It was two years ago that the Dutch beat the Dominican Republic twice during the World Baseball Classic. The first time, I was so excited that I immediately emailed a story to mister-baseball. When I arrived at the office in the morning, my boss asked me to write something for my newspaper. I had to tell mister-baseball to kill the story. (Generally, I can’t write about the same event for both.) I was reminded of the game last week when Jason Holowaty of MLB Europe described it, during his talk at the CEB congress in Brussels, as the “best game I’ve ever seen live.” So I dug this out for mister-baseball readers. It was a great game, and it deserves to be remembered. It’s also fun to recall the raw, giddy excitement of the moment.
MIRACLE ON GRASS: A TRIBUTE TO EUROPEAN BASEBALL
Brussels– In 1980, the U.S. hockey team, amateurs, lifted every American heart by upending the mighty Russians in the Winter Olympics. That was Miracle on Ice.
Last night, after our dinner guests had departed, I settled in at our kitchen table and watched, in a trance, as the Netherlands, my neighbors to the North, beat the Dominican Republic 2-1 in 11 innings. Miracle on Grass.
I’ve been involved in European federation baseball for 16 years. I play and coach in a second or third tier league. Team Belgium, unlike the Netherlands or Italy, doesn’t belong in Puerto Rico or Tokyo. (Yes, some of that has to do with colonizing the Congo, instead of islands orbiting around Florida, and with not emigrating millions from Sicily in 1890. But whatever.)
But baseball and its lovers find each other, and I have just enough personal connections to the Dutch team to feel like I know the guys, and there they were, in San Juan, steel in their eyes and grit in their hearts, facing down 100 million dollars worth of prize arms and legs, and not giving an inch.
A couple years ago, I wrote a story on the Dutch team for my newspaper. I drove up to Rotterdam on a rainy Tuesday night to watch a practice. There was nobody else in the stadium. Diegomar Markwell, a lefty who pitched an inning last night, was throwing a bullpen down the right field line. The pops seemed to echo all over town.
I chatted with Sydney de Jong’s dad. His son, the catcher, loved baseball, he said, but knew it would never be his profession. I thought of that last night when Sydney crushed a leadoff double in the 11th off Carlos Marmol, a major leaguer with a 2.68 e.r.a. The Dominican pitcher looked like a man seeing his noose.
That night in Rotterdam, it turned out, was Diegomar’s birthday, so after practice he handed out cake and whiskey. I chatted with him, de Jong and Michael Duursma, the second baseman.
Duursma, I think, is typical of European national team players. He works a day job. He’s not going to the show. But last night, he was there in my kitchen, switching places every half-inning at second with Robinson Cano (Total major league earnings: $3.8 million).
I wondered where Robert Eenhoorn was last night. He built the Dutch national program almost single-handedly after a short major league career in the 1990s. (He was the Yankees shortstop until Jeter came along).
Behind Eenhoorn, Dutch baseball – and every successful European program from Sweden to Sicily — has an army of crazy, dedicated baseball guys like my friend Steve Janssen, once the Dutch national team’s pitching coach. (Now it’s Bert Blyleven.) Steve sets his clock on baseball 365 days a year. In the summers, Steve volunteers as a minor league coach in the U.S. He runs winter clinics and attends baseball conferences in the winter. Last night was a validation of the special love guys like Steve have for the game.
Dutch closer Leon Boyd stepped into European baseball via the Hoboken Pioneers in our league. He tore up our bats, and then found his niche under Eenhorn. And so on.
This proud bunch played rope-a-dope with Pedro Martinez, Miguel Tejada and David Ortiz all night. The mighty Dominicans pounded long balls into the wind.
The Dutch kept throwing strikes and catching the balls. Sure, they struggled with the sticks. Dominican starter Ubaldo Jimenez — 12 wins in the bigs last year – struck out 10. In FOUR innings. After him, Pedro. But the men in black and orange hung in there until the 11th, when Yurrendell de Caster knocked the game winner up the line.
After the game, Netherlands head coach, Rod Delmonico wept and talked about how his player never “felt sorry for themselves.”
The Netherlands, our heroes.