Pre Tour and Day 1: July 8-10
It’s great to be back in the Netherlands! When I used to work at Major League Baseball, my favorite business trip destination was Europe, and I specifically loved Haarlem. That’s why I have been so eager to put the continent on our baseball tour schedule, and why Honkbalweek Haarlem is the perfect vehicle for that.
Haarlem is known as “Little Amsterdam,” as it has the charm, history, and culture of nearby Amsterdam, but is more compact and with fewer international tourists. Note that I say “international tourists” – the city is a beloved destination for Dutch tourists who seek out the city’s delicious culinary scene, tranquil canals, classical European plaza, rich historical significance, and municipal beach. Still, the crowds are much more subdued than Amsterdam’s, and there are no signs of the commercialized hallmarks of a global tourism hotspot like Amsterdam.
My wife, Jessie, and I had to do a little bit of tour recon, so we went to a couple of establishments that we were considering for group outings: Jopen, a craft brewery located in an old church, and Van Beinum, an Indonesian-influenced gastropub. Both were excellent, and we looked forward to returning with the group. Real tough work!
I also wanted to go to the ballpark to get a lay of the land, so I joined early-arriving tour guests “Doc” and Nema for the USA-Japan game. I sure am glad I caught that one! Japan beat the U.S. 1-0 in extra innings, taking advantage of the international tournament rule that requires that runners be placed on first and second bases in extra innings. The Japanese were certainly well-drilled on both sides of the ball for such high-strategy scenarios, as small ball and defensive fundamentals are a hallmark of the Japanese game. The U.S. team was assembled only weeks before the event due to the players needing to finish their respective college seasons (both the U.S. and Japan sent their collegiate national teams to Haarlem, while the other participating countries – Cuba, Curacao, Italy, and the Netherlands – played with their senior national teams), did not execute as well as their Japanese counterparts and walked away with a heartbreaking loss.
I have to mention our dinner too. Doc, Nema, Jessie, and I ate a world-class dinner at Ratatouille Food & Wine, one of Haarlem’s three Michelin-star restaurants. What a treat that was!
Sunday was day one of the tour. It was wonderful to see the smiling faces of our arriving guests, as all the emails and arrangements had finally given way to the fun part – experiencing a new culture through a baseball lens with fellow adventurous fans!
Van Beinum was the perfect spot for our welcome dinner. It is a fun restaurant with a delicious and unique menu. It is right in the city center of Haarlem, which is dominated by Bavo Kerk, a massive and gorgeous 15-century cathedral, and its sprawling plaza that is lined with cafes and restaurants. Rather than sit inside, most patrons eat and drink at tables set up on the plaza in front of the establishments. The seats are all oriented towards the plaza and arranged for the guests to sit side-by-side (rather than facing each other) so that they can watch the passersby as they leisurely sip their beverages. I imagine that not much about this scene has changed for hundreds of years. The energy is cheerful but relaxed. No one is in a hurry. It truly is the quintessential European scene.
Day 2 – July 11
I wanted to give our guests the opportunity to use the train system early in the tour so that they would see how effective it is. Therefore, we went into Amsterdam on the morning of day one for our first excursion – the Van Gogh Museum. I was blown away by how many masterpieces are compiled in one place, all by the same artist. Perusing the museum is like listening to the discography of The Beatles or Michael Jackson: the hits just keep on coming!
After the museum, it was finally time for baseball. We arrived early for the first game of the day between Italy and Curacao. Fans entered through a gate that led to a gameday plaza that was indicative of what type of week was in store. First, right smack in the middle of everything was a large tent that would serve as a bar and post-game music venue. Next, on one side of the plaza was a trio of merchandise tents that sold baseball equipment and MLB swag (both of which are hard to come by in the country), as well as official Honkbalweek and Team Netherlands gear. Finally, various food and drink options surrounded the plaza: grilled meats, amazing frites that would beat any American ballpark fries, smoothies, gelato, and more.
Italy, perhaps galvanized by the arrival of their Hall-of-Fame manager, Mike Piazza, beat Curacao for their first victory of the tournament. Piazza missed the first two games because he was in New York for Keith Hernandez’s uniform number retirement ceremony, a questionable move to me. However, he did enter Cooperstown wearing a Mets cap, and it was an important day for the franchise and its loyal fans. I’ll consider it an excused absence.
A handful of us were happy that Italy won because that meant that Piazza would be in a good mood after the game. Well, that worked out well! Piazza took photos, signed autographs, and chatted briefly with us. He thought it was cool that a group of Americans were here to watch Honkbalweek, although he assumed that we were there as part of the Team USA contingent. When I told him that we were simply a group of baseball fans here to watch a unique and fun baseball event, he thought that was even cooler!
The night game was a clash between two baseball powerhouses: USA and Cuba. The baseball rivalry between these two countries is fierce and longstanding, but colored by a sense of sportsmanship and mutual respect that the political rivalry lacks. Today’s matchup was particularly intriguing as it pitted a group of just-assembled American college stars against a Cuban team comprised primarily of players from the most recent Cuban Winter League champs (Los Alazanes de Granma), fortified with a cast of veteran stalwarts, led by 42-year-old legend Frederich Cepeda.
The young Americans won 2-0, showing that they had no fear of the Cubans, some of whom were twice their age. With multiple players of the Pablo Sandoval body type, a handful relentlessly-spirited fans, and Little-League-esque game hats with an adjustable strap, I found myself having a soft spot for the cubanos. Furthering my affection for them was knowing that despite their world-class talent, the players are paid less than even their counterparts in this event who play in the Dutch or Italian leagues, and that their national team has been decimated by defectors in recent years, making it a nearly impossible task for these players to live up to the high standard of the program that was set by players of a higher caliber.
Day 3 – July 12
Our first activity of the day was to cross the Spaarne River that is adjacent to our hotel and meet Joeren, who would be our skipper and tour guide on a Haarlem canal tour. It was a perfect morning to be on the water.
The night game was USA vs. the Netherlands, providing our first taste of how festive the crowd is when supporting their home team. These honkbal fans know how to have fun!
Dan Charest, one of our tour guests (and host of the Travel for Sports Podcast) wore his Fukuoka SoftBank Hawks shirt with the hope that Hawks legend and five-time Japan Series champion Rick van den Hurk would present at the game. When stationed in Fukuoka, Dan saw first-hand how important van den Hurk was to the Hawks’ recent dynasty.
When I told Dan that not only was van den Hurk at the ballpark but he was also coming down to meet us in just a couple of minutes, Dan thoughtfully notified another fan that he had noticed wearing a Hawks jersey, figuring he would also like to meet van den Hurk, who is arguably the best pitcher to ever be born and raised in the country (Bert Blyleven was born in the Netherlands, but raised primarily in California). Dan was right – Ruben had also lived in Fukuoka, and van den Hurk’s heroics were the main inspiration for him being a baseball fan!
Day 4 – July 13
Another Amsterdam day and baseball night. Two must-see Amsterdam museums are the Anne Frank House and the Rijksmuseum, which is the opulent national museum of the Netherlands that features the works of master Dutch painters like Rembrandt and Frans Hals. We visited both, taking advantage of the distance between them to stroll through the canal-lined “Nine Streets” area and eat a countryside-style Dutch meal at The Pantry.
The baseball highlight of the day was sitting in the livelier, unassigned seating section. It became immediately apparent how much affection the Dutch fans have for the Japanese team, even though they were playing against the Netherlands. Team Japan gathers around outside of the dugout for a quick word and cheer every inning, and the Dutch fans accentuate the cheering part. The Japanese players loved it, and a couple of them would smile and wave nearly every time. This was the first of many reasons why it was clear to me that no team had more fun than Japan.
Day 5 – July 14
Day one of the Honkbalweek tournament playoffs. The day’s first game saw Cuba and Italy compete to not finish in last place. The Cubans won, sending them home on a high note, while the Italians showed that they still had a way to go if they wanted to compete on a world stage.
After the first semifinal of the day began, I jumped on my rented bicycle and pedaled from the stadium back to Bavo Kerk church. I wanted to hear the Muller organ, one of the world’s most historic organs, played in a concert setting. Tour guest Pat and I heard an Italian organist play a series of Bach songs in an hour-long performance. The sight and sounds of the organ were mesmerizing, and I was glad that I opted to skip a little bit of baseball for this unique opportunity. After all, it’s not every day that you can say that you heard an instrument that Mozart once played!
Pat and I made it back to watch the end of the day’s second game and attend our group’s hosted barbecue dinner at the stadium. Honkbalweek president Guus van Dee, who had been so gracious to me with his time and hospitality leading up to and during the week, joined us for a dinner of grilled hamburgers and chicken satay.
The two evening games were spirited, as four teams vied for a spot in the championship games. Most expected Japan and USA to advance, but the host Netherlands and underdog Curacao prevailed. None of us were disappointed, as we knew that the Japan-USA “bronze medal game” would be an excellent matchup and the Netherlands-Curacao matchup would result in the most spirited championship game possible.
Day 6: July 15
The day’s first game was between Japan and USA. Japan won to earn third place, and the mutual admiration between the Japanese contingent and the Dutch fans was pretty fun to see.
Perhaps equally as fun was the between-game picnic we had in the stadium! Jessie arranged an absolutely epic spread of charcuterie, cheese, and fruit, and we were well-fed heading into the last game of Honkbalweek.
The championship game was a fascinating matchup for many reasons:
- Curacao is a former Dutch colony that is still part of the Kingdom of the Netherlands.
- Most of the players on the Kingdom of the Netherlands national team are from Curacao, a country that is prolific at producing ballplayers. Therefore, the players on Team Curacao are essentially the Netherlands “B Team,” composed of players who didn’t make the Kingdom of the Netherlands team. This was a quintessential “underdog” team!
- Curacao hadn’t even been initially invited to participate in Honkbalweek. They were a last-minute replacement for Taiwan, who was not allowed to travel due to Covid restrictions.
- There is a strong Curacao population in the Netherlands, meaning this game would be a great opportunity for the community to gather and cheer their team on.
The final game began in front of a raucous crowed that was primarily wearing the orange of the Netherlands, but would be happy if either team won. There was clearly a familial bond between the players on both teams, making this a feel-good matchup.
The host Netherlands prevailed, and after some on-field champagne sprays, a handshake line formed between the two teams. However, instead of handshakes, every player and every coach of both teams exchanged a hug. The love and respect between the two teams were palpable.
Day 7: July 16
Departure day. We say goodbye to old and new friends. Another baseball adventure in the books. It was festive, informative, delicious, and loaded with high-end baseball.
Honkbalweek is truly an event for the entire Dutch baseball community. It is not often that national teams of other countries play baseball in the Netherlands, especially teams of this caliber. What a perfect opportunity for members of this niche community to gather and relish in their shared love of the game. And how lucky we were to take part in it!