For a tiny nation of roughly 150,000 citizens in the Caribbean Sea, Curaçao makes a huge impression on the Major League landscape.
Fifteen Curaçao natives have played in the Major Leagues, according to Baseball-Reference, making for a rate of roughly one per every 10,000 residents that far surpasses the yield of any other country in the world. Curaçao boasts current Major League stars, including Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies, Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons, Tigers second baseman Jonathan Schoop, Padres infielder Jurickson Profar and Phillies shortstop Didi Gregorius (who moved to the island when he was 5 years old).
Those stars’ stories are told in the new MLB.com video production “A Small Island.”
“Everyone knows each other,” Albies said in the video of Curaçao. “That’s why I always come back and say, ‘Thank you.’”
A film crew takes you to Curaçao, an island that used to be part of the Netherlands Antilles and features a land mass of just 171 square miles off the northern coast of South America. Dominicans and Venezuelans use Curaçao as a midpoint for business and play soccer there in their leisure time. The country wasn’t originally seen as a baseball hotbed until current Mets bench coach Hensley Meulens, Curaçao’s first Major League player, turned heads in a tryout for scouts.
“When I turned 16, that’s when I focused just on baseball, because I was getting a lot of attention from Major League teams,” said Meulens, who didn’t pick up a bat until he was 9. “I was hitting some bombs, and they were like, ‘Wow this guy is like Bam Bam from the Flinstones.’”
A nickname was born.
“Most people don’t know my first name,” said Meulens. “Everybody calls me Bam Bam.”
Meulens had to convince his parents – and his school principal -- to sign with the Yankees, and three and a half years later, he took the field at Yankee Stadium. And that’s when the gates opened for Curaçao baseball players.
“I think I was more nervous than Hensley was,” said Orlando Nicolina, an outfielder for the Netherlands Antilles national team. “His first hit was to center field, and I was crazy. I had to swipe the tears off my cheek. Nobody thought it was even possible, but after so many years of hoping and trying, Hensley made it.”
Outfielder Andruw Jones soon followed in Meulens’ footsteps, becoming a superstar for the Atlanta Braves as he made five All-Star teams and collected 10 Gold Glove Awards as one of the greatest center-field defenders in history. Curaçao’s next baseball stars were watching his every move.
“I was watching on TV with my grandfather,” said Albies, “and after that, I started playing. That’s when I really looked up to Andruw Jones.”
Jones’ success inspired a generation of Curaçao kids to take up baseball. Just eight years after Jones starred in the 1996 World Series at the age of 19, a team from Willemstead, Curaçao -- which included Profar and Schoop on its roster -- won the Little League World Series.
Profar and a handful of his compatriots like Albies, Simmons and Gregorius are giving Curaçao a reputation for being an infielder factory these days -- a reputation that didn’t come easily. Many diamonds in Curaçao are still littered with rocks that can create the most unpredictable bounces.
“Balls have hit me in the forehead, in the eye, in the mouth,” said Albies, “but I never gave up. I knew that if I do it here, it’s going to be way easier for myself and I’ll have good success with it.”
Now, after so much success that at first glance would have appeared unlikely from a nation so small, Curaçao’s stars are turning their attention to giving back to the fields where it all began. Meulens has held youth baseball clinics on the island for three decades now, and you can be sure the country’s current stars come back to attend.
“My obligation was to give back to the community where you grew up,” said Meulens. “All of our guys are proud of where they’re from.”