Like many of those playing in next month's World Baseball Classic, Orioles second baseman Jonathan Schoop takes special pride in representing his home country. But for Schoop, there's added meaning to playing for the Kingdom of the Netherlands in this year's WBC.
Schoop hails from Curacao — the tiny Dutch Caribbean island of roughly 150,000 people that has become a burgeoning haven for baseball talent — and hopes another strong showing for the Netherlands in Major League Baseball's showcase international event will create more opportunities for the next group of young players on the island.
"For us, it's important so we can send more scouts to Curacao, so we can sign [more players] so their dreams can come true, too," Schoop said. "For us to go and represent the country, it's really nice for everybody that we're going to go play for the Netherlands."
Schoop represents part of an exciting young group of gifted middle infielders from the three-island group of Dutch territories known as the ABC islands of Aruba, Bonaire and Curacao. Schoop, Los Angeles Angels shortstop Andrelton Simmons, New York Yankees shortstop Didi Gregorius and Texas Rangers infielder/outfielder Jurickson Profar all grew up in Curacao, while Boston Red Sox shortstop Xander Bogaerts is from Aruba.
He is one of 14 players born in Curacao to play in the major leagues, and nine of those players made their debuts since 2006, showing the recent success the island his had in producing baseball talent.
Outfielder Hensley Meulens, who will manage the Netherlands' WBC team, was the first player from Curacao to play in the majors, and five-time All-Star Andruw Jones — an outfielder who hit 434 homers over a 17-year career — showed players like Schoop that success could be had. Schoop would like to follow in the footsteps of right-handers Jair Jurrjens and Kenley Jansen, Curacao natives who became All-Stars. Jansen, a former catcher, has developed into one of the game's top closers.
Schoop has played a large role in putting Curacao on the baseball map, beginning as a 13-year-old playing for a team from Curacao that won the Little League World Series in 2004. He was also the starting second baseman on the WBC team that advanced to the semifinals in the most recent tournament in 2013.
The success of that team four years ago was based around a core group of young players, including Schoop, who had yet to prove themselves in the majors. But those players have now emerged as stars.
They are coming into their own at the same time, including the 25-year-old Schoop, who last year emerged as one of the top power-hitting second basemen in the game. He enjoyed the best year of his career in 2016, hitting 25 homers, driving in 82 runs and playing exemplary defense at second base while starting all 162 regular-season games.
"He's that guy that they're working around [now]," Orioles manager Buck Showalter said of Schoop. "He's excited. He's very proud of the number of major league players who come from there. I think the last [WBC] really identified how many good players are coming out of there, but I don't think it's a secret anymore. With international scouting, there's just not that many secrets."
In 2013, the Netherlands won its pool and beat Cuba twice in the second round to advance to the semifinals before being eliminated by eventual champion Dominican Republic.
In this year's WBC, Schoop will be the Netherlands' starting second baseman. Simmons, a two-time Gold Glove winner commonly regarded as one of the top defensive players in the game, will play shortstop. Bogaerts, who is one of the top young shortstops in the game, will play third. Gregorius will slot into the infield mix, but will mainly serve as the designated hitter. Profar will play left field.
All six players are under the age of 28, and Schoop, Bogaerts and Profar are all 25 or younger, which goes to speak about the level of young talent in the region, where soccer is traditionally king.
"I think if we go there and represent the country the way I think we should, I think we're going to send more scouts down there and see more kids [playing professionally]," Schoop said. "I think us [playing well] means they'll support them."
Because the Netherlands has its pool play round 7,000 miles away in South Korea, Schoop will leave Orioles camp on Feb. 28. The Orioles have their first full-squad workout Friday and play their first spring game on Feb. 24. Schoop said having played in the WBC before will help him adjust to leaving camp early.
Showalter said Thursday that Schoop will have the opportunity to play as many early spring training games as he wants before his departure in order to get ready for the intensity of the WBC.
"It makes it easier because you've got to be a step [ahead] at this time because you have to go to the WBC and compete," Schoop said. "It's not like a [spring training] game. You've got to win. I'm ready for it. I come here, so I can do my job here, then leave and come here."