Dutch trailblazers Meulens, Jones hand baton to younger generation

by Jason Coskrey

Staff Writer

Hensley “Bam-Bam” Meulens was the first native of Curacao to make it to the major leagues. He played for the New York Yankees from 1989-1993, and spent the next three years in Japan before joining the Montreal Expos in 1997 and the Arizona Diamondbacks, the final stop of his MLB career, in 1998.

Since Meulens’ debut, 12 players from the small island in the Caribbean Sea have suited up in the majors. Each has had a role in cultivating the baseball culture on the talent-rich island, probably none more so than Andruw Jones.

Jones is easily the most well-known player from Curacao, a constituent country of the Netherlands, and his influence will be hard to miss Monday, when he leads the Netherlands, a team with a number of players who grew up idolizing him, against the Dominican Republic in the semifinals of the 2013 World Baseball Classic.

“I’m just proud of them,” Jones said of the teammates on Sunday. “I’m proud of all those guys. We managed to get together and make things happen. I know all the guys that say those good things, they’re probably growing up watching me play and wanted to be on the same stage that I am.

“But everything started with Hensley Meulens (currently serving as the Netherlands’ manager) and getting a chance to open the door for a lot of opportunities for guys from Curacao.”

Jones was one of the players who walked through the door Meulens opened. He made his MLB debut for the Atlanta Braves on Aug. 15, 1996, and went on to play for 17 years with the Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers, Chicago White Sox and Yankees. The 35-year old will suit up in NPB for the Pacific League’s Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles this season.

Jones has hit 434 home runs and accounted for 1,289 RBIs during his MLB career, also recording a .823 career on-base plus slugging percentage. He was a five-time All-Star, and may have been one of the best defensive center fielders to play the game during his prime, winning Gold Gloves each year from 1998-2007.

“Now that the door is open, a lot of guys are coming out from Curacao, and I’m really surprised at how many guys that there are in the minor leagues who are (coming up) to be stars in the major leagues,” Jones said. “So I’m really proud. I think baseball has been big down in Curacao for a long, long time. Even when my dad played, they used to beat Cuba, used to beat Dominican Republic, all these teams, in the Pan American Games.”

Jones has taken up a leadership role, alongside fellow veterans Wladimir Balentien, Yurdenall De Caster (who left after the second round with an injury) and Roger Bernadina, on a team that features a number of young MLB prospects.

“All those guys look up to us, and that motivates them,” Balentien said. “Today you can look around on our team, we have a lot of prospects. Having those guys means baseball is growing for us and for our island. Us having success over here, it’s making those guys more hungry and motivated.”

Meulens said Jones was one of the driving forces behind bringing the team together and has been mostly leading by example.

“I’ve been telling you guys all along, his maturity has really shown up in this tournament,” Meulens said. “He’s taken guys under his wing. He’s shown leadership on and off the field. I think first and foremost it’s the way he’s played. He’s played with a lot of heart and determination, and he’s leading by example on the field. And it’s easier to have guys follow you when you do that. When you’re a star and you perform on the field, it’s easier to get guys to believe what you’re saying.”

Jones’ performance will likely resonate far beyond whatever happens on the field against the Dominicans. With rising stars such as Jurickson Profar, the No. 1 prospect in all of baseball, Andrelton Simmons, Jonathan Schoop, and Xander Bogaerts all following his lead, Jones is preparing to pass the torch to younger players, who will in turn keep the flame burning. Just as Meulens did for Jones’ generation.

“He had a lot of influence,” Profar said. “We all grew up watching him play. Every player. He was the only one there when I grew up. So everyone was watching him and everyone wanted to be like him.”

Hearing that, Meulens couldn’t resist chiming in.

“What do you mean, you never watched me play?” he asked, drawing laughter.

“Too old, man,” Profar responded.

Defeated, Meulens could only shake his head and smile.

“I’m too old,” he said.