On island, Jones is rock

Little Leaguers in Curacao look to Braves center fielder as model

September 19, 2005|By Dan Connolly | Dan Connolly,Sun reporter

One by one, members of the Pabao Little League of Willemstad, Curacao, named their favorite baseball player for the TV broadcast of the 2005 Little League World Series in Williamsport, Pa.

"Andruw Jones."

"Andruw Jones."

"Andruw Jones."

There was no deviation. No Roger Clemens or Alex Rodriguez thrown in for good measure.

"Everybody said him," Atlanta Braves outfielder Brian Jordan said with a laugh. "But he does a lot for Curacao and the Little League there, so they have a good role model and it is good to see. He put them on the map."

When you're a ballplayer from Curacao, the tiny Caribbean island of about 219,000 in the Netherlands Antilles, just north of Venezuela, there's only one name to consider: Jones, the 28-year-old Atlanta Braves All-Star center fielder and Curacao native.

"Andruw is a role model for them," said Michelangelo Celestina, a coach of the Pabao team that lost 7-6 to West Oahu, Hawaii, in last month's championship game. "Everybody wants to be like Andruw, and they play baseball to be like Andruw."

Jones is one of five Curacao natives to make the majors. The first was Hensley "Bam-Bam" Meulens, a third baseman who made his debut with the New York Yankees in 1989 and spent seven forgettable seasons in the big leagues.

The others include Ivanon Coffie, who played in 23 games with the Orioles in 2000, and Randall Simon, a seven-season veteran who is best known for once bopping the Italian sausage with a baseball bat during the costumed sausage races at Milwaukee's Miller Park.

When it comes to sports heroes in Curacao, Jones is on his own island.

"He should be. There are only a few guys who made it to this level [from Curacao], and he's head and shoulders above those other guys," said Atlanta outfielder Kelly Johnson. "Plus, he gives back. He is always asking us for extra batting gloves and old shoes and things like that. He's always sending things over there and he tries to do what he can for the kids."

Each January, a Little League tournament is held in Curacao with at least 10 teams participating. This year, Jones donated catching gear for all of the teams involved and bats and batting gloves for all of the players.

"The team he grew up in had nothing, so he wanted to make a mark for the teams he played for," Celestina said.

His mark also is evident in the quantity and quality of Curacao baseball. Celestina said the number of Little Leaguers has "at least tripled" since Jones rose to prominence with two homers as a rookie in the 1996 World Series.

And with the increased participants has come a world of success. A team representing Curacao has made it to the Little League international final (overall semifinals) each of the past five years, and into the championship the past two. Pabao's 2004 title was the first time a Caribbean team had ever won the Little League World Series.

Jones gets an assist for unintentionally improving the sport's profile on the island.

"Everybody played baseball, but it's not like it was a very big thing for people," Celestina said. "It became more when he signed with the Braves and played [in] the big leagues for the first time."

dan.connolly@baltsun.com

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