April 2012

Dutch Treat

Yesterday I go to the batting cage looking for Bruce Bochy to grab him for the pre-game radio show. He’s standing next to Hensley Meulens, the hitting instructor also known as Bam-Bam. It comes out that Hensley, who is from Curacao in the Netherland Antilles, was knighted that morning by the Queen Beatrix of the Netherlands.

Bochy and I are appropriately impressed but want to know how he could be knighted without being there with the queen.

“I don’t know,’’ he says. “They did it over the phone.’’

“Aren’t you supposed to be touched by her sword or something?’’ Bochy asks.

“I guess I’m going to do that later.’’

“So do we call you ‘Sir Hensley’?’’ I ask. “‘Sir Meulens’?’’

“I don’t care,’’ he says, “just as long as there’s a ‘sir’ in it.’’

“OK,’’ Bochy says, “Sir Bam-Bam.’’

Well that’s just perfect.  Can’t wait to tell Queen Beatrix!

We got to talking about major-leaguers who came from the Netherland Antilles. Everybody I’ve ever met from those islands is an intriguing character. The islands—Curacao, Aruba and Bonaire—are  in the Caribbean just off the northern coast of Venezuela so Spanish is a local language. Dutch and English are taught in the schools. Many speak French because of the country’s proximity to French-speaking islands. And the native patois is Papiamento.

So Hensley speaks five languages, which is not that uncommon for people there. Players from Curacao are not only different from the average big leaguer but they’re different from the average big leaguer who hails from the Caribbean.

I asked Hensley if he had ever been to the Netherlands. He said he had, and we talked a little about how baseball was more popular there than one would think. Which reminded me of a story about Wilhelmus “Win’’ Remmerswaal.

He was the first homegrown Dutch player to reach the majors. (Bert Blyleven was born there because his father was in the military, but he learned baseball in the States.) Win was a relief pitcher for Boston in 1979 and 1980. (I was a broadcaster for the Red Sox in 1980 to 1982.) He had a very good arm but grappled with the language, customs and other problems that players from foreign countries often do. And Win was known to close a few bars on occasion (Peter Gammons, who covered the Sox in those days for the Boston Globe, once told me Win’s nickname was “Last Call Remmerswaal”).

So the Red Sox are playing the Yankees on a Sunday in late September of the 1980 season. It so happens that the New York Jets of the NFL are playing a home game at Shea that same day at about the same time. Sure enough, after a long Saturday night in the Big Apple, Remmerswaal oversleeps and misses the team bus to Yankee Stadium.

He jumps into a taxi and tells the driver to take him to the ballpark.

Remmerswall, multilingual much like the Giants Sir Hensley, speaks seven different languages.  However, the cab driver speaks one that even he doesn’t know.  So, there they are trying to communicate in English, a foreign language for both of them.  As they get close to the stadium they end up in this huge traffic jam of people going to the game, and Remmerswaal is getting very anxious and upset.

“What do you want me to do?’’ the driver says. “You should have gone earlier!’’

At long last he arrives at the park but can’t find any of his Red Sox teammates because he’s been taken to Shea Stadium for the Jets NFL game! At least he was in time for that game.   I don’t believe he showed up at Yankee Stadium until about the 4th  or 5th  inning. He did not last much longer with the Red Sox.

Far from the long ago misadventures of Win Remmerswaal, Meulens is a beloved ambassador for baseball in his native Curacao and a citizen in such high standing that he has now been knighted by Queen Beatrix herself for his considerable success in his career and his many contributions to the citizens of his native land.

I mainly just wanted to say “Congratulations Sir Hensley!”


Crawford, Cal and Ozzie

Brandon Crawford’s spectacular play to end Tuesday’s game against the Phillies put me in mind of a Sunday night about ten years ago in Cleveland.

Omar Vizquel was playing for Cleveland. First inning, runner at first, ground ball deep in the hole at short. Omar goes far to his right, backhands the ball and makes one of these jump pivots. He’s in mid-air spinning like he’s in the ballet. And from midair he fires to second just in time to get the runner. I remember thinking, “Wow, it’s been a long time since I’ve seen a play like that.’’

So the other night, it’s a similar situation. Runner at first, ball hit deep in the hole.  The batter is Victorino. Not only a very fast runner but he’s batting left-handed so he gets a step-and-a-half advantage. Crawford goes far to right, makes a spectacular dive and backhands the ball. Ideally you want to get that guy at second with the shorter throw – like the play Omar made in Cleveland. But the runner, Pierre, got a good jump so that wasn’t a clear option. So Crawford – with lightning-quick reflexes — leaps to his feet, snaps the ball hard to first and gets Victorino.

I was astonished. I don’t think you can see a better play than that.

I remember when Cal Ripken made the move from third base to shortstop. It was 1983, my first year in Baltimore broadcasting the Orioles. Mark Belanger had just retired. Belanger was one of the great defensive shortstops of all time. Cal asked the Orioles to bring him into spring camp.

For two weeks Belanger lived at Cal’s condo on Key Biscayne. I asked Cal, “So you want to get all the inside tips from Belanger about how to play the position?’’

“Well, yes,’’ Cal said. “I want to know everything he knows about the position. But what I really want is to grill him on every single hitter in the American League. At the dinner table in the condo every night, I go through every player, and he tells me where he plays those guys and what they’re liable to do with different pitches.’’

Because Belanger had sort of an encyclopedic mind like Cal did.

For Cal, positioning was everything. He wanted to know where batters were likely to hit the ball based on their past performance. So that’s what he was picking Belanger’s brain about. Cal told me he grew up watching Belanger and that it seemed like Belanger never made a dive for a ball. He didn’t have to dive, Cal said because he was already in the right position – the point being that if you have to make a dive to stop a ball, your chances of throwing the runner out are almost nil.

One winter Cal and Ozzie Smith – the best shortstop in the AL and the best in the NL at the time – were on the same All-Star team traveling to Japan. All the players were meeting up in Los Angeles, then flying from there. Cal and Ozzie realized they were both arriving a day early and arranged to meet at Dodger Stadium. They threw batting practice and hit grounders to each other.

Cal hit a ground ball to Ozzie’s left. Then he hit it to his right. Then he hit one hard right at him. Then he’d hit three in a row to his left so Ozzie wouldn’t know which way it was coming. He was running Ozzie through his paces be wanted to see for himself how Ozzie did what he did. He had only seen Ozzie on TV and the occasional All-Star team. He had never had this kind of access to him. And Ozzie was doing the same thing to Cal.

Cal wasn’t Ozzie and never could be. There were other shortstops who could run circles around him or leap right over the top of him. He wasn’t flashy. His game was knowing each hitter’s tendencies and how to position himself based on what pitch was coming next.

Watching Crawford, we’ve seen him do things that take your breath away. At the same time he’s made a lot of errors already. For young shortstops, there are going to be errors because they’re still learning how to play plus the game is faster at the Major League level. Remember, Crawford was only in A ball at the start of last year.

But the ability is clearly there.  Cal and the Wizard are both Hall of Famers, among the best shortstops to ever play the game.  It would be unfair to compare any young shortstop to them.  But we know that Crawford is helping the Giants win with his glove right now.  If he gets the bat going too, then he’s got a chance to be around a long time.”