(I’m going to use this space to post unpublished stories that I wrote during my time in Curacao. Here is a story I did last year after the San Francisco Giants won the World Series last year. I had a chance to interview Hensley Meulens, who is the Curacao-born batting coach for the squad. I wanted to find out about how Curacao manages to consistently produce top-ranked baseball talent despite its small size and limited resources. Enjoy!)
A Caribbean Country of Champions
With the beginning of the Major League post season underway, the Little League season in he Caribbean island of Curacao has just begun. With every year, more and more young boys in Curacao sign up to play for local baseball teams, hoping to become the next baseball sensation to play for the Major Leagues in the United States.
Many wonder how Curacao, the former capital of the Netherlands Antilles, known mostly for its beautiful beaches and historic Dutch architecture, has come to produce a number of talented baseball players for the Major Leagues. The small island with a population of 140,000 has produced around 12 players for the Major leagues and around 50 players in the minor leagues. Current players active in the leagues include Andruw Jones, outfielder for the New York Yankees, Roger Bernardina, outfielder for the Washington Nationals, Andrelton Simmons, shortstop for the Atlanta Braves ,and Jair Jurrgens, starting pitcher for the Atlanta Braves. The Texas Rangers signed nineteen-year-old shortstop Jurickson Profar in 2009 and called him up to the roster in August of this year, making him the youngest player currently in the major leagues. Many local coaches credit Curacao’s wins in regional Caribbean championships and Little League tournaments with helping to capture the attention of American scouts. Curacao’s Pabao team from the capital city of Willemstad won the 2004 Little League World Series and were runners-up in 2005.
Hensley Muelens, batting coach for the San Francisco Giants, returned to his home country of Curacao on Tuesday greeted by cheering family and friends two weeks after the Giants won the title of World Series Champions. Muelens is one of the small Caribbean island’s biggest sports stars, as he is the first player to have been drafted to Major League Baseball, making his debut with the New York Yankees in 1989. Muelens is the first Curacaoan to become a major league coach, signing with the San Francisco Giants in 2010 as a hitting coach where he earned his first World Series Title. “Curacao is home for me,” Muelens said. I was born and raised here, I left when I was 18, but I always come back here after a long season to spend time with my family and friends.“ Muelens made a brief stop on his way to Venezuela to manage the Margarita Bravos. Former Prime Minister Geritt Schotte congratulated Muelens on his second World Series Title, calling Muelens, “Curacao’s national hero.” Hensley has been named as the manager for the team of the Kingdom of Netherlands for the World Baseball Classic in March 2013. He will coach several players from Curacao and Aruba.
Baseball is arguably the most popular sport in Curacao. There are about 30 youth leagues on the island, with boys as young as five years old joining T-ball teams. Willemstad. Muelens started a youth baseball team after his retirement from playing in the major leagues. “Kids have started to look up to the Curacao players who are making it into the big leagues. More and more families are signing their kids up to play baseball. They used to look up to me, but since I stopped playing you have kids who want to be like Andruw Jones and Jair Jurrgens.” Hensley, who estimates there are 4,000 kids who play in Curacao’s little league teams, runs clinics for promising talent with other MLB players every January. “We have raw talent here in Curacao. Our kids are big, they can run, they can throw hard, and they have a lot of power. Curacao is interesting for major league scouts.” Ryan Hollander, 37, a local sports reporter, says, “The good thing for Curacao from a scout’s perspective is that we had major league players from the island that all had good years. Four teams with guys from Curacao made it into the playoffs so that looks good for the island.”
Randel Muelens, Hensley’s younger brother, is the head coach for the youth team that his brother started comprised of boys ages seven to nine years old. Lacking state of -the-art training facilities, youth leagues often practice and compete on fields without grass. Randel credits the way that youth players are coached. “We say here in Curacao that our kids here ‘train on the rocks,’ Randel said. “When you can field here on our fields, you can field anywhere in the world.” Randel, who works as a field consultant for a local cable company, coaches the youth team twice a week in the evenings. “I think that Curacao’s secret is that we are very, very strict with our kids. We learn our techniques from the United States, and we train our boys in the proper technique from a very young age.”
Good weather all year round may contribute to the success of Curacaoan baseball players. With an average daily temperature of about 80 degrees, youth teams on the island can practice more and play more games than many of the teams that they compete against from other countries.
When asked whether the Curacao government contributes to the success of baseball on the island, Hensley said that there is not enough money in the national budget to adequately support baseball development on the island. Parents and coaches often hold fundraisers to help send their children to training camps. “The success of the kids who play baseball on the island is really due to the local communities and local coaches.” Hollander said. “We are missing a lot of investment from the government. Most of these coaches take time after their day jobs every week to help train these kids, and the families are really supportive.” Local companies help to sponsor the teams, donating uniforms and equipment. The MLB Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) donates equipment and sponsors tournaments in Curacao. While sports participation is largely confined to middle-class families, Hensley has set up programs to help children from low income areas have access to playing baseball.
Current and former Curacoan major leagues often return to the island to set up training camps and academies. Kenley Jansen, pitcher for the Los Angeles Dodgers, set up a foundation, KJ-74 to encourage more youth to participate in sports.
A Dutch investment group Sitching Willem 4 has proposed a 160 million Euro Baseball Complex Curacao, for the “development and placement of high performance talent” for players from the Caribbean and Latin America but plans to move forward have slowed due to political concerns.
When it comes to coaching, Randel says he can already see very promising talent in some of the young boys he coaches. At a evening practice with his little league team, he points to one of the taller boys in the group, practicing his swing. “See, there, he’s got talent. Everything comes naturally to him already at this age. Many parents dream of having their child play in the major leagues, but we encourage the boys to be good people first, Randel said. “We want them to do well in school. And what is most important is that the kids have fun.”