On Wednesday, a story appeared that a Dutch delegation is getting ready to make its final bid to host a Major League Baseball game in 2014, centered around a new stadium capable of seating 30,000 to be built in Hoofddorp, a small city outside Amsterdam. (Significantly, the story indicates that American baseball people have assisted them with the text, which indicates that there is a high chance the bid will be accepted.) Bert Blyleven’s homeland made a surprising run in the 2009 World Baseball Classic — the Dutch team stunned Dominican Republic twice and finished seventh out of 16 teams — but most American baseball fans still don’t have much sense of the baseball past, present, or future in Netherlands.
Then again, neither do many of the Dutch. As Rogier van Zon, editor of the main Dutch baseball site honkbalsite.com, explained in a 2009 interview with Patrick Newman:
Maybe it is hard to believe, but when the Dutch beat the Dominicans and advanced to the second round, there was hardly any newspapers or tv stations in the Netherlands that brought the news. The only media attention was a small article on one of the last pages of the sports section. Except baseball fans, probably the most people in the Netherlands didn’t even know what the Dutch team had done. Baseball isn’t a popular sport in the Netherlands.
Still, Netherlands has long been the baseball powerhouse of Europe — as van Zon says, the Dutch team has won the European Championship 20 times since 1956. Indeed, Holland is probably the greatest baseball country outside the Americas and East Asia, both through the Caribbean islands of the Netherlands Antilles (particularly Curaçao, but also Aruba, home of Sir Sidney Ponson), and also in mainland Holland. Baseball has been played by the Dutch for a century, introduced in 1911 by an English teacher from Amsterdam who discovered it on a trip through America. The Dutch major league, founded in 1922, is called Honkbal Hoofdklasse (“honkbal” is Dutch for “baseball”). It’s made up of just eight teams, and is an amateur league, not professional, though van Zon explains that each team is permitted one player without a European passport, a bit like the Japanese “suketto” system that allows a limited number of foreign players on a team.
Netherlands has also provided more of a pipeline to the majors than you might think, and it goes beyond Rik Aalbert Blijleven. Though Bert Blyleven himself is quite something. Of all players (UPDATE: I should have said, of all major league players) born outside the United States and Puerto Rico, only seven, from seven different countries, have ever been inducted into the Hall of Fame. Blyleven is only the second Hall of Famer born outside the Americas, and the first, Harry Wright, was born in England in 1835. The complete list:
As of 2009, van Zon indicated that there were 13 Netherlands-born players in the American minor leagues, along with an additional 40 born on islands in the Netherlands Antilles, including Curaçao and Aruba. Just three months ago, the Pittsburgh Pirates signed 18-year old Dutchman Danny Arribas. In addition to Blyleven, there have been eight other major leaguers born in Netherlands, including Greg Halman, Rick VandenHurk, and Robert Eenhoorn, who is sort of the face of Dutch baseball: he’s the former manager of the Dutch national team and current Technical Director of the Royal Dutch Baseball and Softball Association. (Eenhoorn was an infielder with the Yankees in the mid-’90s, and has the distinction of having been beaten out at shortstop by Derek Jeter.)
Netherlands already hosts two prominent baseball tournaments, the Haarlem Baseball Week in Haarlem and the World Port Tournament in Rotterdam — the most recent WPT concluded in July, with Taiwan (or Chinese Taipei) defeating a Cuban team which had won the previous six tournaments. The tournaments take place every two years in an alternating cycle, with the Baseball Week in even years and WPT in odd years.
Dutch players also participate in the European baseball championships, the Baseball World Cup, and of course the World Baseball Classic. Players on the 2009 Netherlands WBC team included both prospects and retired veterans, from Ponson and Randall Simon to VandenHurk, Halman, and Kenley Jansen (who at the time was still a catcher in the Dodgers organization). Eenhoorn has said that he turned in a plan for a European Professional League, made up of club teams from across Europe, which was announced in 2008; since that time, however, no further news has emerged from MLB or Baseball Europe.
Last year, Major League Baseball explored sending teams to Italy for spring training. Before the Dutch submitted their current bid, MLB apparently approached the country to see whether it would be possible to host major league games in Netherlands in 2012, but apparently the Hoofddorp stadium simply was not able to be ready in time. Italy and Germany also expressed their intention to submit bids for 2014, but MLB’s director for Europe told a Dutch reporter in May: “Your country is in pole position now.”
In an email to me, van Zon said:
I guess if it is necessary to submit a bid then there is no certainty… But I do think that in Europe this is the most serious attempt so far.
It is a fact that Dutch baseball continues to get better. The Netherlands is already in the top 6 of the world. And the youthplayers are getting stronger each year. This is also evident from the participation in the Little League World Series last month.
Understandably, van Zon doesn’t want to get too optimistic. But barring unforeseen complications, it seems very likely that the Major Leagues are coming to the Low Lands, and soon. Once that happens, the Dutch influx into the major leagues is only likely to increase. The Dutch don’t yet have a team good enough to barnstorm against Major Leaguers, and the traveling MLB squad may not get a chance to see the Dutch play. But the Dutch will see them. And that will only raise the profile of the sport in the country, encouraging even more people to play their country’s century-old sport. Baseball has gotten a great deal more global under Bud Selig’s tenure, and Selig has long desired to establish a foothold in Europe. He may soon get his wish.
Alex is a writer for The Hardball Times, and is an enterprise account executive for The Washington Post.