Dutch solidify baseball presence with wild ride
Kingdom bands together on worldwide journey to emerge as Classic force
SAN FRANCISCO -- A journey practically around the world and to the very pinnacle of the World Baseball Classic finally ended for the Kingdom of the Netherlands on Monday night, but not before the Dutch helped spread the word that baseball is indeed an international game.
Actually, you could say the journey began in 2006, when the orange-and-black Dutchmen saw Shairon Martis deliver the only no-hitter in Classic history, grabbing the attention of baseball fans around the world. It continued in 2009, when the Dutch eliminated the Dominican Republic in pool play -- an upset the Dominicans avenged with their 4-1 victory in the 2013 semifinals Monday at AT&T Park.
This spring, the Kingdom of the Netherlands took it another step further, pushing their journey one step away from the championship game, a giant leap from what many might have perceived about the Dutch and America's -- er, the world's -- pastime only a few years earlier.
For Dutch manager Hensley Meulens, a strong statement was made despite the loss to the Dominicans, one that tells the world that Dutch baseball is truly an international success story.
"We have proved to people that we have arrived at this stage and we just are going to continue to get better," Meulens said.
Meulens, the first Major Leaguer to come from Curacao and now the hitting coach for the defending World Series champion Giants, says the unique mixture of amateur players from Holland and the professionals who hail from the Kingdom's islands make the Netherlands team a special and imposing international force for the future.
"I think that as a kingdom, we're probably one of the only countries that can choose from different islands and the mainland to put our team together, and we decided a long time ago that our strongest team is going to be picking guys from all these different countries and put them together, instead of just going with Curacao alone or Aruba alone or the Netherlands alone," he said. "That's why we got here, because we have the majority of our pitchers are Dutch guys, born and raised in Holland. We have a couple of pitchers that are born and raised in the islands, but we all have Dutch passports. We all are Dutch. And the only way to have the best team for us is to have a combination of all the islands and the mainland."
Roger Bernadina, the 28-year-old Nationals outfielder from Curacao who is among the handful of players with Major League experience on the Dutch roster, had to tip his cap to the pitching staff for carrying the team as far as it went, considering it has very little professional experience. Young lefty Diegomar Markwell, who pitched for Neptunus Rotterdam in 2012, stood up to the vaunted Dominican team into the fifth inning Monday night before allowing the game-winning rally.
"I've got to give our pitchers a lot of credit. The other teams didn't have a lot of information about us, and we did well to keep battling out there and didn't give up," Bernadina said.
That was pretty much how the Dutch went about their business in the World Baseball Classic -- again.
"With this group, the charisma was great, and things were working great in the tournament," Bernadina said. "This was the right moment for us. The game got away from us here, but a lot of people didn't expect us to get all the way here."
And what a ride to San Francisco it was, a bumpy one at times, a thrilling one throughout and, both literally and figuratively, a long, long one.
The players not affiliated with Major League clubs began this journey on Feb. 9 in Scottsdale, Ariz., and they were joined by their MLB teammates on Feb. 25. The Dutch then went to Taiwan for pool play, to Tokyo for group compeitition -- pulling another stunning upset in eliminating Cuba with a thrilling 7-6 walkoff victory. They then flew to Phoenix for exhibitions and finally to San Francisco for the semifinals.
From the start of the journey for the first arrivals, the Dutch have been on the road for 38 days, traveling 15,013 air miles -- and that's before those from the Netherlands take the long ride home. For a couple of them -- first baseman Curt Smith and catcher Dashenko Ricardo -- exposure in the tournament led to Minor League contracts, Smith with the Twins and Ricardo with the Dodgers. Add it all up, and it was quite a spring ride for the Dutch.
By the time the next World Baseball Classic comes around, the Dutch won't be surprising anyone, not with their young talent like Andrelton Simmons of the Braves and Jurickson Profar of the Rangers -- MLB.com's top-ranked prospect in all of baseball.
From now on, the Dutch will be among the teams expected to make noise in international play, not a team that catches anyone by surprise.
"We definitely would like to see if we can make the next step," Bernadina said. "I'm looking forward to the next one. If we do the same things we've been doing the next time, I think we can get pretty far."
Getting all the way to the championship round was a long way to go for a team that had traveled so far already, and a kingdom that has emerged as one of the international game's most compelling baseball programs will leave San Francisco with pride overwhelming any pain from their loss Monday.
From a no-hit splash to a couple of huge upsets and then some 15,000 air miles to reach the championship round in 2013, the Dutch indeed have arrived on the world stage.
John Schlegel is a national reporter for MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.