Jones is a hero in his homeland

Originally Published: August 24, 2005
By Wayne Drehs | ESPN.com

WILLIAMSPORT, Pa. -- When it comes to Little League baseball, when it comes to forecasting the on-field fortunes of hyper, erratic, 11- and 12-year-old boys, the people from the tiny island of Curacao repeat one of baseball's eternal truths.

Curacao fans
Parents of the Curacao Little Leaguers hold hands in prayer before the team's game against Japan in Williamsport.
The ball is round.

They say it anywhere, at any time, in any one of the four languages they speak -- just as a reminder that anything can happen.

"You never know," said Zora Seferina, the mother of Curacao Little Leaguer Darren Seferina. "Good, bad, sometimes you can't control the bounces. You have to remember -- the ball is round."

So perhaps that explains it. Perhaps that explains how native son Andruw Jones was able to hit two home runs in his first two at-bats in the 1996 World Series ... as a 19-year-old.

Perhaps that explains how, on that crisp October night, a round ball connected with a round bat, on baseball's grandest stage, to forever change the baseball future of one country.

"It was an awakening," said Curacao Little League coach Michelangelo Celestina. "A total awakening."

When the first home-run ball landed, when it finally finished traveling from Andy Pettitte's left hand to Jones' black bat and over Yankee Stadium's left-field wall, the change was already under way.

On a tiny island in the southern Caribbean, 2,500 miles away, Carnival had begun four months early. People flocked to the streets -- singing, dancing and drinking. They shot off fireworks. They drove through the capital of Willemstad blasting their car horns.

"It was wild," Celestina said. "Like Fourth of July here."

Andruw Jones
With one swing Andruw Jones inspired a nation.
The celebration ignited a newfound love for baseball. Kids all over the island flocked to the dirt fields, wanting to play, wanting to be like Jones. Baseball clinics that were drawing a hundred kids in the past were now drawing a thousand. Nine years later, the effects of that night -- and Jones' emergence as a major-league superstar -- have trickled down to Little League. A team from Curacao has reached the Little League World Series international championship game in four of the last five years.

Last year topped them all when the Pabao Little League from Willemstad became the first team from the Caribbean to win the world championship, defeating Thousand Oaks, Calif., 5-2. This year's team, with four players remaining from the championship squad, has advanced to the international semifinal, where it will play Guam on Thursday.

And they have Jones to thank.

"Andruw Jones gave this country a gift," Seferina said. "He gave all these little kids the belief that a Curacao kid can make it. He's the dream they have, he's the spirit that lights each one of their hearts. They listen and learn from every word he says."

So it was no surprise to find Sherman La Crus standing behind the batting cages at the Little League international baseball complex this past weekend, waiting for his turn to take a few hacks with a giant No. 25 on his back.

Even in a culture where baseball cards, autographs and jersey numbers carry little importance, La Crus picked No. 25 with one thing in mind.

"Jones," he said.

Curacao Little Leaguers
The Curacao Little Leaguers celebrate their victory over Thousand Oaks, Calif., to win the 2004 championship.
La Crus and his 13 teammates are trying to accomplish the unthinkable in Williamsport this week. Only three times in Little League's 58-year history has a team from the same town won back-to-back championships.

But even having a chance at such an accomplishment is remarkable -- considering where these kids come from. Just 40 miles north of Venezuela, Curacao is home to 130,000 people. Part of the Netherlands Antilles, the island is 38 miles long and 7½ miles across at its widest point, so small that on a world map inside the Little League World Series training room, a tiny flag indicating Curacao's location completely obscures the island.

The island didn't get its first T-ball program until the 1980s, and not until 1985 did a Curacao-born player -- Hensley Meulens -- sign a professional contract. Since then, four players, including Randall Simon, have reached the big leagues. But no one has had the impact of Jones. Four years after Jones' World Series home runs, Little League separated the Caribbean teams from those in Latin America, meaning the Curacao kids no longer had to get past Venezuela or the Dominican Republic to make it to Williamsport. Coupled with new coaches and a more aggressive, base-stealing, small-ball type of play, the Little League dynasty had begun.

"You combine the experience of the new coaches, improved training and this aggressive style of play, and you get results," said Niclaas Alecto, who is on the board of the Curacao Little League and also works as its translator. "Because these kids are eager to learn."

Today, more people per capita watch baseball on television in Aruba, Curacao, Bonaire and the rest of the Netherlands Antilles than any other part of the world. The two Little Leagues are so overcrowded with players that there's talk of forming a third league next season. And there's now a T-ball program so kids as young as age 4 can start learning the fundamentals.

Though Jones is currently the only major-leaguer born in Curacao, 16 others were on minor-league rosters this past opening day.

" Andruw Jones gave this country a gift. He gave all these little kids the belief that a Curacao kid can make it. He's the dream they have, he's the spirit that lights each one of their hearts. They listen and learn from every word he says."
-- Little League mom Zora Seferina

"A lot of people don't realize that we've got big-time baseball down there," Jones said. "Little League baseball is huge. There are so many kids playing down there my old coach had to send some kids away because there were too many that wanted to play."

The fanaticism goes beyond cheering for Jones, whom every member of the Curacao team lists as his favorite player. These are all-out baseball freaks. Cable television brings games from Atlanta, Chicago and all over the U.S. into their living rooms each night. Just consider the answer of Curacao Little Leaguer Jurickson Profar when he was asked this week who his favorite major-league pitcher is.

"Barry Zito," Profar said.

Why Zito?

"Twelve-six," Profar answered, referring to his admiration for Zito's overhand curveball.

On the island, passions run high for two things -- an Andruw Jones at-bat and a Little League World Series game featuring the hometown boys. Just about anyone can tell you how many home runs Jones has (currently 40, tops in the majors). And just like the World Series night when Jones hit his two home runs, each LLWS game is watched on giant television screens in the center of Willemstad and on the baseball field where the Curacao kids practice.

Three competing radio stations are in Williamsport broadcasting live play-by-play back to the island. And government offices close when there's a scheduling conflict.

Kids in batting cages
Outfielder Sherman La Crus chose No. 25 for one reason and one reason only: to honor his favorite player, Andruw Jones.
Return home a world champion -- even as an 11- or 12-year-old kid -- and the perks are endless. The 14 members of last year's championship team were showered with gifts upon their arrival back in Willemstad. Computers, printers, scanners, digital cameras, watches, rings, KFC for a year, McDonald's for a year and 52 six-packs of Pepsi were just the beginning. Two local banks opened savings accounts for each of the kids with the American equivalent of $600 already deposited. There were scholarships to school, monogrammed baseball gloves and a parade through town, with each of the kids on the back of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle.

It all adds up to monumental expectations, just like those Jones has dealt with since that World Series night in 1996.

"Just about the entire population back home expects another World Series title," Alecto said. "Anything less and they will be disappointed. We try to remind them, 'We want to win, too, but it isn't that easy.'"

Why not?

"Because the ball is round," Alecto said.

Of course.

Wayne Drehs is a staff writer for ESPN.com. He can be reached at wayne.drehs@espn3.com.

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