christian, right. (And is that Baseball Jobs Overseas founder David Burns in the Globetrotters jersey behind them? Hmm ...)

Christian, 54, first fell in love with baseball at the age of 6 when he started playing at the “peanut” level for the Luchtbal Greys.

“Everybody was playing soccer and I played it as well,” Christian said on a video call while sitting next to Ilse, the two decked out in Mets gear after arriving home from London. “But then I played two sports at the same time, so I had to choose and say, 'No, I'm going for baseball.'”

Christian later fell in love with the Mets, choosing them over the Yankees because he couldn’t relate to a team with the most World Series titles in the Major Leagues.

“I have a soft spot for New York, and I know there are two teams, but the Yankees, I couldn't relate to them in any way. ... I knew that I wanted to be a Mets fan, because for my favorite soccer team, it's the same as the Mets. We're one of the smaller teams, but sometimes we hurt the big ones.”

Ilse, however, hadn’t grown up a baseball fan, though Christian quickly turned her into one.

“He told me about the Mets, and we watched some game on television, and then we said, 'OK, let’s go to New York to see a real game.' It was mind blowing,” Ilse remembered.

The time when we spoke was nearly 1 a.m. in Belgium, but that was no problem for the two baseball diehards: They’ve stayed up for every Mets game this season except for the series in San Francisco that was too late even for them.

“Because it's the West Coast, it's a couple of hours extra late for us and they start at 4 a.m.,” Christian explained. “We tried to go to sleep early, so we could wake up at 4 a.m., but then our day was completely messed up.”

But the big question for these diehards: Why McNeil? Why not Pete Alonso or Francisco Lindor? Well, for one, McNeil is “cute.”

And for another?

“Some people don't realize that everybody cannot be like a Lindor or Polar Bear or a Marte,” Christian said. “Those are stars, but he's the one you can count on every time. You see that he doesn't want to go for the home run. He just wants to play the game, and the focus that he has is what makes him so normal and we can identify with him.”

The two had originally caught his attention – and that of the Citi Field jumbotron – during a trip to New York in 2023. McNeil invited the two onto the field, met with them, and signed Ilse’s jersey.

“When I saw her, it was like a little child watching the Spice Girls or something,” Christian said about the first meeting. “She was jumping up and down and I had to calm her down because she was waving the flag like a lunatic! We were starstruck a little bit.”

Ilse poses with Jeff McNeil's wife, Tatiana.

This time, in London, the two not only got to meet McNeil again, but also his wife and some of the wives and families of the other players.

“He came also over from the field to sign my baseball and to have a picture with his wife,” Ilse said.

Stuck in a difficult season, the two are hoping that they can provide a little luck for McNeil and the rest of the Mets the rest of the way.

“The last time when he saw our flag, he went and had two hits, so …” Christian said, lifting his hands up in a shrug, hoping that perhaps this two-person club can offer some luck, too.