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World Baseball Classic: Holla!land

3/11/2009
Dutch, never Danish. Neil Janowitz

Lean Guedegebuure didn't have a ticket to Game 5 of the WBC. He didn't think he would need one. Sure, the 22 year-old exchange student had skipped classes at the University of Georgia to watch his beloved Netherlands National Team compete in the tri-annual baseball melee. But he never expected his countrymen to be playing a third game in the double elimination tourney. No one did. Even pitcher Berry Van Driel, who stood on the edge of his dugout during game introductions and took cell phone video of the scene, seemed to want to hold on to what everyone in the stadium and, oh, entire world assumed was a fleeting moment. We're talking about Holland here.

But we are talking about Holland here—and while the nation's curriculum vitae is light on international baseball successes (Cuba in 2000!), they've been a powerhouse on the European scene ever since American GIs showed them how the game was really played during World War II. In the years following, most Euro nations started signing fading MLBers to shore up their baseball programs. But Holland (and Italy, for that matter) took a different tack: They imported MLB coaches, who established a foundation of baseball knowledge that enabled players like Alexander Smit, a Reds prospect whose grandfather learned the game from U.S. troops, to make an impact on the international scene.

Smit's father, Kenneth, was on-hand in San Juan, as was a group of 50 or so other friends and family members. MLB had flown the family down from Sarasota—where the national team held camp—and scored them a bank of seats. In many cases, the trip was the first time the Holland natives had interacted with citizens from the Dutch Antilles islands such as Curacao or Aruba, who fill out the Netherlands squad. "In the 1980s, there was a lot of contentious discussions about whether to includes the Antilles players on the national team," explains Suzy Stoeckel, wife of former national team manager and current bullpen coach Jim Stoeckel. "But people finally realized the national team could benefit from a deeper talent pool, and the Caribbean players could better develop their skills against European teams." A decade of Antilles players such as Andruw Jones and Sidney Ponson later, Holland's union is working out just fine.

Next to the elder Smit sat three University of Maine alums, who were there to support former Black Bear and Curacao native Curt Smith. Behind them were the mother and brother of Curacao's 19-year-old phenom Juan Carlos Sulbaran, who entered Game 4 against Puerto Rico in the bottom of the sixth with the bases loaded and struck out Pudge Rodriguez. Down the row were the fathers of pitchers Pim Walsma and Rick VandenHurk, who, like the majority of the Dutch fans, were sharing a hotel room with their sons. And Guedegebuure was right there in the mix with them, because really, was there any way anyone was going to keep that kid out of the game?

The Dutch block sat tensely during most of the game, but grew increasingly optimistic as the score stayed knotted at zero, realizing that when you're Holland playing against the infinitely-favored Dominican Republic, no runs is good news. When Yurrendell de Caster finally knocked in Eugene Kingsale in the bottom of the 11th, thereby sending the Dutch team to the second round of the WBC, the modest stumping section erupted, banging their appropriately-colored orange T-Mobile thundersticks and screaming "Holland" loud enough for friends back home to hear, trying to make as much noise off the field as their feisty Orangemen just had on it.