The Netherlands infielder Andrelton Simmons is congratulated by teammates… (Kazuhiro Nogi / AFP / Getty…)
SAN FRANCISCO -- All the kids played soccer. Loek van Mil wanted to be different, so he played baseball. This was in the Netherlands, two decades ago, where the youth coaches were the ones that had been exchange students in the United States during the disco era.
Van Mil did balance drills, for no good baseball reason.
"There is no real use in standing there like a flamingo," van Mil said.
The coaches have gotten better, and so have the players. The Netherlands is in the semifinals of the World Baseball Classic for the first time, with a Monday date against the Dominican Republic.
Two-time defending champion Japan faces Puerto Rico in the first semifinal on Sunday. The semifinal winners play for the championship Tuesday.
With the United States eliminated, the event might not draw sellout crowds to AT&T Park. The host San Francisco Giants, who constantly adjust ticket prices based on demand, Saturday cut semifinal prices to as low as $8.
The cheapest available ticket for the Giants' Cactus League game Sunday against the Colorado Rockies: $46.
What might be bad for business is good for the game. Although Netherlands Manager Hensley Meulens on Saturday called Team USA "the best team in baseball," the U.S. lost to Mexico, the Dominican Republic and Puerto Rico in this WBC.
"It would have been great if the U.S. were here," Netherlands coach Robert Eenhoorn said. "But you can't just schedule that. The game has developed too much to take that for granted."
The Netherlands is the first European country to qualify for the WBC semifinals. The Kingdom of the Netherlands includes Curacao, a Caribbean island with a population of about 145,000 and home to all of this team's stars, including Dodgers reliever Kenley Jansen, Atlanta Braves infielder Andrelton Simmons, Texas Rangers infielder Jurickson Profar and former Dodgers outfielder Andruw Jones, who has signed to play in Japan this season.
On Curacao, Jones said, baseball is the most popular sport. On the mainland, wedged between Belgium and Germany, baseball ranks behind not only soccer but such sports as field hockey and speed skating.
"Maybe top 10," said van Mil, who grew up in Holland and pitched in the Angels organization last season.
The Netherlands has become a power in amateur baseball. Major League Baseball has provided technical support for what is expected to be the finest stadium in Europe, under construction and expandable to about 25,000 seats. Netherlands officials hope to persuade MLB to play its season opener there in 2015, just as the Oakland Athletics and Seattle Mariners opened last season in Japan.
The semifinal game will be televised in Holland, the first TV exposure there for the Netherlands team in this WBC. The players on the Netherlands team that won baseball's World Cup last year were knighted upon their return home, so wild celebrations undoubtedly would await if this Netherlands team delivers an upset championship.
"What you put on paper sometimes doesn't matter," said Meulens, the batting coach for the World Series champion Giants. " I'm part of a great team here with the Giants that shows people we can beat the better teams on paper. That's the same case right now with the Classic."