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Tight-knit Curacao crushing RBI World Series

Team outscored opponents by a combined 13 runs in first three games
MLB.com

MINNEAPOLIS -- Christopher Koeiman quickly looked around the dugout and began pointing at every Curacao teammate as he tried to list the group of players that he grew up playing baseball with.

"This one, this one, this one. … All of them," Koeiman says. "We've all been playing together since we were really little."

MINNEAPOLIS -- Christopher Koeiman quickly looked around the dugout and began pointing at every Curacao teammate as he tried to list the group of players that he grew up playing baseball with.

"This one, this one, this one. … All of them," Koeiman says. "We've all been playing together since we were really little."

Koeiman and his Curacao RBI teammates have been playing travel ball together for years -- some of them since they were as young as 8 years old -- and five of them played together in the Little League World Series in 2012. This week, they will be presented with a whole new challenge in Minneapolis, as they are the first team from Curacao to ever qualify for the Reviving Baseball in Inner Cities (RBI) World Series.

If the task of representing their country is any sort of burden for a group of players who range from 16 to 18 years old, it hasn't shown yet. Curacao is 3-0 in its first three games and has outscored its opponents by 13 runs while playing with as much outward joy as any team in the tournament.

"Of course there's pressure," Curacao first baseman Darwin Gregg says with a smile. "We came here to make history."

But much of that pressure is alleviated by Curacao's head coach, Carlos Pineda, who knows firsthand the expectations which come during a big-time international tournament. Pineda was one of the key players on Curacao's 2004 Little League World Series squad and helped the country capture its first and only title in tournament history.

Pineda threw five dominant innings and earned the win in the championship game, and still stays in touch with many of his teammates from the tournament, including current Major Leaguers Jonathan Schoop and Jurickson Profar.

Pineda had ambitions of going on to play professional baseball as well, and played college ball in the U.S. at Luther College. But when he realized that a big league career wasn't in the cards, he immediately knew that he wanted to help other kids from Curacao chase their own dreams.

"If I couldn't make it, then I wanted to help somebody else make it," Pineda said.

Pineda has been coaching with Curacao since 2015, and is able to relate to his players in a way that almost nobody else could. He knows what it's like to travel 2,700 miles from home with the expectations of winning piled on top of him.

"I've gotten to know each of these guys," Pineda said. "Because, you know, there's 15 guys, 15 different personalities and you've got to know them. I've learned how to do that and I know how to break it down for everybody and how to make it cool and fun. … I always try to talk to them. If they are a little tight, you make a joke or start dancing in the dugout. I try to loosen them up throughout the game."

Following an 8-0 win over Jackie Robinson RBI at Siebert Field on Tuesday, Curacao's players knelt in a circle with their arms around each other and prayed as a team, then immediately dispatched to the dugout to start cleaning. While Pineda does everything he can to help players relax during games, he demands that afterward, they return the dugout to the state in which they found it.

"Discipline is everything, you know?" Pineda said. "If you don't have discipline, there's no need to play baseball because you're going to crash at some point."

With this crop of players, that hasn't been a problem. During the school year, Curacao's players partake in a school schedule that is based off the Dutch public education system. After the age of 12, they begin five years of "secondary" school, during which every player on the team has become fluent in four different languages: Dutch, Papiamento, English and Spanish.

Tweet from @MLBRBI: FOUR languages? Now that's just showing off.Team Cura��ao at RBI World Regional in Vero Beach, Fla. pic.twitter.com/hCY2ta8UVv

Pineda knows that Wednesday's "workout day" -- where players will have the chance to go through drills and showcase their talents for pro and college scouts -- could be critical for a handful of his players. He might be the only one who is anxious, though.

"Our thing is, we work like a team," Gregg said. "We don't care about getting signed or any of that. If we get signed, that's fine. But we like to win. We like to compete as a team and have fun. That's the priority of the game -- we've got to have fun."

Jarrid Denney is a reporter for MLB.com based in Minneapolis.