Honkballing Dutch deliver KO blow for ages
SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico – No one will believe them. The men who wore Netherlands jerseys Tuesday night will tell the story of their last 80 hours for the rest of their existence, and they will be called liars, because tales like this are the domain of books and movies and not a bunch of living, breathing dreamers.
Things don’t happen so symmetrically, a perfect beginning and perfect end. And they don’t happen twice, not when lightning taught us otherwise. And they assuredly don’t happen to a bunch of guys from Holland and Curacao and Aruba trying to play baseball, not when their homeland calls the sport honkbal.
The only way people will believe this yarn is when they step back and realize it must be true, because no one could make up something so impossible: The Netherlands beat the Dominican Republic for the second time in three days, a come-from-behind 2-1 victory in 11 innings, to oust the powerhouse from the World Baseball Classic and advance to the tournament’s second round in Miami.
“It’s a miracle,” Netherlands manager Rod Delmonico said. “That’s all I can tell you. Our guys came together as a team, and miraculously we won. It’s not because we’re better than they are. They’re one of the best teams in the world. Collectively we just played hard, and it happened. I can’t tell you. Other than it’s a miracle.”
Already the Netherlands had pulled one of the great upsets in international baseball history by beating the Dominicans on Saturday. So to see it happen again – to see the Dutch players celebrating with even more fervor: water and soda baths, shaving cream pies, hugs they simply wouldn’t release – registered so odd that the sulking Dominicans refused to move from their seats in the dugout. They were shocked stiff.
“I don’t know how we did it,” Dutch pitcher Rob Cordemans said. “I don’t even remember. I was just running all over the place. I don’t even know what I’m saying.”
The euphoria lasted deep into the night at Hiram Bithorn Stadium, where a pocket of 100 or so Netherlands fans tucked amid thousands of Dominicans found themselves the only ones cheering at the madness of the 11th inning.
It was the fitting bookend to the wacky first inning in the first game between the two teams, which saw the three runs the Netherlands scored on a pair of Dominican errors hold up in a 3-2 victory. For the first 10 innings Tuesday, neither team mustered a run, and only a misplayed fly ball by Eugene Kingsale allowed the Dominican’s Jose Reyes to motor home and untie the scoreless game.
So when Kingsale, a major-league washout, came up again with a runner on third in the bottom of the inning against Carlos Marmol, of course he laced a single into right field to score Sidney de Jong.
Because this whole thing, remember, couldn’t have happened. Batters from the Hoofdklasse, the Dutch professional league, do not get hits off a major-league reliever who held opponents to a .135 batting average. And they do not get breaks, either, like Marmol throwing a wild pickoff move into the stadium’s expansive foul territory, allowing Kingsale to advance to third base.
The scene set itself up with such precision, the smaller matchup mirroring the greater one: power against pluck. Yurendell de Caster fouled off a Marmol fastball, swung through another and worked the count to 3-2 before lacing a ball down the first-base line. And as it bounced toward Willy Aybar, off his glove and away – as the Dominican Republic’s WBC died and the Netherlands’ sprung back to life with Kingsale touching home plate – the words of Felipe Alou seemed so prescient.
Before the game, the 73-year-old Alou, who spent a majority of his time as Dominican manager pointing out all of the WBC’s faults, harped on a favorite: the construction of his roster. The Dominicans, so terribly miscast, started the lumbering David Ortiz at first base simply to get their two best players, shortstops Reyes and Hanley Ramirez, in the lineup at the same time.
“What other professional do I have to play first base?” Alou asked.
None. Aybar is a utility player. The best Dominican first baseman, Albert Pujols, watched from spring training because insurance issues kept him from participating in the WBC. Surgery sidelined Alex Rodriguez, arm issues shelved Ervin Santana and management concerns scuttled Adrian Beltre. Such excuses don’t play with fickle Dominican fans, nor will the team’s obvious uninspired play. The between-innings loafing, the lack of hustle on ground balls, the 19 fly outs among the team’s final 27 – none of that represents the island’s moniker, The Republic of Baseball.
Before the game, Dominican catcher Alberto Castillo said: “We will not be allowed back in our country if we lose this game.” And though their passports are safe – for now – the sentiment was true enough: the joy exuded by the Dutch found its counterbalance in the anguish across the field. The Dominican Republic does not lose to the Netherlands, not once, surely not twice.
“When you think you’ve seen it all, you find out you’re wrong,” Alou said. “We’ve seen something that we never imagined. We were supposed to beat that team twice. But they beat us twice.”
They beat a team paid more than $80 million this year by melding kids trying to scratch out major-league careers, elders trying to rekindle theirs and a bunch of weekend warriors whose Hoofdklasse season starts April 11, and to little fanfare.
“We don’t have any webcasts or anything,” pitcher Leon Boyd said. “Sometimes we have live stats.”
They beat the Dominican without their best player, Atlanta Braves starter Jair Jurrjens, who said earlier this spring, “I don’t want to go there for one game and come back.” He since has admitted to friends his mistake. And similar feelings must haunt Shairon Martis and Wladimir Balentien and Rogearvin Bernadina, all prospects who chose instead to compete for major-league jobs.
Randall Simon gets the allure. For eight years, he played in the big leagues. It’s just, well, redemptive and laudable and right to play for your country. Simon prefers to be known for something other than slugging the sausage-race participant in Milwaukee with a bat, and his Netherlands teammate, Sidney Ponson, wants to avoid losing his career because he never grew up.
Those are the standard bearers on this motley team, a pair of players baseball no longer smiles upon even though they still bat their eyes at it.
“I wanted these guys to experience this,” Simon said. “All this. This team, these guys, they deserve it.
“It’s the best. It’s the best day. It will never get better than that. Nobody ever thought about this, that it would happen one day. And we did it.”
The team flocked toward Simon during the celebration, piling on top of him along the third-base line. He wept at the bottom of the heap, and his eyes remained glazed over, even when a cooler of ice water baptized de Caster. He felt simultaneously sappy and sapped, the Wednesday game against Puerto Rico at 5:30 ET to determine seeding coming far too soon.
“This was Ali-Frazier,” Delmonico said. “It’s one thing to beat them once. It’s another thing to do it twice. Thank goodness we don’t have to play them three times.”
After the game, Alou couldn’t find Delmonico to congratulate him. So when they crossed paths at the foot of the dais inside the press tent, Alou said, “Hey, hey,” and caught Delmonico’s attention. The two embraced, their feelings disparate, their shared memory the same.
For this is a fable Alou, too, will tell, about the time the impossible happened to him. And just as with the players from the Netherlands, the skeptics will question him, and he’ll urge them to believe. Not even the greatest storyteller could dream up the night the honkballers ruled the baseball world.