Baseball's distinctly Dutch touch

Sun Journal

Stadium: Europe's biggest ball field -- expandable to 6,000 seats -- has opened in Rotterdam. And though it's patterned after U.S. parks, it offers some surprising twists.

July 09, 1999|By John Miller | John Miller,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

ROTTERDAM -- Bill Arce is smiling. Six thousand Dutch baseball fans are on their feet, as Holland's ace, Orlando Stewart, enters the game to protect a 3-2 advantage against Cuba.

It is the rubber game of the Gold Medal Series of the annual World Port Tournament.

"This is just like America, isn't it?" he says. As director of International Sports Group, Arce, 73, has spent much of his life promoting baseball overseas. Big events like this one are his reason for living.

Stewart retires the side in order, and the crowd roars. But fans leave amid a hint of melancholy: Honkbal Week -- "honk" is "base" in Dutch -- is over.

"The Dutch only see real baseball once a year," says tournament organizer Gerard Vandraager. "And that's during Baseball Week."

This year's tournament marked the opening of the Familiestadion, a $5 million baseball-only facility. With 2,500 permanent seats -- expandable to 6,000 for Baseball Week -- it is the largest baseball stadium in Europe.

It is patterned after American minor-league ballparks, with a few twists. The foul poles are long neon lights. The roof is alloyed metal; no need for the artificial "clank" sound effect now popular in many U.S. ballparks.

"This is all Dutch," says Franz Vanhaalen, vice president of Neptunus, the club that owns the stadium. "Baseball's role is different in Holland. Our club is as much a social network as a baseball team. After the game, families and businessmen go to the clubhouse to relax and talk. So we had to build the stadium with that in mind."

A small group of addicts

Rotterdam alternates with Haarlem as host city for the weeklong World Port Tournament. National teams from the Netherlands, Taiwan and Cuba competed, along with Sullivan's, an all-star team of U.S. college players sponsored by Bob Sullivan, a multimillionaire furniture and carpet salesman from Grand Rapids, Mich. A Baltimore amateur team, Corrigan's, has participated in the past.

The Familiestadion lies just north of Rotterdam's prodigious expanse of harbor and factories, in the working-class neighborhood of Blijdorp. The crowd is not local. The community of Dutch baseball addicts is small and scattered.

More than 50 of them have moved into a municipal campground across the street from the new stadium. An alcohol-enhanced rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame" drifts out over the midnight campfires.

The lead singer is Jeroen Rekveld, 27, a 300-pound cookie-factory worker from Haarlem. He wears an enormous buffoon's cap and clutches a Heineken. During games, Rekveld leads his section in a mix of Dutch folk songs, American baseball cheers and raucous chanting.

"I love baseball," he says. "Just love it. That's all I care about."

Wiebe "Flapjack" Pannekoeke, the tournament's press agent, is a more restrained nut. "In 1971, I stopped smoking for a year so I could afford a trip to the States to see the World Series."

Rekveld and Pannekoeke are atypical. "We Dutch know absolutely nothing about baseball," says Marcel Rozer, a reporter with the 300,000-circulation TV magazine VPRO. "We prefer soccer and cycling." Only Baseball Week is covered in the media.

Baseball was introduced to the Netherlands in 1908 by Jan Grase, a gym teacher. The national federation was chartered in 1922. There are 200 Dutch baseball clubs with 26,000 members. The "major" league consists of 10 teams playing 45-game schedules. The top four clubs play off to determine the national champion.

The best players are semiprofessional, receiving expenses, amenities and sometimes a small salary. Only a few are recognized outside their sport. All have other jobs. Most Dutch stars are immigrants from former colonies -- the Antilles, Aruba and Curacao.

A few talented Dutch players have played American college or pro ball. The Dutch national team carries eight former pros, including two ex-major leaguers, Robert Eenhorn and Rikkard Faneyte.

Only one American is allowed per team. "Otherwise," Vanhaalen says, "the Dutch will never learn how to play the important positions. Since that rule, the national team has become much better. We make an exception if the player works here."

This year's tournament was the biggest ever. A record 50,000 tickets were sold, and the standard of play was high. After Chung-Nan Tsai, 20, a Taiwanese pitcher, outduels Holland's veteran stopper, Stewart, 2-1, in 11 innings, the Dutch shortstop Eenhorn, who played 38 games for the New York Yankees, calls it "one of the best-pitched games I've ever seen."

Taiwan's college kids -- the island's best players are locked up in pro ball -- flash the week's best pitching and defense, but poor hitting limits them to a losing record.

The Cuban squad is not the "dream team" that defeated the Baltimore Orioles on May 3. That team usually plays at Baseball Week but was dispatched this year to the Pan-American Games in Winnipeg, Manitoba, Canada.

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