LOS ANGELES -- The Netherlands could be the signature team of this World Baseball Classic, thanks to a roster built of multiple ethnicities with myriad languages spoken in its clubhouse.
Here is one way to represent the team’s ability to bridge those cultures: One teammate from Curacao and another of Dutch ancestry recently bought out an American fast-food joint in South Korea to supply the postgame spread for everybody on the team.
The Popeyes Louisiana Chicken location in Seoul was apparently closed for two days before it could restock its supply after Didi Gregorius and Rick Van den Hurk helped fuel their club at the start of a run that ultimately led to a berth in Monday’s WBC semifinals.
The Netherlands will face undefeated Puerto Rico on Monday at Dodger Stadium, with a ticket to Wednesday’s WBC championship game on the line. The other semifinal, which is Tuesday night, will match Japan against the United States.
“We know now these guys are ready for the challenge,” Netherlands manager Hensley Meulens said. “We have our pitching together. You know, we're ready to go.”
What the Netherlands is not -- at least not anymore -- is an extreme underdog story. That came in previous WBCs, when the team, largely comprising players from Holland, along with some from Curacao and Aruba, defied the odds.
In the 2009 tournament, the Netherlands pulled off two legendary upsets against the Dominican Republic, the first of which was aided by a strong-armed catcher named Kenley Jansen, who threw out speedy Willy Taveras trying to steal third base in the ninth inning. By the time the second upset of the Dominican Republic was completed a few days later, the secret of the club had been revealed.
In 2013, the Netherlands took things a step further, earning a spot in the semifinals, this time with Jansen as a relief pitcher. But the Dominican Republic got its revenge and went on to win a title.
Now, the Netherlands will get another crack at making it to a WBC final backed by position players who come mostly from former Dutch colonies in the southern Caribbean, as well as a number of pitchers who are of Dutch descent.
There are as many as five languages spoken in the clubhouse at any one time, with the mix brought together by Meulens, the San Francisco Giants' hitting coach who has been part of three World Series titles in the past seven years.
One of the best position players Holland has ever produced, Stijn van der Meer, is nowhere near breaking through at shortstop in this group, and he's realistic about his place on the club's depth chart.
“I knew what I was signing up for," he said. "I mean, Didi and Boagerts are amazed by things that Simmons can do at short, so we are all understanding of our roles."
Gregorius has helped the team as the designated hitter. Boagerts has played third base. Jurickson Profar has moved to center field to alleviate the infield logjam. Nobody complains.
“By the way, they haven’t made any errors,” Meulens said, gushing about his roster of players willing to go wherever they are needed. “None of them.”
Boagerts lets out a laugh when asked about players willing to drop their egos and do what is best for the team.
“I mean, you could put any one of us at short, but obviously, honestly, Simmons is the best, so he has to play there,” Boagerts said. “Playing third base, I played there my first year [at the WBC], so that wasn't something new to me this year because I've done it before. But you're not going to take Simmons' spot at shortstop.”
This shortstop battle is nothing new. Gregorius and Simmons have been playing together since they were six. Boagerts was a few years younger, so he didn’t join the group until he was around 12. They play with the trust of siblings. They act like brothers.
“Like any of the guys that play infield, you can put them at short, and they'll do the job,” Simmons said. “Hensley put me there for most of the games, and I'm happy with that. But, I mean, it shows the versatility of the other guys too to be able to adjust and go to another position and still do a great job. So we've got a lot of infield talent. I mean, you can pick your poison. Any other guy can stand in there and do the same job.”
The trust of the position players has permeated the roster.
“[Meulens] has done a great job of recruiting these kids to have the spirit of the country in mind, most of them from Curacao, Holland, Aruba, to join together and get to where we’re at,” Netherlands pitching coach and Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven said. “It’s the players and what we have done on the field that has gotten us here, but the leadership of ‘Bam-Bam’ has shown in this tournament.”
“Bam-Bam,” is Meulens’ nickname, of course, a moniker that apparently was both a “Flintstones” reference and a way to describe his power ability as a youngster. Meulens was the first major leaguer from Curacao and can further make his own mark on the game this week.
“Hensley is very important and is doing an excellent job of managing the team,” said Bart Volkerijk, the president of the Royal Dutch Baseball and Softball Federation. “He has the feeling about what it is like to both play and coach at the highest level, and that is something we need.”
Helping Meulens’ decision-making this week will be the ability to call Jansen from the bullpen. The Dodgers’ closer said he was not ready to join the Netherlands’ team as it played in the Far East for the first two rounds of the tournament, but he is ready to contribute now.
“This team is one, it’s a family, and everybody is together,” Jansen said shortly before joining his first workout with his national team Sunday. “Everybody is loving being here right now. Hensley, seeing what he did with the Giants and seeing how they became a dynasty over there in the Bay Area, with him as the batting coach, he has a lot of experience doing this, and it’s great to have him here.”
The Netherlands will face a stern test Monday against a red-hot Puerto Rico team, but as it learned in 2009, nobody is unbeatable. It is a team made up of players from varying backgrounds, and it could, in fact, have an entire continent of support.
“We are from the Kingdom of the Netherlands, but in the meanwhile, we have noticed that it is important to be from Europe and get that [baseball] message all over Europe,” Volkerijk said. “It gives kids who are Czech or in France or in Spain a perspective of getting to the highest level of sports because that’s what you do it for. To play sports is healthy, but kids have ambition to go as far as possible, and we give a perspective of playing this game at the highest level.”