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Netherlands: Baseball Superpower?

Posted by Andrew Zercie on March 11, 2009

What in the name of Hensley “BamBamMeulens is going on?

For those of you who don’t know (and I’ll assume that’s many of you), Hensley “BamBamMeulens was once considered a hot-shot minor league prospect for the New York Yankees in the late 1980s and early 1990s. Meulens was hailed as the future at 3B for the Yankees. He never panned out, mostly because he was a strikeout machine. He did manage to play in parts of seven seasons on the Yankees, Montreal Expos, and Arizona Diamondbacks. This is significant because Meulens was the first native of Curacao to make it to the majors, and he played for and coached the Netherlands baseball team in international competitions after he retired.

Now, the Netherlands has never been known as a hotbed of major league talent. Bert Blyleven, who won 287 games in a big league career that spanned 23 seasons, was born in the Netherlands, but grew up in California. And since Meulens’ playing career ended, only a handful of players from Curacao have played in the big leagues, most notably Andruw Jones, who played on a few All-Star teams and won 10 Gold Gloves.

In 2006, Major League Baseball created the World Baseball Classic, designed to do three things:

1) Promote the game of baseball on a global stage.

2) Convince the International Olympic Committee to reinstate baseball to the Summer Olympics (and, as a by-product of baseball being reinstated, softball would be re-instated also).

3) Make gobs of cash.

Among the countries in the initial WBC was the Netherlands. Made up mostly of players from Curacao and Aruba, the team from the Netherlands went 1-2 in the 2006 WBC and was eliminated in the first round of the tournament. In other words, they were a non-factor.

Flash forward to 2009.

The team from the Netherlands defeated the Dominican Republic team twice (!) in a span of 5 days, advancing to the second round of this year’s WBC. The second game, a 2-1 nail-biter that was scoreless entering the 11th inning, had World Series-caliber drama dripping with each pitch. For a tournament seeking validation among baseball fans in the United States and around the world, last night’s game between the Netherlands and the Dominican Republic was exactly what the WBC needed.

What is the significance of these wins over the Dominican team? The Dominican team featured several big-name Major League players: David Ortiz, Robinson Cano, Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez, Miguel Tejada, and Pedro Martinez, among others. The Netherlands team featured journeymen Randall Simon, Eugene Kingsale and Sidney Ponson. In other words, it was “Guys You’ve Heard Of” versus “Who?”

On paper, it was a mis-match. In reality, the Netherlands had the right mix of talent, desire, and luck needed to topple one of the best international rosters ever assembled.

 Does this mean that MLB teams will be mining the Netherlands, looking in every windmill to find the next hidden gem with a rocket arm? Maybe, maybe not. But what these upsets prove is that, even in a tournament that is still getting its footing, national pride still counts. The Dominican team, despite the All-Stars and future Hall of Famers throughout their roster, were not a cohesive unit. They were haphazardly thrown together with little regard for opponents. The team from the Netherlands was carefully crafted and featured hungry players with a lot to prove.
Despite this wonderful story, the World Baseball Classic remains an interesting concept with some serious problems. Several high-profile players opted not to play with minor injuries. Additionally, MLB teams are reluctant to expose their high-priced talent to potential injury, especially given the fact that the players they have under contract would be competing at a high level in games that didn’t have any effect on their professional teams. If the fans are going to take this tournament seriously as a “true” world championship, the best players from each country are going to have to be on the field. And if MLB is truly invested in promoting the game, they need to start penalizing teams for making their expensive, top-level talent unavailable for this tournament.

The WBC has had its signature moment. If it is going to be the first of many, it’s time for the MLB Players’ Association and MLB owners to fully commit to the tournament.


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