An international perspective on the game
For the last two seasons, Victory Field has been home to one of the most interesting men in baseball -- Hensley Meulens.
Fondly known as a "Bam Bam," the Indianapolis Indians hitting coach acquired his nickname as a teenager while playing softball with his friends. Meulens, a right-handed hitter, was showing everyone up by hitting home runs left handed.
As he drove one long ball after another, his friends decided that Meulens must be as strong as "Bam Bam," the physical prodigy from the cartoon "The Flintstones." The name has stuck with him ever since.
One of Meulens' unique attributes is his proficiency in five languages. He is fluent in English, Spanish, Papiamento, Dutch and has a working knowledge of Japanese.
Born on the island of Curacao, a Dutch Colony in the Netherlands Antilles, Meulens grew up speaking Papiamento. Although Papiamento is the native language of Curacao, Dutch is the considered the national language.
Once children in Curacao enter the school system, they are taught and required to speak Dutch. His mother is Dominican, so Meulens has spoken Spanish from birth. Meulens says the different languages help him coach players more efficiently.
"I am fortunate to speak all the different languages because they help me communicate," he says. "I am able to speak and listen to players in whatever language they are most comfortable. I think you need to have good people skills to be a successful coach, but it always helps when you can lift language barriers."
After eight seasons as a player in the New York Yankees organization, Meulens spent three years playing in Japan - one with the Chiba Lotte Marines and two with the Tokyo Yakult Swallows.
Meulens was very impressed with the Japanese fans' unconditional dedication and support of their favorite players and teams. During his three seasons, he never heard the crowd boo a player.
In Japan most of the traveling is done by train. A team's fans show their support by gathering at the train tracks to wish the team luck and give the players gifts to bring on the road.
The Japanese do not sing "Take Me Out to the Ball Game," but they have developed their own tradition. Around the seventh inning, the entire stadium sings their team's fight song before thousands of balloons are released into the air.
Each team has a band that plays throughout the game -- almost like a concert -- and each player has his own rhythm when he steps up to bat. If the player does something productive at the plate, the band will play his rhythm and yell his name until he tips his hat to acknowledge the crowd the next half-inning. The bands go player-by-player until they get to everyone.
"There is great fan support in Japan," Meulens says. "Don't get me wrong, things are terrific here in America. The difference is they never let you down in Japan. Sometimes in the states, fans get disappointed in players because the expectations are so high."
This past summer, Meulens had the opportunity to represent the Pittsburgh Pirates on a scouting trip to Japan. He was accompanied by Louie Eljaua (Pirates special assistant to the general manager) and Kiyoshi Momose (Pirates assistant conditioning coordinator). The group spent two weeks in Japan, looking for professional players who could help the Pirates organization.
"(Pirates General Manager) Dave (Littlefield) and his staff gave us a list of guys to watch," Meulens says. "We also took a list of players -- in our organization -- who will be available to play in Japan next year. There were a couple of our guys who we were trying to showcase and a couple of their guys who we went to look at."
The group identified many promising players during the trip, but the astronomical resources needed to acquire Japanese players can prohibit a trade. Japanese players are required to play nine years in the Professional Baseball Organization of Japanese before achieving free agent status and becoming available to Major League Baseball teams in the United States.
Once a player is eligible for a trade, the cost of obtaining a Japanese player may still be a hindrance. The price just to talk to some of the best players in Japan can be as high as $35 million dollars, and then another $20 to $25 million would be needed to sign the player to a two or three-year contract.
Meulens says, "the Pirates aren't going to spend that type of money on someone who isn't proven in the United States."
Although this was Meulens' first experience scouting for a Major League organization, he has been involved in such activities through his work with the Dutch National Team. He also owns & operates the Dutch Antilles Baseball Academy in Curacao, which has given him lots of contact with scouts over the years.
Meulens attributes his roll as a scout this past summer to his previous experience playing in Japan.
"I know a lot of people in Japan, and I know the league," he says. "People in the United States and Japan thought I could help with the communication between the two sides. Hopefully, I was able to do that."
Meulens says he thoroughly enjoyed the time spent in Japan. He was very upbeat when asked, "if he would consider more international scouting trips down the road?"
"I love coaching," he adds. "I love what I do in Indianapolis, but the trip to Japan was a nice break during the season. It was fun to do something different for two weeks, and then come back to finish the year."
With all of his professional baseball experience -- both in the United States and abroad -- Meulens would be the first to admit how international the game of baseball truly is.
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International League Stories from November 3, 2006
- An international perspective on the game - Indianapolis Indians
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