Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens, the manager for the Dutch team
A report by Ken Belson for the New York Times.
Stijn van der Meer can still hardly believe his good fortune. One of the best baseball players to come out of the soccer-crazed nation of the Netherlands, van der Meer played shortstop at Lamar University in Division I and was drafted last year by the Houston Astros in the 34th round.
But none of that prepared the affable and lanky 23-year-old for playing alongside some of the best infielders in the game with Team Netherlands at the World Baseball Classic. Yet there he was at a recent workout, fielding ground balls with three of the top shortstops in the major leagues: Xander Bogaerts, who has won two Silver Slugger awards with the Red Sox; Didi Gregorius, who replaced Derek Jeter on the Yankees; and Andrelton Simmons of the Angels, who has two Gold Gloves awards.
“It’s just awesome: I’m in between superstars,” said van der Meer, who started playing baseball when he was 5 in Rosmalen, a hotbed of Dutch baseball. “We pretty much have a dream team of infielders.”
The major league firepower is a primary reason Team Netherlands is the favorite to win the W.B.C.’s Pool A — which includes Taiwan, Israel and host South Korea — and potentially improve on its fourth-place finish in 2013. While most squads in the 16-team tournament struggle to recruit more than a few players from the majors, the Netherlands’ roster is peppered with talented young players from two of its former colonies, Aruba and Curaçao.
On Tuesday, the Netherlands got off to a good start in group play by beating South Korea, 5-0. That put them in good position to advance alongside surprising Israel, which won its second game of the tournament, 15-7, over Taiwan.
In addition to its wealth of talent, Team Netherlands is one of the most cohesive squads in the tournament because many of its best players grew up together on the two islands, which have a combined population of just 250,000. Their manager, Hensley Meulens (known as “Bam Bam”), the first player from Curaçao to make it to the majors, tutored many of those currently on his roster, who consider him a godfather of sorts.
“I’ve probably given clinics to all of them over the last 25 years, and now they are helping me give clinics to little kids in the community,” said Meulens, who broke in with the Yankees in 1989. “I opened up the door, but these guys, you know, they’ve had some great years, and people look up to them.”
In addition to Bogaerts, Gregorius and Simmons, Meulens also has outfielder Jurickson Profar of the Texas Rangers, who hit a home run in the opener, the brothers Jonathan and Sharlon Schoop of the Orioles’ organization, and Wladimir Balentien, who holds the season home run record in Japan. Meulens’s team would have been stronger if two other players, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen and Roger Bernadina, a fleet-footed outfielder who spent seven seasons in the major leagues before heading to South Korea, were on the roster.
Still, unlike the teams from, say, the Dominican Republic or Japan, Team Netherlands clearly has a polyglot roster. A handful of players, like van der Meer and Lars Huijer, are 100 percent Dutch and have played in the eight-team Dutch league, Koninklijke Nederlandse Baseball. Other Dutch players, like Rick van den Hurk, who started Tuesday’s game, played in M.L.B. before joining teams in Japan. Still others, like Kalian Sams, who was born in The Hague, have bounced around the minor leagues.
Because of the close ties between Aruba, Curaçao and the Netherlands, which handles the defense and foreign affairs for the islands, a few players, including Gregorius, were born in Amsterdam but grew up in Curaçao.
Stijn van der Meer, front, practiced with the Netherlands at Gocheock Sky Dome in Seoul, South Korea. Behind him were, from left, the major leaguers Xander Bogaerts, Andrelton Simmons and Didi Gregorius.
The chatter on the bench reflects the team’s diversity. During an exhibition game against a team representing the South Korean Army, the players from the Netherlands spoke in Dutch, while those from the islands talked in Papiamentu, a centuries-old Creole language influenced by African slaves, Spanish and Portuguese merchants and Dutch colonists. Meulens said he spoke five languages: English, Dutch, Spanish, Papiamento and Japanese. (He played three years in Japan.)
The players from Aruba and Curaçao also speak Dutch but often communicated with the European players in English.
“I’m trying to understand what they’re saying, but it’s hard,” van der Meer said of the islanders.
Despite its ties to the talent-laden islands, baseball remains a niche sport in the Netherlands, where soccer is by far the most popular, followed by cycling, field hockey, speed skating and volleyball. The Dutch national baseball team, the leader in European championships, did make waves, though, when it won the Baseball World Cup in 2011.
Still, following the sport and playing it are separate things, said Lody Embrechts, the Dutch ambassador to South Korea. Last week, he practiced tossing a ball to Meulens on the sidelines at the Gocheok Sky Dome in preparation for throwing out the first pitch before Tuesday’s game. After some brief instruction and a few throws, the ambassador acknowledged that it was the first time he had ever thrown a baseball. The humbling experience made him appreciate what the players from Aruba and Curaçao have achieved.
“In Aruba, you get a bat when you are 5 years old,” he said. “In the Netherlands, you get a ball and start kicking it around.”
The surplus of talent has created a nice quandary for Meulens. Simmons and Gregorius will rotate between shortstop and designated hitter, while Bogaerts will play third base to ensure he is in the lineup every game. Profar will play in the outfield, where the Rangers expect to play him during the season, and Jonathan Schoop will play second base, his natural position.
“We’ve been playing together since a young age, so it’s nice to experience this together,” Gregorius said. “There’s no rivalry, the team is united, we have a great chemistry.”
Still, the number of major leaguers in the lineup means less proven players like van der Meer may not see much action — though he is not complaining.
“I’d rather be here any day than in spring training,” said van der Meer, who hit .301 in rookie ball last season. “The coach said he likes my left-handed bat, but I know I’m not going to be a defensive replacement. It’s a lot of fun.”