Wednesday, March 11, 2009

Dutch treat

Leon Boyd celebrates. Photograph by Reuters.

By Tom Hawthorn
Special to The Globe and Mail
March 11, 2009


It has been quite a week for Leon Boyd.

On Saturday, he threw the final pitch in one of the greatest upsets in baseball history.

On Sunday, he celebrated his first wedding anniversary.

On Monday, he threw a fat pitch over the middle of the plate. The ball was smacked into the outfield, Puerto Rican runners raced around the bases and thousands of jubilant, delirious fanaticos in the grandstands at San Juan erupted for a drum-beating, whistle-blowing, flag-waving celebration.

On the mound, Mr. Boyd, 25, tugs his orange cap low as to almost cover his eyes. He wears the black shirt of the national baseball team of the Netherlands, which is an accomplishment for a kid born in Vancouver and raised in White Rock.

By Tuesday morning, he was the last Canadian playing in the World Baseball Classic, a seven-city, 16-nation showdown to determine global baseball supremacy.

Turns out British Columbia exports logs, fish and the occasional pitcher. He is No. 44 in your program, the guy with a tattoo of a maple leaf and the tri-colour Dutch flag.

When he was about nine months old, his mother, the former Wilma van Zandvliet, returned to her Dutch homeland to visit her family. She included her son on her passport, a decision that a quarter-century later made him eligible for a passport of his own, as well as a spot on the national team.

That is good both for the Dutch and for Mr. Boyd.

In Canada, he is regarded as only a so-so pitcher. In Holland, he is among the best honkballers.

So, an athlete all but unknown back home has wound up in playing for the Netherlands in Puerto Rico, where his wife and his parents cheered him on from grandstands filled with fans wishing for his failure.

"It's a madhouse," his mother said yesterday from her San Juan hotel room. "The noise is incredible. When the rest of the stadium goes quiet, that's when we pipe up. Hol-land! Clap, clap, clap! Hol-land! Clap, clap, clap!"

Her voice was hoarse from two days of chanting and cheering. A small contingent of Dutch fans, all dressed in orange, are driven to Hiram Bithorn Stadium in a bus with an escort of motorcycle policemen.

She was working as an administrator at a school for the children of oil company executives in Rotterdam when she met Sean Boyd, a Halifax-born hockey player who played professionally in Europe and who moonlighted as a substitute teacher.

She had learned English at school, he took a crash course in Dutch. After marriage, they moved to Canada's West Coast. A daughter was born, then a son.

At the age of 14, the son convinced the father to take him to a major-league baseball game in Seattle so he could watch his childhood idol pitch. That's the closest he has come to the big leagues.

As an older teenager, Leon Boyd pitched for the amateur White Rock Tritons, where his catcher was Brent Swanson. The pair next wound up at playing for the Treasure Valley Community College Chukars in Ontario, Ore.

"He doesn't have overpowering stuff," Mr. Swanson said of his former batterymate. "There's no magic potion. He just keeps the ball down and gets people out."

Major-league baseball teams draft 1,500 players per year. In the late rounds, distant relatives are selected as favours to the coaching staff. Mr. Boyd did not get a sniff. At first, even the pro teams in the Netherlands ignored the 6-foot-5 hurler. Only after playing in Belgium was he discovered by the Dutch national coach.

On Saturday, the Netherlands faced the Dominican Republic, a powerhouse team whose roster features such big-league all-stars as Jose Reyes, Miguel Tejada and the fearsome slugger David (Big Papi) Ortiz. The Dutch parried with minor leaguers, a washed-up former major leaguer looking for a job, and one eager but obscure right-handed Canadian pressed into service as a closer.

Some described it as David vs. Goliath, but it was more like David's little brother vs. Goliath.

Mr. Boyd watched most of the game from the bullpen down the left-field line. He couldn't help but admire the pitching of Pedro Martinez, the childhood hero he had once seen in Seattle. Mr. Martinez mowed down Dutch batters like so many orange-and-black tulips.

Then, in the ninth inning, with the Netherlands nursing a 3-2 lead, Mr. Boyd was assigned the unenviable task of getting the final three outs.

It was messy, but Mr. Boyd struck out Jose Bautista to end the game. The pitcher jumped up and down on the mound.

"We danced on the mound, oh did we dance," he wrote later on his blog at his Canadutch World Baseball Classic Experience blog. "I was swarmed and pummelled and hugged a lot." In the stands, he saw his mother and his wife, Jeana, nicknamed Shorty, crying in happiness.

Forty-eight hours later, he returned to the mound in a similar circumstance, the Dutch leading Puerto Rico, 1-0, late in the game. The outcome was not good for Mr. Boyd; he surrendered two hits and the Dutch lost. It meant the Dutch had to play a rematch against the Dominicans.

They needed to prove their one-in-a-million upset was really more of a two-in-a-million upset.

Then, last night, the impossible happened. The Dutch scored two runs in the bottom of the 11th inning for a 2-1 victory. The winning pitcher? A Canadian who looks good in orange.

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