This morning a tweet about the U23 World Cup caught my eye. The U23 World Cup of baseball, played in Mexico under the auspices of the WBSC. Europe is represented by the Czech Republic and Austria. Austria? Yes Austria. In 2014, the Czech Republic won the European U23 championship and Austria finished as the runner up, so both countries were allowed to represent Europe in the 2016 U23 World Cup.
When it comes to the Czech Republic, it is not really strange. Baseball is still growing there. But Austria? With all due respect, baseball is a very small sport in that country and in general the level is not to write home about.
So where were the Netherlands and Italy? Italy did not particpate, so the Dutch Federation decided not to participate either. It’s what they call a strategic choice. The Dutch Baseball Federation (KNBSB) doesn’t have a thick wallet, so it has to spend the money wisely.
But how do you spend money wisely? It seems like the KNBSB rather spends money on a national team that contains players from Aruba and Curacao who play in the minor leagues in the United States. Sure the national team also contains players from the Dutch hoofdklasse, but the sad thing is that in the Netherlands we have three kinds of national teams. One national team that shows up with preparation tournaments like the Haarlem Baseball Week (officially Baseball Week Haarlem now) and the World Port Tournament. This national team only contains players from the Dutch hoofdklasse. But… as soon as the Dutch need to play in a European championship or in a Premier 12 tournament, several hoofdklasse players are replaced by those minor league players from Curacao and Aruba, a second national team.
Don’t get me wrong, I love to watch that team winning, but you cannot call it fair if those players who worked their butts off for a spot on the roster during the preparation tournaments, are replaced by some hired guns. And then there is this third national team, or perhaps first national team; it depends on how you look at it. This is the team that participates with the World Baseball Classic. It contains MLB players like Andrelton Simmons, Jonathan Schoop, Xander Bogaerts,etc. The few remaining hoofdklasse players are shoved aside. Sure there are a few exceptions, but in general the number of hoofdklasse players is limited, especially in the area of position players. Somehow team Kingdom of the Netherlands does not have any MLB pitchers, except for Kenley Jansen. So the pitchers are mainly from the Dutch hoofdklasse. Once again, don’t get me wrong. I love to watch this team play too. But fair to the hoofdklasse players? No! On the other hand, you want to field your best team possible. And with the WBC you have to to stand a chance.
And all this is because the main focus of the Dutch baseball federation is on the world ranking. Since 2015, the WBSC has changed the way they compose the world ranking. Before 2015 the results of the national senior teams were the most important factor. But since 2015 the results of national youth teams are important as well. And that is the area where the Dutch federation did not invest its money in. Due to the absence of several youth teams in U12, U15, U17, U21 and U23 tournaments, the Dutch could not score points for this ranking. The result? The Kingdom of the Netherlands has tumbled from a very decent fifth spot to the tenth spot. Even Italy has surpassed us. And the situation in Italy is even more gloomy than it is in the Netherlands.
What did this focus on the world ranking bring Dutch baseball? In 2011 the Dutch team won the world cup. With this feat, the Dutch are oficially the last amateur world champion. Since 2013 the World Baseball Classic is now the official world championship. In that 2013 edition of the WBC, the Dutch reached the semi finals in which they were beaten by the Dominican Republic. Dutch baseball did not prosper thanks to these two remarkable results. On the contrary. The number of people playing baseball is going down ever since.
The number of youth teams has diminished at an alarming pace. There are a few good attempts to let the number of youth players grow but in general those initiatives are private and not under the auspices of the KNBSB.
The KNBSB has developed several action plans. In these plans there are three main focuses: The vital strength of Dutch clubs, the national team and the world ranking and an attractive hoofdklasse competition. The focus on the vital strength of Dutch clubs is a good one. They need to grow. The game must become popular again. The focus on the national competition is a good one as well. An attractive competition MAY lead to more fans in the stands. I write MAY because the number of spectators has dropped dramatically as well.
But forget about this world ranking for while. Earlier this year I wrote about a possibility to attract more fans, but of course there are more ways to lure fans to the ballparks again.
The foremost thing is that people start to play baseball again. The game must grow again. The more people, the bigger chance that exceptional talent will show up. The clubs must show initiatives. Two clubs that I have played for were rather agonizing clubs with not too many members. But with the right people in place the two clubs managed to grow and to attract youth players again.
So it is possible, but the clubs need to have the right leaders and the clubs need to cooperate to learn from each other.
But as long as the KNBSB rather spends €155,000 on training camps at Curacao, where minor leaguers participate, the sport will not grow at the bottom, which is needed to build a solid foundation. This money could have been spent better. To boost youth baseball for example. If they had done that earlier, perhaps the dramatic drop in the world rankings would not have happened. When they would have done that earlier, our little league teams would not have been surpassed by Poland or African countries in the EMEA championships. The latter is an alarming development. Of course it is a good thing that baseball in Eastern European countries and in African countries is developing at a swift pace, but it also means that the development of baseball in the Netherlands is on hold.
So KNBSB, the next time when you have a spare dime, think twice and choose wisely, choose for youth development. It all starts at the bottom.