The moment he stepped into the visiting clubhouse at Minute Maid Park after his bullpen session Saturday, Shohei Ohtani made a beeline for his Angels teammate Andrelton Simmons and said, in English, “Congratulations.”
Simmons, a native of Curacao, smiled and laughed. His young countrymen had only two hours earlier defeated a squad from Ohtani’s native Japan, which had been undefeated, to advance to the Little League World Series championship game against River Ridge, La., Sunday in Williamsport, Pa.
There was no bet between the two players, Ohtani said through his interpreter, but the tournament win gave the Angels’ Gold Glove shortstop bragging rights over last year’s AL rookie of the year. Japan had won five championships in the previous nine years; a team from Curacao had not competed in the tournament finale since winning the championship in 2004.
Simmons still makes his offseason home on the Caribbean island that is located some 40 miles off the northern coast of Venezuela. He hosts clinics for young players there. It’s likely he has even worked with some of the members of the Willemstad squad that made their way out of the losers’ bracket and now have a chance to win the World Series.
Simmons couldn’t help but gush about the group, for whom he recorded a video message.
“I was proud of them for making it there,” Simmons said. “[I told them] keep doing what they’ve been doing and keep making us proud.”
Baseball on the small Dutch nation of about 160,000 has grown exponentially in popularity since Simmons was a kid turning double plays in the backyard with his older brother. Gold Glove-winning center fielder Andruw Jones, the first native of Curacao to stick in the big leagues, paved the way for a baseball boom after debuting with the Atlanta Braves as a teenager in 1996.
But it was the Little League World Series success of teams from Curacao, certainly composed of kids who were inspired by Jones, that led to an increase in MLB players hailing from the small island. A run of nine consecutive tournament appearances began in 2001. A group led by Oakland’s Jurickson Profar and Minnesota’s Jonathan Schoop won the nation’s only title in 2004.
Ten Curacao natives have played in the major leagues since 2006, including the Dodgers’ Kenley Jansen and Atlanta Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies. Five were on opening day rosters this year, matching their highs from 2014 and 2018.
Simmons never had the chance to play in the youth tournament himself — “I wasn’t good enough,” he joked — but he appreciated the effect continued exposure has had on his home country.
“When I was a kid, it was a dream to be on that stage,” he said. “It was a dream to make it here. Now it’s more real. It’s more possible. It’s like, ‘OK, if you’re good enough, you’re gonna get there.’
“I think they like their chances of playing baseball against any team in the world just because we’ve won the Little League World Series, we’ve done a good job in the World Baseball Classic, there’s guys in the big leagues that are doing a really good job. There’s more guys to come. It’s always exciting when you see that little island represented.”
Ohtani still hasn’t introduced his signature split-fingered fastball into his bullpen sessions, but that is no cause for alarm. The Angels have not yet instructed him to work on that pitch, which teams such as the Angels discouraged pitchers from developing earlier this decade because of the believed strain it causes on the elbow. It is just a precaution. Ohtani has thrown his breaking pitches and fastball successfully as he has ramped up his recovery from Tommy John surgery as a pitcher. … The Angels reinstated catcher Kevan Smith from the injured list and sent fellow backstop Anthony Bemboom to triple-A Salt Lake. … Reliever Justin Anderson’s shoulder injury is not considered serious. He tossed in the outfield for a short period on Saturday.