The World Cup has been the precursor to the Olympics for baseball. However, with baseball being eliminated from the Olympics for the time being, the World Cup (and the World Baseball Classic) may be the only event to truly showcase international baseball. The World Cup gives players the opportunity to play for their respective home country, show national pride, and showcase their talents. The World Baseball Classic has opened the door for many international players to realize their dream of playing professional baseball in the US. One of those players was Leon Boyd of the Netherlands. Many of you may have seen Boyd closing out games for the Netherlands during the 2009 WBC (and beating the Dominicans).
Leon Boyd was born and raised in Canada, where he played in the junior leagues. Since his mother was born in Holland, he received his Dutch passport and has been playing for the Dutch National Team since 2006 and playing in the Netherlands since 2007. In 2008, Boyd threw a no-hitter and was the top pitcher for the Netherlands in the Beijing Olympics. After being eliminated from the 2009 WBC, Boyd was given a try-out with the Toronto Blue Jays, signed, and played most of this past season with the Double-A New Hampshire Fisher Cats. After his minor league season ended, he flew to join his Netherlands teammates to compete in the World Cup.
Leon Boyd was kind enough to take time out while playing in Italy for the third round to answer some of my questions.
JN: After the great showing in the World Baseball Classic, did you guys (the Netherlands) have high expectations for the World Cup?
LB: Yes. We want to show the world that it wasn’t a fluke; we have a good team. An example of this is that out pitching staff was a strength in the WBC, and so far this World Cup we are leading the tournament in hitting, with basically the same lineup. We are here to get better than the 4th place we achieved in the past 2 World Cups.
JN: What was your first year in professional baseball in the US like? Has it made you a better pitcher in terms of international competition?
LB: I enjoyed my time this year in the Jays system. I learned some, I struggled some, and I pitched well also. I am currently in a mechanical change going back to the arm slot I was at in the WBC, so thus far in international competitions I am not as effective as I should be and have been in the past as a starter.
JN: After playing ball in the US, do you feel that baseball is growing in Europe?
LB: Baseball is definitely growing in Europe. Our showing at the WBC didn’t hurt. More and more European players are being signed and the national teams are getting stronger and stronger in international competitions. We are #6 in the IBAF (International Baseball Federation) international poll; not bad for a country that take 2 hours to drive across.
JN: Playing the second round of the World Cup in front of the home crowds, did you feel any extra pressure? What was it like playing in front of the home crowds?
LB: I would say we had less pressure in the dugout for those games than we do playing here in Italy. I love playing for the Dutch crowds: they love being at the games, they are never rude, and always go crazy when the Oranje score…not to mention they all get after singing to some of the crazy Dutch songs they pump into the stadiums in Holland.
JN: Watching the Netherlands during the WBC on TV, you guys seemed to gel really well. With so many different backgrounds, what’s the key?
LB: The key was all the different personalities; sometimes they work, sometimes they don’t. This one does. We have some solid veteran leadership in Randall Simon and Sydney DeJong, who keep us level-headed. There is nothing but baseball spoken in the dugout at all times: talking about pitches, movement, and tendencies…this makes everyone better.
JN: Being a side-arm/submarine type pitcher, do you feel you have an advantage over hitters who are unfamiliar with your delivery?
LB: I’m trying to get away from those arm slots actually. I tried everything all year and just wasn’t able to consistently find the zone, so I’m going back to what helped me to a 19-2 record over the past 2 years, and what got me signed, throwing from a ¾ arm slot.
JN: How would you rate the fans in Europe compared to the minor league fans in the US?
LB: I would say that the American fans are more loyal, as in, if the US hosted the World Cup, there would be the same amount of fans for the less popular games as opposed to Europe. Italy is not in the 3rd round, and Italy is hosting it. We’ve had about 100 fans at each game, whereas if we were playing Italy, there would likely be 4000. Same thing in Holland, but not quite as drastic.
JN: Do you think there’s hope for baseball to return to the Olympics?
LB: Hope yes. 2020 is the new goal. Just recently the 2016 Games brought in rugby and golf instead of re-instating baseball. I am prouder than anything to say I was in the last one to have baseball though, but it IS great for baseball if it’s in the Olympics.