With Orioles' Jonathan Schoop and others, Curacao becoming baseball hotbed

SARASOTA, Fla. — The scene played out on a sun-soaked afternoon at Ed Smith Stadium last week with Orioles manager Buck Showalter watching intently and chuckling.

Atlanta Braves budding superstar shortstop Andrelton Simmons was on second base, trying to get the attention of Orioles rookie infielder Jonathan Schoop. Simmons was hoping to mess with the kid, distract him, make him laugh. But Schoop, who had spent several minutes before the game chatting with Simmons, wanted no parts of the potential frivolity.

"This guy is trying to engage him and get Jonathan to [mess] around. And Jonathan won't even acknowledge him," Showalter said. "He's looking out at his outfielders, signaling 'two outs,' which is good. He was like, 'I ain't messing around here at all.' "

In one sense, it was a fleeting snapshot in a forgettable Grapefruit League game. But there also was some significance to it: Simmons and Schoop are countrymen from the Dutch Caribbean island of Curacao, which has become a professional baseball hotbed.

They've played against each since they were about 8 years old; they've trained together in the offseason. And they were two of seven players in the major leagues last year from tiny Curacao, which is 171 square miles and has a population of about 150,000 — roughly one-fourth of Baltimore City's.

"You like your percentage of return from there," Showalter said. "I don't know per square mile there's ever been a better [talent producer] with where they are right now. There's a bunch of them."

And the Orioles are hoping there will be a bunch more soon. There are currently seven players from Curacao in the organization — Schoop is the only one on the precipice of the majors — including six originally signed by the team. Not only does Curacao produce major leaguers — 14 in the country's history, with half playing in 2013 — the quality is pretty impressive.

Simmons, 24, won the 2013 National League Platinum Glove Award as that league's best defender. Texas Rangers infielder Jurickson Profar, 21, has widely been considered among baseball's best prospects. Didi Gregorius, who was born in the Netherlands but lives in Curacao, played in 100 games at shortstop for the Arizona Diamondbacks last year at age 23.

And then there is the 22-year-old Schoop, who is making a real run at becoming the Orioles' Opening Day second baseman even though he has only five games of major league experience — all coming last September.

"Growing up with him, playing against him, he was always a good player," Simmons said of Schoop, his teammate on the Netherlands' 2013 World Baseball Classic team. "But playing with him last year for the Dutch national team, I really saw what he was capable of on a big stage. So this doesn't surprise me at all."

Simmons remembers Schoop as a thin kid with potential, but didn't expect him to grow into a 6-foot-2, 225-pound slugger.

"He always hit OK, but he never crushed balls like he does now," Simmons said. "I've seen him do terrible things to baseballs lately. It just shows how much he's grown and improved."

In the sporting world, Curacao is known more for windsurfing than baseball. The sport isn't played in high school, there are no baseball academies and most games are played only on weekends in organized amateur leagues. That makes scouting the island somewhat tricky because, with less exposure to a player, the margin for error increases.

Yet Orioles international scout Calvin Maduro said the percentage of amateur Curacaoan signees who eventually make the majors is higher than any other country. The players are often highly coachable, and because education is the country's primary focus and not sports, those who advance to the professional level seem determined to become major leaguers.

"We have the talent in Curacao," Simmons said. "But we also have the discipline and the will to work."

The country's first major leaguer was Hensley "Bam Bam" Meulens, whom the New York Yankees acquired for a $5,000 bonus in 1985. He spent parts of seven seasons in the majors. The scout who signed Meulens was Fred Ferreira, who is now the Orioles' executive director of international recruiting.

Curacao really landed on the baseball map in 1996, when 19-year-old Braves center fielder Andruw Jones debuted on his way to a splendid 17-season career in which he won 10 consecutive Gold Gloves (1998-2007). A few years later, the Orioles promoted their first Curacao native, infielder Ivanon Coffie, who played in 23 games in 2000.

In 2004, Curacao's baseball program received another boost when the country won the Little League World Series. Profar was a hitting star and Schoop batted third and picked up the save in the championship game.

Now the youth programs that began to thrive with Jones' ascension are bearing fruit in the majors. And the Orioles are hoping to continue that trend in the next few years. Maduro and Ferreira each take about four trips a year to Curacao looking for the next Simmons or Schoop.

"You'll see some more ballplayers come out of there now with these players playing in the big leagues," Orioles executive vice president Dan Duquette said. "Because [the kids] will all emulate the players in the big leagues, and it will all perpetuate itself."



Curacao connection

The Orioles have seven players from Curacao in their organization.

Jonathan Schoop, 22, infielder

Sharlon Schoop, 26, infielder

Roderick Bernadina, 21, outfielder

Jonatan Isenia, 20, right-handed pitcher

Adema Rifaela, 19, outfielder

Rochendrick Alexander, 19, outfielder

Wendell Floranus, 18, right-handed pitcher

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