Meulens meets pressure with smile

April 21, 1991|By Harvey Araton | Harvey Araton,New York Times News Service

NEW YORK -- Left field at Yankee Stadium does not frighten Hensley Meulens. No, sir. You say it's a tough sun field, he'll say he will wear sun- glasses. You say it's a vast territory to cover, he'll say he will run faster.

The big bad New York media are nothing to fear, he also believes. Even the meanest, nastiest critics can be disarmed by a story delivered with a smile. He likes to talk. Writers like to write. Bring 'em on.

The New York fans? Funny we should ask. He relates well to fans. He once invited a group from Prince William, Va., in A ball to visit him at home in Curacao. He showed them around. This way to the hotel. That way to the beach. Come on down.

What about the worst potential hazard he is now going to face day to day, those Mike Boddicker-type nightmare curve balls that have been known to separate mind from body and Triple A boys from major-league men? Meulens smiled, shook his head, spread his hands apart, palms upturned.

"You strike out, you have a bad day, you turn the page, man," he says. "Tomorrow is another day."

The most highly touted "Yankee of Tomorrow" of recent years is finally here.

Kevin Maas arrived almost unannounced last season and began hitting home runs. Two years ago, Roberto Kelly exceeded expectations, claimed center field and is on the verge of becoming a star.

Desperate for the youth movement they say they are embracing, the Yankees have been waiting for Meulens, at times counting on him, since he hit 28 home runs and knocked in 104 runs in A ball as a 20-year-old.

Youth movements are easy when youths cooperate as Maas did, with a home run every 12.1 times at bat. But a player's commitment is tested only when progress is slower, when the three-strikeout game occurs more than once a week. Left field, ++ for now, belongs to Meulens, as long as he hits for power and drives in runs.

After playing in five of the Yankees' first seven games, he was batting .263 with no home runs and three RBI. "I'm strong mentally," he says. "I keep on going. I think I belong here. No, I know I belong."

He has come with the sunny disposition of a man from an island paradise. He is the product of a middle-class environment, the son of a retired Shell Oil refinery operator. He speaks four languages fluently, including his native Papiamento, a mixture of English, Spanish, Dutch, French and Portuguese.

Meulens saw little poverty in Curacao, a Netherlands Antilles hideaway in the Caribbean with a population of 165,000. There are no buildings in the island center, Willemstad, as tall as his apartment complex in Hackensack, N.J. On a hill from the middle of the peanut-shaped island, you can look down a mile in either direction at rolling waves.

Looking skyward from his left-field station, he doesn't see the cloud of negativism and fear that often seems to cover New York. The television images of people suffering on broken streets seem as distant as they do back home.

"I just say, 'Wow.' I've never seen anything like it," he says. "I'm just thankful to have grown up where I did."

A typical summer day in the life of Meulens might have consisted of a morning ball game, a soccer match and volleyball in the afternoon and some softball at night.

To protect his right-handed baseball swing, he would hit the larger ball left-handed. He would still hit them far. That's when they started calling him Bam Bam.

He grew up hating the Yankees because they turned away his beloved Dodgers of Steve Garvey and Dusty Baker in the 1977 and 1978 World Series.

"In Curacao, everyone has always been a Yankee fan or a Dodger fan," he says. There are more Yankee fans now, including Prime Minister Maria Leberia Peters, who greeted Meulens at the airport when he returned to Curacao following last season and escorted him home.

"You're looking at him," Meulens said when asked who the most famous athlete from Curacao is. It doesn't sound like a boast, just a fact. He is the first of his countrymen to make the major

leagues, and he plans to stay, to shine like the sun over Curacao.

Pressure? He says he feels none. "Tranquillo" -- cool-- is the word in Papiamento he would choose to best describe himself.

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