TEMPE, Ariz. – Torii Hunter(notes) looks up at Loek van Mil – cranes his neck and looks up, up, up at Van Mil – and sees intimidation and dominance, a pitcher he wants on his side. Hunter is convinced the right-hander from Holland will become the first 7-footer to play in the major leagues, and soon.
"I'll take my chances with him," the veteran Los Angeles Angels outfielder said. "He's part of a rare breed. That's a guy you want on the mound."
Hunter is in the same organization as the 7-foot-1 Van Mil for the second time. Last August, Van Mil was traded to the Angels from the Minnesota Twins, the team that signed both players. Hunter made a point of watching him pitch in spring training five years ago when Van Mil was throwing only 87 mph. Since then, his velocity has increased to 99 mph on a good day, 95 consistently. Van Mil's first name is pronounced "Luke," and his cool hand fires bullets.
"His stride is so long, it's like he's handing the ball to the catcher," Hunter said.
The tallest major leaguer in history is Toronto Blue Jays pitcher Jon Rauch(notes) at 6-11. Mets pitcher Chris Young and retired pitchers Randy Johnson(notes) and Eric Hillman are 6-10. A common denominator is that all were late bloomers, none of them harnessing their ability before age 26. That's how old Van Mil is now.
Only Johnson threw as hard. Van Mil is 3 inches taller than Johnson, but figuratively can't look down on the future Hall of Famer. Johnson won 303 games and possessed a mean streak that served him well on the mound. Van Mil is pleasant, chatty and not shy about revealing a quirky intellectual nature that sets him apart from most ballplayers.
Ludovicus Jacobus Maria van Mil grew up in the small industrial town of Oss in south Holland, his family big in the slaughterhouse industry, his name a string of Catholic saints even though his parents weren't especially religious. He enjoyed a playground game called Slagbal that involved smacking a ball with a stick and running from pole to pole so much that his mother sought out a baseball team for him to join at age 8.
Van Mil was already much taller than the other kids, and he played catcher. At 14 he'd grown to 6-6 and transitioned to first base. Two years later a coach noticed he threw hard and put him on the mound.
"The first batter I faced, I hit," Van Mil said. "I had coordination problems."
Soon he began striking batters out, and within a year he was on the Dutch national team. Twins scouts Howard Norsetter and Larry Corrigan had already discovered him. "They'd fly to Amsterdam, drive 90 minutes to Oss, watch me pitch two innings and go back home," Van Mil said. "That made me realize I could become a major league pitcher. They saw something in me."
The Twins made him an offer in 2005. Van Mil was about to enroll in law school, but with his mother's encouragement, he signed and the next spring was pitching in Ft. Myers, Fla., with Torii Hunter gawking at his gangly frame and wicked slider thrown from a low three-quarters arm slot that caused the knees of right-handed hitters to buckle.
Teammates noticed that Van Mil's height wasn't his only distinguishing quality. He rode a 24-speed bicycle everywhere, not bothering to lock it because the seat was set so high no thief could have pedaled away with it. He spoke four languages – English, Dutch, German and French – and spent free time reading and doing research online. Once a teammate came into his room and asked to turn on the TV. Van Mil had been in the room for weeks but had no idea where the remote control was because he'd never turned on the set.
"My first year in the minors I studied Greek mythology, learned as much as I could," he said. "My second year I was into World War II, specifically Nazi officers, their upbringing, what made them become such monsters."
He's never bothered getting a driver's license, in Holland or the U.S., so Angels manager Mike Scioscia gave him an assignment when Van Mil reported to camp last week: a research paper comparing the driving laws of the two countries. A couple days later, Van Mil delivered a witty PowerPoint presentation on the subject to the entire team.
The exercise was one of several that Scioscia assigned to players as an ice-breaker, a way to connect with new teammates. For Van Mil, who still rides the same bicycle two miles to Diablo Stadium every morning, it might lead to a driver's license.
"I don't see any need for a car, although my girlfriend visits from Holland two or three times a summer and it might be nice to be able to drive while she's here," he said.
Money is something else most people consider essential but Van Mil doesn't. When he breaks into the majors – Angels coaches say a midseason call-up is a realistic goal – he'll be paid the major league minimum of $410,000.
"It's a Dutch way of thinking," he said. "I don't need $400,000 a year; $200,000 would be good. And I don't mind paying more in taxes. I can still live a very good life."
Regardless of what he does with his paychecks, Van Mil will experience the prosperous big league life only if he can remain healthy. Shoulder soreness hampered him last season in Double-A and he's taking it slow this spring; he isn't scheduled to begin throwing off a mound for another week.
"Loek is a guy who could get to the big leagues soon," Scioscia said. "Once he is out there facing hitters we'll have a better idea of where he ought to begin the season and what his timetable might be."
Once his arm is back in shape he can work on his command. Van Mil's tendency has been to follow several excellent outings with a disaster. He'll walk three or four batters in a row because of a minor mechanical hiccup. It's a consequence of being so tall.
"If my release changes by an inch, that translates to a big difference at home plate," he said. "I have much less of a margin for error than a shorter pitcher. It's hard for me to coordinate all my moving parts."
No wonder Randy Johnson didn't post an ERA under 4.00 until he was 26 and led the American League in walks the next three years. He didn't become dominant until he was 29. Rauch, like Van Mil, is a reliever, and he didn't spend a full season in the majors until he was 27.
For now, Van Mil must be content with being the tallest minor league player ever. The record has an asterisk because independent team owner Mike Veeck, always on the lookout for a goofy promotion, had a 7-3 man named Dave Rasmussen take one at-bat for the St. Paul Saints in 2007. Rasmussen's credentials? He was president of the Milwaukee Tall Club.
Van Mil has ascended to the brink of the big leagues because he can pitch. His ERA in 111 minor league games is a respectable 3.57. He's allowed fewer hits than innings pitched and strikes out a healthy number of batters. His statistical blemish is that he's walked too many, more a product of those periodic jags of wildness than of a consistent lack of command.
The Angels are delighted to have him. At the time of the trade, general manager Tony Reagins said he loved "his upside," pun perhaps not intended but noted. Van Mil plays along. He's not sensitive about his height. But he doesn't want it overshadowing his ability, either.
"I don't care about being the tallest major leaguer ever," he said. "I want to get there and stay there. I use my height to an advantage, but I won't make the majors because I'm tall. It'll be because I can pitch."
And if he doesn't make it, there's always that other sport that prizes height. "I never played organized basketball," Van Mil said. "But I will say that pick-up games are fun."