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From youth to the WBC: Netherlands teammates best of friends

Simmons, Gregorius, Schoop have played together for years
Special to MLB.com

TOKYO -- Years ago, Andruw Jones started a baseball tournament back on his home island of Curacao. Jones was the island's first big Major League star, and he wanted to do something for the baseball-playing kids trying to follow him.

There was a chance to play, but there was also a reward. The winning team would get a trip to Atlanta, courtesy of Jones, and a chance to watch him play in person for the Braves.

TOKYO -- Years ago, Andruw Jones started a baseball tournament back on his home island of Curacao. Jones was the island's first big Major League star, and he wanted to do something for the baseball-playing kids trying to follow him.

There was a chance to play, but there was also a reward. The winning team would get a trip to Atlanta, courtesy of Jones, and a chance to watch him play in person for the Braves.

The first year he did it, Andrelton Simmons and Didi Gregorius played for the winning team. The next year, Jonathan Schoop's team won.

:: 2017 World Baseball Classic ::

"That was the best," said Schoop, who was about 10 years old at the time.

That was good, but this is the best: Simmons, Gregorius and Schoop playing together on the same Netherlands team, playing in another tournament where the reward is a trip to a Major League ballpark.

The tournament is the World Baseball Classic, and the reward the Dutch team seeks in the second round that begins Sunday is a trip to Dodger Stadium for the semifinals. The Netherlands will open the second round at 6 a.m. ET with a game against host Japan, after Cuba plays Israel (Saturday night, 10 p.m. ET).

Other teams play in the World Baseball Classic for national pride, and other teams have players who are close. But no team can match the Netherlands, where a team workout can feel like a grade school reunion.

"You want to be a fly on the wall when they're talking," manager Hensley Meulens said.

They could be talking about anything, and the group could also include Jurickson Profar and Xander Bogaerts. All are from Curacao except for Bogaerts, who grew up on the neighboring island of Aruba and gets kidded about it regularly.

They've all known each other since they were five or six years old. Profar, who just turned 24, is the youngest. Gregorius, who just turned 27, is the oldest.

They faced each other in Little League, and played together on island All-Star teams. Profar and Schoop played on the Curacao team that won the 2004 Little League World Series. Simmons and Gregorius played on the same youth basketball team.

"I was better at basketball," Gregorius said. "But he was better at soccer."

And baseball?

"We're all good," Gregorius said.

Video: NED@ISR: Profar goes 3-for-3 with a double vs. Israel

They all are good, and they've all played shortstop. The Angels' Simmons started at short in the Netherlands' first two first-round games, with Meulens explaining, "I don't think there's a better shortstop in the world than this guy."

Schoop plays second base, as he does for the Orioles. Bogaerts, the starting shortstop for the Red Sox, plays third base for the Netherlands. Gregorius, the starting shortstop for the Yankees, was the designated hitter for the first two games and played shortstop in the other game.

Profar plays center field, as he often will for the Rangers.

Offensively, they occupy five of the first six spots in Meulens' lineup (joined by Wladimir Balentien, who played in the Major Leagues with the Mariners and Reds and now stars for Japan's Tokyo Yakult Swallows).

They didn't dream of this as kids, because when they first met the World Baseball Classic hadn't been played yet. They did dream of playing in the Major Leagues, and now all of them do. Bogaerts, Gregorius and Schoop see each other regularly in the American League East.

They all see each other regularly in the winter, where they maintain offseason residences back in the islands.

"Me and Profar live five minutes apart," Schoop said. "Didi is 15 minutes away. Simmons is five minutes away. Even Bogaerts is just a 30-minute flight."

They work out together almost daily when they're home, and if they're not playing baseball they're getting together to play dominos or video games. They do the same things now, halfway around the world, getting ready to play for a chance to rule the world.

Curacao and Aruba are both what the Dutch call constituent countries of the Kingdom of the Netherlands, and they compete together with players from the home nation in international play. The Netherlands team was a surprise semifinalist in the 2013 World Baseball Classic, with Bogaerts, Schoop and Simmons playing for the team and Profar joining up for the semifinal.

Back then, none of them had yet played a full season in the Majors. Now they return with the experience of that tournament, and they come back as big league stars fully believing they can win.

And why not?

The Curacao kids have played together for years, and they've won together for years. They remind Bogaerts that they always beat Aruba, and they remind each other of every past victory or defeat.

They even talk about those January tournaments, the ones Jones sponsored for more than a decade.

"I won it," Schoop said.

"Jonathan may have won it the second year," Simmons said. "But me and Didi won it the first year."

They remember everything. They'll kid each other about anything. But they'll come together on the Tokyo Dome field as brothers, kids from the neighborhood going out and looking to rule the world.

They might just do it.

The World Baseball Classic runs through March 22. In the U.S., games air live exclusively in English on MLB Network and on an authenticated basis via MLBNetwork.com/watch, while ESPN Deportes and WatchESPN provide the exclusive Spanish-language coverage. MLB.TV Premium subscribers in the U.S. have access to watch every tournament game live on any of the streaming service's 400-plus supported devices. The tournament is being distributed internationally across all forms of television, internet, mobile and radio in territories excluding the U.S., Puerto Rico and Japan. Get tickets for games at Marlins Park, Tokyo Dome, Estadio Charros de Jalisco in Mexico, Petco Park, as well as the Championship Round at Dodger Stadium, while complete coverage -- including schedules, video, stats and gear -- is available at WorldBaseballClassic.com.

Danny Knobler is a contributor to MLB.com.

Kingdom of the Netherlands