Commentary

Netherlands shocks the baseball world

Injuries and withdrawals have weakened the once-powerful Dominican Republic

Updated: March 7, 2009, 11:54 PM ET
By Jorge Arangure Jr. | ESPN The Magazine

SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico -- So that they might avoid being intimidated by the crowd or by the opposing team, Netherlands pitching coach Bert Blyleven suggested to his underdog pitchers that they pull their caps down low to narrow their field of vision.

With his heart racing as he walked to the mound from the dugout to start the bottom of the ninth inning against the Dominican Republic, reliever Leon Boyd tugged on his hat until it covered most of his brow. He would have tugged it even lower if he could have, because this was the biggest moment of his baseball career and the biggest moment for baseball in the Netherlands, and what he did not want to see was the enormity of the moment.

"I guess it helped," Boyd said.

A few moments after Boyd struck out Jose Bautista to secure a 3-2 win against the Dominican Republic on Saturday, players from the Netherlands ran from their dugout and toppled Boyd in a celebration worthy of a World Series win.

"Did you ever see Cuba win a game and see how they celebrate?" Netherlands starter Sidney Ponson said. "It's passion. It's like everybody loves this game. So that's why we go there. That's the way we play games. If they won, they would have done the same thing. Whoever wins today, the second game, they're going to do the same thing. Why not enjoy it? We just won the game. We upset one of the best teams in the WBC."

With all the criticism that I've gotten in the press and all the talk about my salary, I think this is my last Classic. I don't want anything to do with the Classic.

-- Dominican Republic GM Stan Javier

In beating the Dominicans in the WBC opener, the Netherlands had just three hits, none of which made it out of the infield. In fact, only three balls hit by the Netherlands left the infield.

The Dominicans were beaten by Ponson, a castoff major league pitcher hoping to open some eyes, and relievers Rob Cordemans, a 14-year veteran of the Netherlands national team whose fastball reaches 88 mph on a good day, and Boyd, a self-described former average starter in college in Canada who began his professional career in Belgium. Though wins by the Dutch -- whose baseball teams have participated in the past five Olympics -- in international competition against Cuba caused a stir in the Netherlands, this undoubtedly was the biggest baseball win in the history of the country.

"It's a great moment for us because it was able to be played on TV in the Netherlands and Curacao, and so a lot of people back home were able to watch the game," Netherlands manager Rod Delmonico said. "It gave us great exposure, not only in our country but nationwide. It's a big moment for us."

The Dominicans seemed headed for a crash. The past few months have brought nothing but grief for Dominican baseball fans. Only a month ago, the Dominican representative in the Caribbean World Series, the Tigres del Licey, finished a disappointing third place. At the start of the year, the International Baseball Federation ranked the Dominicans a lowly 17th in the world, an indignity for a country that prides itself on being the best in the world in baseball, which shows how much the Dominicans have struggled in international competition.

Even before the start of the World Baseball Classic, the Dominican team was hit with injuries that sidelined Albert Pujols, Alfonso Soriano, Adrian Beltre and then finally, and most suddenly, Alex Rodriguez. To replace these players, the Dominicans brought in talented players, but certainly not as talented as those who were missing, which left the team with a disjointed roster: three All-Star shortstops (Jose Reyes, Hanley Ramirez and Miguel Tejada), but no third baseman, only one second baseman (Robinson Cano), one center fielder (Willy Taveras) and a rotation composed mostly of young, untested players.

So although the Dominicans have perhaps two of the best players in baseball in Reyes and Ramirez, they can't be on the field at the same time because neither of the players' respective teams, the Mets and Marlins, will allow them to play another position. The Dominicans are also limited in using either Reyes or Ramirez as the DH because the Red Sox are not willing to allow David Ortiz to play first because of an injured shoulder.

The construction of the Dominican roster became a heated topic in Santo Domingo. More attention was given to who wasn't playing for the Dominican team than who was. So much criticism was aimed at general manager Stan Javier that he's already bowed out of participating in the next World Baseball Classic.

[+] EnlargeRobinson Cano
AP Photo/Fernando LlanoRobinson Cano and the Dominican Republic sit just one loss from elimination.

"With all the criticism that I've gotten in the press and all the talk about my salary, I think this is my last Classic," Javier said. "I don't want anything to do with the Classic. People you once respected and were friends with now criticize you. I have a good job, and I don't need to subject myself to this criticism."

Manager Felipe Alou tried to temper the usual high expectations for the Dominicans on Friday in the team's first news conference in Puerto Rico, and once again after Saturday's game.

"The Dominican fan knows that this team, this team has suffered a lot of upsetting news recently lately that we have to change players and their positions," Alou said. "They came to play one position and now they play another position. We had to deal with the lineup after the first game, moving it around. So the Dominican fan knows about that. This team has had upsets ever since the start of spring training. We started to lose men all over the place. I'm a Dominican and also a fan. I'm the manager of the team. I am not bowing my head. I'm disappointed, I think. But I do trust my team."

Even with all the controversy swirling, the loss to the Netherlands was improbable. The Dutch team has just one major league player on its roster (Marlins pitcher Rick VandenHurk), and he didn't even play Saturday. Its most celebrated player, five-time Hoofdklasse (Dutch major league) pitcher Cordemans, has never pitched professionally in the United States. As the Hoofdklasse's highest-paid pitcher, Cordemans earns just $40,000 a year, less than half of what Rodriguez earns each day.

"It's too bad A-Rod wasn't here," Cordemans said. "He's the biggest name in baseball."

Even after the win, some of the Netherlands players seemed more like fans. Boyd went unnoticed while standing in the concourse area of Hiram Bithorn Stadium. While conducting an interview he clutched a Dominican WBC hat.

"I was thinking about wearing it," he said.

Jorge Arangure Jr. is a senior writer for ESPN The Magazine.

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