Best MLB players from the Kingdom of the Netherlands

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Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Let's hear it for "Honkbal"!

That's what baseball is called in the Kingdom of the Netherlands, which has produced some of baseball's best young talent. The kingdom encompasses the Netherlands, located in Western Europe, as well as a small cluster of islands in the Caribbean, including Curacao, Aruba and the Netherlands Antilles.

While baseball was introduced to the Netherlands way back in 1911 by English teacher J.C.G. Gras following a visit to America -- and gained a foothold when Dutch kids turned to American baseball in defiance of the German occupiers during World War II -- the sport remained a distant second to soccer. But it has flourished in the Dutch overseas territories. In 2014, seven Curaaoans alone played in the majors, which is stunning considering that Curaao's population is approximately 170,000 -- which works out to about one major leaguer for every 21,000 residents. (By comparison, there were 83 players on 2014 Opening Day rosters from the Dominican Republic, a nation of 10.4 million, or roughly one major leaguer per 125,000 inhabitants. For the United States, the ratio was about one to 503,000.)

And baseball fever shows no signs of abating in the Netherlands. With apologies to Jack Lelivelt, an outfielder who hit .301 over a six-year career with the Washington Senators, New York Highlanders, New York Yankees and Cleveland Naps -- and Randall Simon -- known more for swatting one of the Milwaukee Brewers' sausage mascots -- here's a look at baseball's best Dutch-born players:

Xander Bogaerts

Birthplace: Oranjestad, Aruba

MLB team: Boston Red Sox

Bogaerts was discovered by a Red Sox scout at the age of 16 and signed for a $410,000 bonus. In 2013, he became the fifth player from Aruba to play in the majors. He was called up to the majors in mid-August, then batted .296 in 12 postseason games, helping the Red Sox win their eighth World Series. Bogaerts -- who speaks fluent English, Spanish, Dutch and Papiamento -- was inducted into the Order of Orange-Nassau by the Governor of Aruba after leading the Netherlands team to a gold medal in the Baseball World Cup in 2011.

Bert Blyleven

Birthplace: Zeist, Netherlands

MLB teams: Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers, Pittsburgh Pirates, Cleveland Indians, California Angels

Rik Aalbert "Bert" Blijleven, one of only 12 big leaguers born in the Netherlands, is the lone Dutchman to make the Hall of Fame. Blyleven, who was raised in Garden Grove, California, was 287-250 over a 22-year career. He was elected and enshrined in the Hall in 2011. Blyleven remains only the second Hall of Famer born outside the Americas (the first, Harry Wright, was born in England in 1835).

Mariekson "Didi" Gregorius

Birthplace: Amsterdam, Netherlands

MLB teams:Cincinnati Reds,Arizona Diamondbacks, New York Yankees

After being signed by the Reds as an amateur free agent in 2007 and making the majors in 2012, Gregorius was traded away to the Diamondbacks, for whom he batted .252 in 103 games. The Yankees acquired him in a three-team trade on Dec. 5, 2014, and Gregorius stepped in as the anointed successor to former captain Derek Jeter at shortstop. (Gregorius then revealed that he's "Sir Didi," a title that was bestowed on him in lieu of payment for him and other members of a national baseball team that won a championship in Curacao.)

Kenley Jansen

Birthplace: Willemstad, Curacao

MLB team: Los Angeles Dodgers

The Dodgers signed the 6-foot-5, 260-pound Jansen as a catcher in 2004 but converted him to a pitcher -- a move that paid off. Jansen, who can hit high 90s on the radar gun and has the most effective cutter sinceMariano Rivera, blossomed into one of the most dominant closers in the game in 2013. Jansen has a 0.82 ERA with 20 strikeouts in 11 innings and nine saves this year.

Andruw Jones

Birthplace: Willemstad, Curacao

MLB teams: Atlanta Braves, Los Angeles Dodgers, Texas Rangers, Chicago White Sox and New York Yankees

Andruw Jones, a five-time All-Star and 10-time Gold Glove outfielder, remains the most famous Dutch hitter of all time. He was a .254 career hitter with 434 home runs and 1,289 RBIs over 17 seasons with the Braves, Yankees, Rangers, Dodgers and White Sox. From 1998 to 2006, Jones averaged 6.1 WAR per season. After playing two seasons for the Tohoku Rakuten Golden Eagles in Japan, Jones, now 37, is trying to return to the majors.

Sidney Ponson

Birthplace: Noord, Aruba

MLB teams:Baltimore Orioles, San Francisco Giants, St. Louis Cardinals, New York Yankees, Minnesota Twins, Texas Rangers, Kansas City Royals

When he arrived in the majors, Ponson, a burly Aruba native, was compared to Bartolo Colon, and Syd Thrift, then Baltimore's general manager, looked at Ponson's 97 mph fastball and labeled him "a future No. 1 pitcher." But Ponson rarely delivered on his promise. In 2003, he won 17 games with Baltimore and San Francisco. The Orioles signed him to a $22.5 million contract, and he responded by going 18-26 with a 5.64 ERA over the next two seasons. In 2004, Ponson was charged with punching a judge during a confrontation on a beach in Aruba. He spent time at an alcohol rehabilitation facility after two drunken-driving incidents in 2005. Over a three-year span, Ponson was released by Baltimore, St. Louis, the Yankees, Minnesota and Texas and was out of baseball by 2009.

Jonathan Schoop

Birthplace: Willemstad, Curacao

MLB team: Baltimore Orioles

Schoop has been a highly regarded prospect ever since signing with the Orioles in 2008. Schoop and Jurickson Profar were teammates on Curaao's 2004 Little League World Series champions. Profar homered in the championship game against Thousand Oaks, California, and Schoop earned the save in relief. His brother, Sharlon Schoop, currently plays for the Bowie Baysox, the Orioles' Double-A affiliate.

Jurickson Profar

Birthplace: Willemstad, Curacao

MLB team: Texas Rangers

Once the Rangers' top prospect, Profar burst onto the scene in late 2012 with the Rangers and hit a home run in his first career at-bat. Profar is versatile -- he started games in the outfield, at second base, shortstop, third base and designated hitter for the Rangers in 2013 -- but has been sidelined by injuries since. Profar underwent shoulder surgery to repair a labrum tear in his right shoulder in February and is expected to miss his second consecutive season.

Andrelton Simmons

Birthplace: Mundo Nobo, Curacao

MLB team: Atlanta Braves

Simmons was lightly scouted as a teen and attended Western Oklahoma State College, where he blossomed into a 2010 second-round Braves pick. Now in his fourth season, Simmons has emerged into a human highlight reel who astounds teammates and fans alike, leading the majors in defensive runs saved and web gems. Simmons and Bogaerts were teammates on the Dutch team that finished an impressive fourth in the 2013 World Baseball Classic. Simmons, by then a Gold Glover, played short; and Bogaerts gave way to his elder and played third base.

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