Smeets-swinging catcher a big hit for Dutch baseball team
BEIJING -- If you want to know how a kid with a fantasy-league baseball team realizes a baseball fantasy-come-true, you could do worse than the story of Tjerk Smeets, a backup catcher on the Dutch Olympic team.
Tjerk's dad, NOS Dutch TV sports anchor and Olympic host Mart Smeets, is an old friend from several decades' worth of covering Olympics, Tours de France and international basketball. Back in 1995, Mart mentioned idly to me that his son Tjerk, then 15, had become a huge Major League Baseball fan. Knowing that in his part of the world the word "rotisserie" still carries its original meaning, I arranged for Tjerk to join an intra-office Sports Illustrated fantasy league team with then-colleague Dave Gabel (now at nbcolympics.com) and me.
We named our team Dutch Boy and proceeded to do very poorly.
Tjerk, on the other hand, would do quite well -- in reality baseball -- on his own. He developed into a catcher with pop for the club team in his native Haarlem, Netherlands. He walked on at Middle Tennessee State and played three seasons for the Blue Raiders, homering in his inaugural at-bat as a freshman only to be credited with a single after a teammate on first base, believing the ball had been caught, ran back to the bag and passed him.
A year later, Smeets opened the season with another first at-bat homer, and this time it counted. He also homered against South Africa in his first plate appearance for the national team. "I like first at-bat jacks," he says.
Smeets may don the tools of ignorance, but there's nothing doltish about him. A chronic dean's lister on an MTSU team as devoted to playing hooky as it is to baseball, he returned to the Netherlands after three years to get a sports marketing degree. He now covers the Benelux countries as a rep for Under Armour.
All the while, he kept playing club baseball. On the national team, he played for Davey Johnson, who's managing Team USA at these Games. "I got to joke with him about that bunch of crazy guys on the Mets in '86," he says. After Athens in 2004, Smeets began to play a larger role.
When rain left the field unplayable at the Haarlem Baseball Week tournament just before the Beijing Games, organizers decided to give fans their 15 euros- worth by staging a home run derby. The Netherlands and the Antilles nominated five sluggers each. Smeets tjerked 16 of 30 pitches out of the park to win the title.
But that didn't guarantee the spot on the Olympic team that Smeets had narrowly missed in '04. "We went back to the hotel after the last day of Haarlem Baseball Week, and they called each of us into [Dutch manager] Robert Eenhoorn's room, one-by-one, to tell us whether we made it," Smeets says. "They did it alphabetically. I hate my last name. I was 24th of 26 to find out."
But he got the good word from Eenhoorn -- "I was fairly sure I'd make it this time, because I'd played for the national team in every international tournament since Athens" -- and soon afterward the release from the Dutch Baseball Federation landed in Gabel's inbox at nbcolympics.com.
Then Mart Smeets reached me with the news. Soon, excited e-mails pinballed among us: "Dutch Boy made the Games!"
The Stateside equivalent would be Bob Costas' son winding up an Olympian in a Low Countries specialty like speedskating or cycling.
Dutch baseball has come a long way since a vacationer brought it back from the U.S. in 1911. For several decades, teams played in shorts, and occasionally, games would run to a fixed time rather than a set number of innings. Today, the Dutch don't play small ball the way the Asian teams do, yet with their Antilleans, they feature some speed and flair. In Haarlem, you can catch the action while enjoying herring and Heineken in the stands.
The Orange haven't yet medaled in Olympic baseball, placing sixth, fifth and sixth in the past three Games. If they don't break through this quadrennial, they never will, as the sport is set to be dropped from the Olympic program. But the Netherlands are still the best baseball nation in Europe, with more than a dozen current minor-leaguers on the team. Tjerk's teammate Alexander Smit, a 16-year-old lefty, just signed with the Minnesota Twins for more than a half-million dollars.
Dutch Boy didn't get out of the dugout Wednesday morning during the Netherlands' opener, a 5-0 loss to Chinese Taipei. But he's ready for late-innings duty as a pinch-hitter, and prepared to snap on the shinguards later in the Games against more power-oriented teams like Cuba, Canada and the U.S. The player I encountered postgame was no longer a scraggly teenager with a knack for committing rap lyrics to memory, but a 6-foot 2-inch, 238-pound man of 28.
Mart, who had to cover the cycling road race for Dutch TV this morning, has written a father-son memoir about Tjerk's stopover in Tennessee called Murfreesboro Blues. It has sold 50,000 copies in Holland.
Note to self: Learn Dutch so you can read it.