Dutch Baseballers Are a Hit With Fans
If they connected as well with pitches, their national team could be a real winner
SEVERAL local girls sit behind the home team's dugout. Each has picked a player to dote upon, yelling encouragement whenever he does something well. Now if they could only pronounce the players' names.
''Let's go Jurriaan!'' ''Come on, Pepijn!'' stumble off the young ladies' lips. For now, the Dutch junior baseball team is better known for its good looks and tongue-twisting names than for its baseball-playing prowess.
Started as an off-season amusement for soccer players in Holland close to 100 years ago, baseball has struggled to gain an identity in a country dominated by soccer, tennis, and skating. Since the 1960s though, Dutch ballplayers have tried to show the baseball world they are no longer just a novelty.
The junior team helps this cause in a game against Cuba this night in a hard-fought 7-4 loss to one of the strongest teams in this year's World Junior Baseball Championship. As one of the top two sides in Europe, the Netherlands' team is a fixture at this annual invitational for 16- to 18-year-olds, last held in the US in 1983. This year, the eight-team, round-robin portion of the championships took place at six sites on Cape Cod. Holland did not qualify for the semifinals and finals, played in Boston's Fenway Park. (As expected, the US took the gold in a final against Taiwan last weekend.)
The Dutch finished the tournament at 1-6, beating archrival Italy in their final game, 7-2. For now, the Dutch look for little victories: the 5-4, 16-inning loss to Taiwan; the 3-0 loss to South Korea (the only team to beat the United States). But that is not the limit of their aspirations.
''They all have a dream,'' Netherlands Head Coach Bart Seidel says: ''To play in the majors.''
This may not be as fantastic as it sounds, despite the squad's 11-0 drubbing by the US in the opening game of the tournament.
Rikkert Faneyte, born in Amsterdam, now is playing with the San Francisco Giants' top minor-league (AAA) franchise, the Phoenix Firebirds, and played more than 30 games in the majors for the Giants this year.
''With the national team, I'd seen just about everything: Olympics, World Championships, European Championships.... I was 21, and it was time for something new,'' Faneyte says.
There are others: Robert Eenhoorn is a shortstop with the New York Yankees' AAA affiliate in Columbus, Ohio; Portland (Maine) Sea Dogs second-baseman Ralph Milliard made this year's AA all-star team; pitcher Win Remmerswaal threw 55 innings in two years (1979, '80) with the Boston Red Sox.
None of the players on the 1995 Dutch junior baseball team have signed professional contracts yet, though some are taking the right steps. Pitcher Jurriaan Lobbezoo, who was pulled from the game against Cuba with the score tied 2-2 in the eighth inning, will attend Indian River Community College in Fort Pierce, Fla., next year.
The two-year college, which already has a Dutch shortstop, has made it to the junior-college World Series two of the last three years. Head Coach Mike Easom has never seen Lobbezoo play. He relies solely on reports from respected scouts.
''If they tell me a kid can play, I have no reservations about taking the kid,'' he says.
Pitcher and first-baseman Patrick Beljaards hopes to follow Lobbezoo's lead. Beljaards still has one more year of secondary school, but after that he plans to try out for the Dodgers.
One of the Dodgers' international scouts, Jim Stoeckel, says of Beljaards and others on the Dutch national team that the talent is there, it just needs refining.
''They're like a really good high school all-star team,'' Stoeckel says. ''They're limited by their climate - it's very difficult to work outdoors a lot - so they tend to develop pretty good pitchers. Defense comes naturally, but since it's hard to get outside and hit the baseball, aggressive offense is something you have to work at.''
Stoeckel, who was head coach of the Dutch national senior team from 1981-83 and 1988-90, says the top league in Holland, the semiprofessional Hooft Classe (Head Class), has played baseball for close to 100 years.
The sport originally began as a leisure sport for soccer players in the summer off-season. Youth leagues start at age six with ''peanut'' ball, and run through the junior level. If a player makes the national team, he is required to attend two practices each week throughout the year in Haarlem, no more than a two-hour drive from anywhere in the Maryland-sized country.
The program has given Lobbezoo his opportunity to play in the States, far from the bumpy, converted soccer fields of Holland. A member of the national team for five years, he still remembers the first baseball game he ever saw: A ''peanut'' game he attended at age six - with his girlfriend. Today he smiles sheepishly as he is crowded by American girls who have persuaded him to have his picture taken with them. Some things never change.