Monday, February 6, 2017

Lost in the Shuffle: Netherlands' Baseball Golden Generation

In sports, it's easy to overlook the great teams that just haven't earned the silverware that is required to receive the plaudits to be called a "great team." The Buffalo Bills of the 90s, the Cleveland Indians of the mid-90s, Brazil's 1982 World Cup team, Belgium's current national soccer team and the Netherlands' mid-70s total football teams led by Johan Cruyff are all examples of teams that fall under this classification. Then there's the current Kingdom of the Netherlands Baseball Team.

Despite being a minority sport in Holland (the Netherlands' more common name), baseball has a fine history where legend has it that the Dutch played baseball as a way to mock their German occupiers in World War II because it's an American game. Holland is very much a culture that is organized by their clubs where traditionally, Dutch citizens belong to an organization that provides them their hobbies or sports that they would like to play or pursue and not just into their youth, usually this membership is a lifelong one. This is why a sports club like Ajax Amsterdam found so much success in soccer during the 20th Century. In fact, most of these clubs have a baseball team including Ajax where Johan Cruyff was a catcher in his teenage years before becoming arguably the greatest contributor to the game of soccer.

When we think of Dutch sports, we think of their progressive soccer team that has produced stars from Cruyff to Dennis Bergkamp and Wesley Sneijder. Beyond that, every Winter Olympics is exposed to the passionate orange mob that surrounds Speed Skating events where Dutch skaters are always on the medal stand. We don't think of the Dutch for their baseball prowess, but that should change.

Part of that reason is because most of Holland's baseball stars come from their constituent islands in the Caribbean rather than the mainland of Holland. Before the 2004 Little League World Series, not many people in the United States even knew how to pronounce the island of Curaçao and that all started to change when a team led by future Major Leaguers Jurickson Profar and Jonathan Schoop led their team to the island's first championship. This team would begin Holland's baseball golden generation as more and more Dutch players have made impacts upon baseball around the world.

Just to name a few of those players' accomplishments, Andrelton Simmons leads all shortstops according to baseball-reference in bWAR over the last 5 years and is widely considered the game's best defensive shortstop. Wladimir "Coco" Balentien broke Sadaharu Oh's NPB Home Run Record after several foreign players were denied.

Xander Bogaerts is coming off of two great seasons with the Red Sox and is now joining the conversation as MLB's best combo shortstop. Kenley Jansen just signed a 5 year, $80 million contract with the Los Angeles Dodgers and is arguably MLB's best closer. Jonathan Schoop is coming off a 25 home run season with Baltimore and has surprisingly outplayed his more hyped Little League teammate, Jurickson Profar who has struggled with injuries. Eindhoven's Rick van den Hurk has provided successful seasons in the KBO and NPB and is arguably mainland Holland's best player. 

All these players will likely be playing together in this year's World Baseball Classic.

The nation has come a long way in baseball from the years where Andruw Jones and Randall Simon were the only recognizable players on their 2006 World Baseball Classic team. The team has even come a long way from that team in the 2009 World Baseball Classic that shocked the world and eliminated a star-studded Dominican Republic team by beating them twice in epic fashion. This was evident during the 2011 Baseball World Cup where Holland, led by Bogaerts and Schoop won their country's first major competition by defeating a USA team led by AJ Pollock and Drew Smyly and a Cuban team in the final led by Jose Abreu, Alfredo Despaigne, and Yulieski Gurriel.

It was the first World Cup victory by a European country since the 1930s and it was the moment that dictated the moment we are in right now where the Netherlands is a legitimate sleeper in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.

I don't expect anyone out there to go out of their way to pick Holland to win the World Baseball Classic, but in terms of a sleeper, there's probably no one better. Holland definitely have some top level talent that can compete with the favorites, but they probably lack the depth that the favorites all possess. In 2013, the team's core was still rather young and far from seasoned but they still went to the semifinals where they fell to the eventual champions, Dominican Republic. They certainly are much more ready for this year's edition.

Unlike soccer, baseball has had a difficult time incorporating international play into their sport and because of this, great collections of talent from one specific country often go unnoticed. And unless Holland wins the World Baseball Classic this year, this team will likely not get the credit that it deserves.

In soccer, Holland's national team is nicknamed the Oranje, so I've decided to call their baseball team the "Honkbal Oranje," since honkbal is Dutch for baseball. As it stands, the Honkbal Oranje have won 22 European Baseball Championships, 1 Baseball World Cup, a 4th place finish at the WBC, and 5th place at the Olympics. Not too shabby for a country that considers baseball a minority sport.


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1 comment:

  1. Not sure that a semi-finalist from the last WBC should really be called a sleeper pick but I'll agree that they are under-appreciated. I really enjoyed watching them knock Cuba out of the tournament in Tokyo last time around.