The unknown Caribbean island breeding baseball stars
Who knew the Dutch (at least in the Antilles) were such great ball players?
WILLEMSTAD, AMSTERDAM — There was no joy in Mudville. Coach Loek Loevendie pointed to the rain washing over the fields surrounding the Amsterdam Pirates’ Baseball Café. “On a day like this,” he said, “there is nothing much you can do. But we’re very strong players…” And somehow that made things worse. The pride of Dutch baseball had failed, this year, to make it into the World Series.
No, there was not a Dutch team in contention, but, largely unnoticed for their nationality, there were Dutch stars playing with the Yankees, the Dodgers, the Braves, the Red Sox, and the list goes on. Just not with the Mets and the Royals. And, to be sure, Loevendie is proud of his country’s boys, whether they come from the mainland, or, much more likely, the Dutch islands in the West Indies—Curacao, Aruba, and even little St. Maarten.
From the small pool of official members of the Dutch baseball association, perhaps 30,000 all told, there are eight who play in the U. S. Major Leagues, six in Triple A, a further 18 who play in Double A and Single A, and another 14 playing in the Rookie League—a total of 46 altogether.
But, given that very few people outside the real cognoscenti would think of the Dutch playing the all-American pastime at all, the numbers become even more intriguing when you realize 27 of those players come from the tiny island of Curacao, with only 150,000 inhabitants, and another eight from its even smaller neighbor Aruba.
Every day, 83-year-old Loevendie, who established the Amsterdam Pirates club in 1959, gets on his moped and drives in the mostly unforgiving Dutch weather, through rain and wind, to the outskirts of Amsterdam and four well kept baseball diamonds. And today he lovingly lists for us the names and accomplishments of Dutch nationals:
Andrelton Simmons, the Gold-Glove-winning player who signed a seven-year and $58 million contract with the Atlanta Braves; Kenley Jansen, who stayed with the Los Angeles Dodgers on a $7.42 million contract this year; Xander Bogaerts of the Boston Red Sox, who finished second for the American League batting title with an average of .320, or the New York Yankees’ Didi Gregorius, who on Aug. 28 hit an all-time high of four hits for five times at bat with a home run and a new high total score of six runs batted in.
Curacao may only have a 150,000 inhabitants, and Aruba 100,000, but according to Dutch national coach Ben Thijssen, an astounding 22 of the 30 North American Major League clubs have permanent scouts based on the tiny Curacao, who are swarming like eagles around potential stars for the clubs they represent. (A few of the scouts are ex-pro players originating from the islands.)
Curacao and Aruba to this day are Dutch colonies (nowadays by choice) and because work on the islands is often scarce, many of its inhabitants decide to study or work in The Netherlands. That’s how Mariekson (Didi) Gregorius came to be born in Amsterdam and was swinging his first bat with the Amsterdam Pirates.
“Didi was very small back then, but even at the age of six or seven he could keep an empty can in the air with his bat,” remembers Loevendie. “I said to myself: ‘This kid is so flexible, whatever sport he will do, he can reach the top.’” Gregorius came from a sports-loving family. Loevendie goes on: “Didi’s father played baseball with us for years, his mother played softball. Even their grandfather played, ‘Sing Cating’ they called him, for ‘little thing’ in the Curacao Papiamento language.”
After having spent 15 years in The Netherlands, the Gregorius family moved back to the Caribbean, where they live to this day. Didi, who still spends most of the off-season on the island, plays shortstop for the New York Yankees. He started his baseball career in the U.S. with the Cincinnati Reds in 2008. With the Yankees, he followed in the footsteps of retired Derek Jeter in 2014.
On the baseball field today, both Gregorius and Aruban player Kenley Jansen are definitely men to watch, says Dutch sports reporter Marco Stoovelaar: “Didi Gregorius and Kenley Jansen both qualified for this year’s play-offs with their respective clubs. Unfortunately, Gregorius and the Yankees were eliminated.” Jansen and the Dodgers were eliminated later.
On Curacao and Aruba, there are fields to play everywhere. They’re sandy, uneven, and rocky places where the dust fills the air with every slide. But the weather’s great and baseball is always there; on the streets and on the TV-screens.
With the renewed relations between the U.S. and Cuba, sports commentators have been predicting that the hottest place to watch for up and coming baseball talent is Cuba, but looking at the number of players it puts out, shouldn’t the attention be directed toward these, much smaller Caribbean isles?
Coach Loevendie thinks the core of the Curacao baseball talent is embedded in its genes. “They have great athletic capacity,” he says “that actually applies to the whole Caribbean. The best sprinters come from there, too,” Loevendie says smiling, “There’s no two ways about it, they just have great physique.”
Of course, much depends on training, and oddly enough, that’s where the bad conditions of the local fields may come in. One of the recurring comments on Curacao baseball players is that they have “great footwork.” The beautifully kept fields in the U. S. must feel like a dream compared to the harsh rocky terrain of the sandlots grew up with, on which having good footwork is a must.
For the Curacao kids, baseball is their bread and butter, they are raised with the sport. “They start as early as four or five years old; father plays the game, mother plays softball or other family members do,” says Loevendie. “In the U.S. people usually start to play seriously at high school or college. On Curacao, if they’re good, they sign their first contract at age 16, at the Rookie League.”
But there is another, much less noticeable advantage to coming from the small Dutch isles; the islanders are multi-lingual.
A few months ago, Tom de Blok, a young mainland Dutch player aged 16 was signed on a $350,000 contract in the minors, but he was back within two weeks, proving athletic capacity is not all it takes to make it in the U.S. says Loevendie: “De Blok’s a great talent with a 93 to 94 mile per hour pitch, but he couldn’t make it,” says the veteran coach. “He ended up in a team full of Dominican players who only spoke Spanish and he couldn’t communicate with them at all. He felt so isolated he couldn’t stomach it.”
Language barriers could hardly become an issue with the boys from the Dutch Antilles who, besides their unique language Papiamento, speak Dutch, English, and Spanish equally well.
By Nadette de Visser