World champion Dutch baseball team might need to settle for Europe

Competition is heating up for Netherland's proud baseball team

By Caroline van Soelen

HAARLEM, THE NETHERLANDS — Walking onto the diamond of the Pim Mulier Baseball Stadium here, I wonder if I’ve left my home country. I’m surrounded by men in baseball caps and uniforms. As they banter in perfect English, I feel as if I’m in the United States.

Diego Markwell, a player on the Dutch national baseball team, quickly disabuses me of that notion. “Playing in the United States is a job. You have got to perform every day,” said Markwell, who was in the Toronto Blue Jays system for seven years. “Now that I am back in the Netherlands, I am busier with practicing than playing. But the way we work as a team makes me feel comfortable.”

Dutch pitcher Kyle Ward training in Haarlem, the Netherlands. (Jeroen Mulder)

The Dutch are Europe’s most distinguished players of America’s favorite pastime. The Dutch national team currently holds the title of world baseball champions, a prize they won last year when they beat Cuba — number one in global rankings — and the second-ranked United States at the Baseball World Cup in Panama.

The Netherlands was the only European team to win the Cup since Great Britain took the first tournament in 1938. The victory was a point of pride in the tiny country. The Dutch Olympic Committee bestowed the team with the title of “Best Sports Team of the Netherlands of 2011,” and the International Baseball Federation tapped the American-born manager of the Dutch team, Brian Farley, as coach of the year.

“After the World Cup, the Dutch baseball team was famous for a couple of weeks,” said Ronald van Dam, a Dutch sports journalist. “They were invited to television shows and opening ceremonies.”

Even though only 25,000 people play softball or baseball in the Netherlands — far less than the 1.2 million who play soccer — the Dutch team has traditionally done well because the squad recruits from baseball-crazy Dutch territories in the Caribbean; and the country is small enough to allow players from regional teams to practice together frequently, giving the team a cohesiveness some of their rivals lack, said Farley.

While Markwell, born in Curacao, hasn’t made the U.S. Major Leagues, Aruba-born Eugene Kingsale and Robert Eenhoorn, now both retired, did play multiple seasons in the majors.

“Baseball is a third tier sport [in the Netherlands],” said Farley. “Luckily we have a strong Antillean contingent, because in the Antilles baseball is the number one sport.”

The best player from the Antilles is probably Andruw Jones, born in Curacao.

Farley: “We’re the world champions, but not the European champions…”

The Olympics closes the door

But the Dutch team will never win the Baseball World Cup again, and its prospects for future international victories have gotten a lot tougher.

Next year, the Cup will be replaced by the World Baseball Classic — an international tournament held every four years — that will be the first worldwide championship featuring players from Major League Baseball, the top U.S. league.

Founded in 2006 and featuring 16 national teams, the Classic was designed to take place during the major league’s off-season, so that professional players from the Major League baseball could participate. Japan won the first Classic in 2009. The Dutch team didn’t make it into the semi-finals.

The World Baseball Classic is a step forward in bringing international baseball into the mainstream. But, at the same time, worldwide competitions are disappearing. The Cup is no more, and the International Olympic Committee voted not to include baseball in the 2012 and 2016 Olympics, ridding the sport of one of its major international tests.

Farley and his team disagree with the Olympic Committee’s decision.

Farley: “At the Olympics, all the games were sold out…”

Dutch baseball players are focusing on the European Championships in September. “[It] now becomes the major tournament of the year,” said Farley.

The American-born coach of the Dutch national baseball team, Brian Farley (right), confers with players. (Jeroen Mulder)

The Netherlands has won the championships 20 times, including a ten-year run until the last series in 2010, when Italy beat them. This year, with the championship taking place at Pim Mulier and stadiums in Rotterdam and Utrecht, Dutch player Danny Rombley anticipated great excitement if the Netherlands and Italy square off again this year in the finals. “It is always a battle between the Netherlands and Italy,” he said.

A boost in popularity?

Despite the buzz, it’s not clear, however, if the European Championships will boost the profile of the Dutch team at home like the World Baseball Cup.

Markwell: “Our fans are gonna play a pretty big role…”

“We have a lot of winter games in the Netherlands, but baseball — as a summer game — is slowly getting bigger,” said Rombley. “With all the recent success it will hopefully grow. But still, no one will recognize me on the street.”