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Loek van Mil: The 7'1" Pitching Giant Still Trying to Get His Big Break

Scott Miller@@ScottMillerBblNational MLB ColumnistMarch 7, 2017

Netherlands' reliever Loek Van Mil, right, celebrates with catcher Dashenko Ricardo just after beating Cuba 6-2 in their World Baseball Classic second round baseball game at Tokyo Dome in Tokyo, Friday, March 8, 2013. (AP Photo/Koji Sasahara)
Toru Takahashi/Associated Press

They come to the World Baseball Classic in all shapes and sizes. Teams. Players. Ballparks. Countries.

Nobody, however, arrives in the exact fascinating size of a man who will be working in relief for the Netherlands over these next couple of weeks. Loek van Mil, who likely will begin the tournament as the Dutch closer this week in Seoul, South Korea, is 7'1".

No, he didn't get lost on his way to the basketball court.

"One thing I already told him: If I have to come out to the mound, he's standing on grass and I'm standing on the rubber," quips Hall of Famer Bert Blyleven, the ol' Dutch Master himself, who is pitching coach for the Netherlands (and who stands a robust 6'3"). "Don't make me look up at you. Get off the mound, stand on the flat grass. I will stand on the mound, and we will see eye to eye."

Van Mil has heard all the jokes, listened to all of the chuckles. He's 32 now and has been pitching professionally for 10 years.

He can tell you about the times he was summoned from the bullpen and warmed up while some chucklehead in a rickety minor league press box blasted the theme from "The Addams Family" over the stadium sound system.

"Lurch, you know?" Van Mil says.

Ah, the artistry of minor league baseball.

Then, there were the times he warmed up to one-hit wonder Skee-Lo's catchy hip-hop anthem "I Wish."

"I've heard them all," Van Mil says. "It's funny. Teammates always make jokes, always in good fun. I feel like I can take a joke or two."

Only thing is, during one moment late in our conversation, the personable and gracious Van Mil does exhibit just a wee bit of weariness.

"I hope this piece isn't just about me being 7-foot," he says. "It's not like I was a token 7-footer."

Well, no. This is not a sport that demands each team employ its own aircraft carrier. Van Mil certainly is no charity case. He hasn't hung around in pro ball for 10 years simply so he could get picked first in spring training pickup basketball games.

After starting his career with the Twins organization, the club re-signed Loek van Mil in 2015.
After starting his career with the Twins organization, the club re-signed Loek van Mil in 2015.Photo courtesy of the Minnesota Twins

He started in the Minnesota Twins organization, signed as an international free agent in 2005. Then, in short order, he was employed by the Cleveland Indians, Los Angeles Angels and Cincinnati Reds organizations.

In 2014, he pitched professionally in Japan, then the Twins re-signed him.

In three different seasons with four different organizations, he climbed the minor league ladder to the top, Triple-A, but so far has been unable to make that final step to the majors. Always, teams have been intrigued by his size and the potential he brings to reduce hitters to ash with his angles and a release point that is closer to home plate than "normal" sized pitchers.

He was 20 when the Twins, first spotting that potential, signed him. They saw a tall, lanky kid who threw in the mid-80s and looked effortless doing so.

"My second year I had one bad game, and one of my coaches said, 'You're not going to last long like this. You're 7'1", you need to throw hard,'" Van Mil says.

At rookie-level Elizabethton, a veteran Minnesota organizational pitching coach named Jim Shellenback got hold of him, and the work began.

"He's as good a coach as there could be, honestly," Van Mil says.

Shellenback, who pitched nine seasons in the majors with the Pittsburgh Pirates, Washington Senators, Texas Rangers and Minnesota Twins, was the Twins pitching coach in Elizabethton for 17 seasons, from 1994 until his retirement in 2011.

"He had a pretty good arm," Shellenback says. "He had good makeup and a good attitude. Just getting all that 7'1" arms and legs coordinated was kind of a tough thing. You don't see too many like that. Randy Johnson was 6'10", kind of a freak of nature, the Big Unit. There's some guys up there in the majors who are 6'8", but 7'1" was a little tough."

Born in Oss, a city in southern Netherlands, Van Mil loved baseball as a kid and played in youth leagues as a catcher from ages eight to 14. Then one day he slid into second base, tore his meniscus and, by the time he returned from surgery, he was too tall to catch, having grown from 6'1" to 6'7" between the ages of 12 and 14. So over to first base he went, until...

"When I was 16, one of my coaches said, 'You have a decent arm, let's try to get you on the bump,'" Van Mil says. "Then the first batter I ever faced, I hit, and he had to come out of the game. That's how bad it was. I still remember it."

Van Mil helped the Netherlands reach the semifinals of the 2013 World Baseball Classic.
Van Mil helped the Netherlands reach the semifinals of the 2013 World Baseball Classic.Masterpress/Getty Images

Nevertheless, he took to pitching immediately and, as he says now, "When you look back, wow, it's a long way from professional baseball."

The field was right next to farmland. Right there in that part of the Netherlands, they were growing potatoes.

"Pretty amazing journey, going from that field to another field to playing in front of tens of thousands in Japan," Van Mil says. "I had great coaches that made it fun.

"I've done all these clinics in America, and people ask how come you throw 95? They always expect an answer like eat the right cheeses or drink the right water, but I tell them make sure the kid has fun until he's 16 or 17, then [decide] if he is a prospect, or am I looking for something that's not there? I got better because I liked playing baseball."

Under the tutelage of Shellenback and the Twins, with some mechanical adjustments and persistence, Van Mil smoothed out some of his rough edges. He increased his fastball velocity and fine-tuned a hard slider and a hard split-finger fastball. At his size, he wasn't going to finesse his way to the big leagues.

After he pitched professionally in Japan and the Netherlands, the Twins brought him back to finish the 2015 season in their organization. Then, while at Triple-A Rochester to start the 2016 season, he opened with the worst month of his career.

For starters, Aaron Judge, the New York Yankees prospect with big-time power whose home run in the team's exhibition opener this spring was the talk of the Grapefruit League late last month, drilled a line drive back up the middle off Van Mil's right knee, his push-off leg.

The stadium radar gun clocked Judge's liner at 112 mph coming off the bat. Through a bad bone bruise, Van Mil continued on active duty with Rochester, but his off-speed pitches weren't where they were supposed to be. Consequently, his ERA (23.62) and walks per nine innings (10.1) skyrocketed.

Though a 10-year veteran of professional baseball, the 7'1 van Mil has yet to stick with a major league roster.
Though a 10-year veteran of professional baseball, the 7'1 van Mil has yet to stick with a major league roster.Toru Takahashi/Associated Press

After just five appearances, the Twins handed him his release.

"I don't want to make it sound like a sad story," Van Mil says. "Everybody has these things, and you have to make adjustments. They gave me plenty of chances to prove I was worth being there, and I messed up five games in a row. I couldn't get an out.

"When they released me, I did what I thought was right: I called everyone I knew and thanked them for the chance."

Among the reasons some players elect to participate in the WBC is that the tournament partly functions as a showcase for those seeking another chance. Maybe, if everything comes together for Van Mil, a major league team will be waiting with another invitation. Same with Van Mil's teammate on the Netherlands, starting pitcher Jair Jurrjens.

While the Dutch infield is going to be some kind of slick—it will include, in various combinations, the Yankees' Didi Gregorius, the Red Sox's Xander Bogaerts, the Orioles' Jonathan Schoop, the Rangers' Jurickson Profar and the Angels' Andrelton Simmons—the other end of the spectrum is spare parts like Van Mil and Jurrjens hoping to extend their pro careers.

Partly to prepare for his second WBC, Van Mil, who was on the Dutch team in the 2013 tournament, pitched in Australia during the offseason. He's comfortable with Blyleven, whose day job is working as an analyst on Twins television broadcasts and who lives near the club's spring base in Fort Myers, Florida. In fact, Blyleven and his wife, Gayle, have had Van Mil to their house for dinner on a few occasions during previous spring trainings.

"He's a good kid," Blyleven says. "He's had some injuries that set him back. Hopefully, he'll pitch well in [the] WBC. We've got him penciled in as our closer. Hopefully, he'll get some opportunities."

Van Mil knows that if his team advances in the tournament, there is a chance that Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen could join the Netherlands in later rounds. In fact, if the Dutch pull off an upset or two, the championship round is in Dodger Stadium, something that would seem to be a natural fit for Jansen.

But that's all way out in the distant future. Today, Van Mil and his mates are in South Korea, the beginning of another new adventure, and who can be sure where this might lead?

Minor League Baseball @MiLB

7-foot-1 Loek van Mil is pitching in Australia and aiming for the Major Leagues. #MNTwins https://t.co/9TqYAIb0F3 https://t.co/HiJAdXberP

"I understand the game. You have to put up numbers," Van Mil says. "I'm not 22 anymore. You have to perform.

"It was nice being back with the Twins last year. I enjoyed it. It was good to see familiar faces again. And on a more personal level, it was good because they knew me as a teenager, and I thought it was a compliment when they re-signed me.

"They didn't just like me as a baseball player; they liked me as a person, too. You're not going to sign someone back if don't like them as person."

No, there was no need to hire a token 7-footer. It wasn't like the Twins needed someone to guard DeMarcus Cousins or Dwight Howard.

He would like to keep pitching, but he understands at this point what happens largely is out of his hands. Father Time is no longer working in his favor. Though you would like to think that someone who is as good of a guy as Van Mil maybe would get that one more opportunity.

"Yeah, well, I think the chances are pretty slim, but you never know," he says. "I've had parts of 10 years in the States, I've had plenty of teams give me plenty of opportunities. Sometimes it was me, sometimes it was no opportunities opened up."

If the door closes after this WBC, he figures he'll go back home to the Netherlands and pick up his life there again. Hopefully continue pitching. Possibly go back to school, where he'll study economics. He was accepted into school in 2015, but then the Twins called again.

"I'm not bitter," he says. "I knew the business, I knew what I was in for when I signed up. It just didn't go my way. It is what it is. It's been a great experience, a great ride so far. I've seen half the world because of baseball. I've got no complaints, no regrets. And I don't think my baseball chapter is over yet. I'm still writing."

   

Scott Miller covers Major League Baseball as a national columnist for Bleacher Report. Follow Scott on Twitter and talk baseball.

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