Life

Holland's Hero Hurler Hails from White Rock

Meet Leon Boyd, star of the World Baseball Classic.

By Tom Hawthorn, 27 Mar 2009, TheTyee.ca

Leon Boyd

Boyd pitches in Dutch league; his bi-national tattoo.

The Netherlands is so low a country even the few pitching mounds count as hills.

Baseball is not a national pastime among the Dutch, who prefer soccer and the mixed-gender Euro wackiness of korfball. The summer game has struggled to find an audience ever since an English teacher returning from holidays in the United States introduced the sport shortly before the outbreak of the First World War.

Baseball never quite disappeared. A handful of die-hards continued playing even during the Nazi occupation. The game grew fitfully in the post-war years. The first Dutch baseball star was the pitcher Rik Aalbert Blyleven, who was born in Zeist and moved to California with his family at age six. Bert Blyleven won a major league game before he turned 20, retiring at 41 with 287 victories.

In the recent World Baseball Classic, he worked as pitching coach for the Dutch national team. His star pupil was Leon Boyd, a lean hurler whose 6-foot-5 frame makes him a towering presence atop the mound. Boyd's pitching motion is a wonder. He shoves his right pitching hand into his left gloved hand, lifting his left leg as both hands brush against his right ear. As he stretches forward, the right arm drops below his waist until the knuckles nearly scrape the dirt.

When throwing a baseball, Boyd looks like a man in a hurry picking up a penny without breaking stride.

In baseball parlance, Boyd is a submariner, which is appropriate for a thrower employed in a land at and even below sea level.

Boyd has spent a couple of summers playing for the Neptunus team in the Dutch professional league. He walks the three blocks from his Rotterdam home to the ballpark when he is scheduled to start home games.

That he was named to the Dutch national team was an accomplishment for someone born in Vancouver and raised in White Rock.

In Canada, he was regarded as a pretty ordinary ballplayer, but in the Netherlands he was a star honkballer.

I owe it to Mom

The route from the Lower Mainland to the Low Countries was made possible by his mother's heritage. Wilma van Zandvliet was born to a family whose name is associated with soccer. Her grandfather built the giant Feyenoord stadium in Rotterdam during the Depression. She was working as an administrator for an English-language school when she met Sean Boyd, a hockey player from Nova Scotia moonlighting as an instructor when not scoring goals in a Dutch pro league.

The couple married, soon after moving to Canada. They raised a daughter and a son, who did not share his father's interest in hockey. Instead, he loved baseball, at 14 convincing his father to take him to Seattle to watch Pedro Martinez pitch against the Mariners.

Young Boyd pitched for the White Rock Tritons as a teenager. Like all elite youth players, he dreamed of making the major leagues. The father taught him the importance of accuracy and the art of setting up pitches.

When the scouts came along, they noted the skinny kid with good control but an ordinary fastball. They took a pass.

Baseball drafts 1,500 amateur players every year. Teams even do favours for coaches and front-office staff by choosing distant relatives in the late rounds. (One of those courtesy picks, Mike Piazza, selected 1,390th overall by the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1988 draft, became an all-star.) Leon Boyd did not get a sniff.

Instead, he pitched for such small American colleges as Oregon's Treasure Valley (Go Chukars!) before pursuing a professional sports career in Europe, like his father before him. He played for a Belgian team for a season until a Dutch coach learned of his background and promised him a spot on the national team. Dutch baseball provided a comfortable income of about $5,000 per month.

At the Dutch camp, Blyleven brought in Kent Tekulve, a former teammate with the Pittsburgh Pirates who happened to also throw with an unorthodox motion. Tekulve looked like a stick insect in coloured aviator glasses back when he saved three games in helping the Pirates win the 1979 World Series. The two submariners talked about such esoterica as where the front foot should land when throwing.

Dutch were assumed doomed

In the draw for the World Baseball Classic, the Dutch wound up in a bracket with Panama, the Dominican Republic, and Puerto Rico, where the games would be played. You can guess who was expected to finish in last place.

A large crowd of Dominican fans showed up for the opening game in anticipation of a slaughter. The Dominican lineup featured major league all-stars, including the intimidating slugger David (Big Papi) Ortiz and a pitcher named Pedro. The Dutch were a collection of unknowns, other than a couple of cup-of-coffee guys and some promising prospects from the Netherlands Antilles, a Caribbean baseball hotbed. Most of the players held full-time jobs away from baseball. One was a salesman, another a courthouse bailiff.

In the first inning, the Dominicans committed errors, allowing the Dutch to score three runs. The underdogs were nursing a 3-2 lead when Boyd was called on in the ninth inning. He struck out Jose Bautista to cement the victory and notch a save of his own.

The Dutch celebrated like they had won the World Series.

The victory wasn't David beating Goliath as much as David's little brother beating Goliath.

Boyd got a bonus a couple of days after the game. He bumped into his boyhood pitching hero, who had watched on television when a poor Boyd pitch lost the Dutch a game against the host Puerto Ricans. Without an introduction, Martinez started talking about the pitch. Boyd thought to himself, Cool. He knows who I am.

A few days later, the Dutch again faced the Dominicans, loser to be eliminated. The game was scoreless into extra innings. Once again, Boyd was called on. The Dominicans scored a run when the Dutch right-fielder misplayed a sinking line drive.

Blyleven came out to the mound to talk to Boyd.

"Don't worry about it," he advised the pitcher. "Just focus on the next batter."

Blyleven suggested pounding him with fastballs low and away. He also promised that the Dutch hitters would get the run back in the bottom of the inning.

"I believed him," said Boyd, who promptly got an out to end the inning.

Helped by the ghost of Buckner

What happened next was the kind of improbable comeback that makes you believe in tooth fairies and Hollywood endings. The Dutch got some base runners, and a nervous Dominican pitcher threw the ball away on a pickoff attempt. Then, the first baseman bumbled a grounder (shades of Bill Buckner) as the winning run scored, unleashing an orange tide as jubilant players spilled from the Dutch dugout. Boyd went in those few moments from a loser to a winner.

The Dutch never won another game. After the tournament ended, the Dutch team passed on to Boyd a note that he said made his heart stop.

Reached by telephone, Boyd sounded like a man who had won a jackpot. That's surprising considering he had just decided to take a two-thirds pay cut.

Boyd is living in temporary quarters in Florida, where he is attending a spring-training camp.

Last week, he signed a contract for $1,500 US per month. He couldn't be happier.

"It's a risk I have to take," he said from his room in Dunedin, Florida. "It's something I have to do."

After being ignored for so many seasons, after having gone undrafted, after pitching for small colleges, after having gone to Europe to ply his trade, Boyd, at age 25, had at long last attracted the attention of a big-league club. The note he got asked him to call Sal Butera of the Toronto Blue Jays.

"My heart stopped for a little bit," Boyd said. "I agreed with everything he had to say for the next 10 minutes."

He is now in camp with the top farm teams in the Toronto Blue Jays system. In a few weeks, he will be assigned to his new club, likely the New Hampshire Fisher Cats, whose home is a ballpark on the banks of Merrimack River in Manchester. The team is still two stops below the majors, but a heck of a lot closer than Rotterdam.

"It's been a pretty crazy ride," said Boyd, the guy with the Maple Leaf and Dutch flag tattooed on the inside of his pitching arm.

They're not saying Hugo, they're booing

In games at Toronto, Venezuelan ex-pats booed a player in the uniform of their homeland. When Team Venezuela advanced to games at Miami, the boo birds became an ugly, jeering mob. Their target: Magglio Ordonez, the long-haired all-star outfielder for the Detroit Tigers. When he struck out, the Venezuelans in the stands erupted in cheers. Some stood to mock their countryman as he returned to the dugout.

Ordonez was targeted not for poor play but for his support of Venezuelan president Hugo Chavez. As Miami is a centre for anti-Castro Cubans, so too does it serve as a headquarters for anti-Chavez Venezuelans.

Many other baseball players past and present, including Melvin Mora and Dave Concepcion, have backed Chavez without becoming targets of abuse. Ordonez's crime is to have campaigned in favour of the Venezuelan president. The outfielder shared a stage with Chavez to support a constitutional referendum in 200, which was defeated by voters. You can see him sharing a stage with Chavez on YouTube. "I don't have any grudge against them," Ordonez said of Venezuelans in Miami. "I think they're not very well informed."

Besides, he added, "There are lots of people in my country who love me."

Team Venezuela defeated the Netherlands, 3-1, after which Vancouver-born Dutch pitcher Leon Boyd wrote on his blog about the ill-behaved fans. "The Venezuelan fans were extremely rude, booing any Dutch cheers out of the 100 Dutch fans we had (compared to over 10,000 they had)," he wrote. "They were a disgrace to fans, their team, their country and baseball. If they treat some of their own players with harsh boos, just think how they treat people in orange."

Further notes on the Classic: Ichiro does it again

The Classic was won by Japan, the determining play a sharp, two-run single by the Great Ichiro in the extra innings of the final game against South Korea. The Korean manager, known for playing hunches, even replacing pitchers in the middle of an at-bat, made a bonehead decision to pitch to Ichiro even though first base was open. (His family name is Suzuki, but like Prince and Elvis he is known universally by his first name.) The Seattle Mariners' star outfielder had made unkind statements about the Koreans earlier in the tournament, so perhaps the manager hoped to deliver a comeuppance. It was not to be.

Their favourite band: the Butthole Surfers

Baseball can be excruciatingly slow, boring even. True fans take all that dead time to have fun with player names. We came up with an all-asshole team of Albert Pujols, Bum Ho Lee, and Barry Bonds.

Boys in pyjamas

Two final thoughts from baseball friends for the next global showdown in 2013:

  • The Classic makes for great baseball. The players take to the field for national pride, not money, so they're like a bunch of kids.
  • Shorten the major-league baseball season to 154 games. (Hey, it worked from 1904 until 1961.) Cancel the silly home-run derby and the pointless All-Star Game. Schedule the Classic for a fortnight at a time when players are in peak condition. Cue the heroics. And keep your eyes open for the next undiscovered gem like Leon Boyd of White Rock.

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