Wednesday, August 24, 2016

Little League® Is a Part of Life in Curacao

By Nick Fathergill
When The Pope makes an appearance in Vatican City, all of Rome takes notice. Nobody bothers with work or household tasks – the sole focus is Il Papa. That’s how the island nation of Curaçao is with the Little League Baseball® World Series.

Before 2001, teams from the Caribbean competed in the Latin America Region tournament to qualify for the LLBWS. In those years, only one Curaçao team earned a berth in the tournament – Pabao Little League in 1980. However, since Little League International doubled the size of the Williamsport World Series from eight to 16 teams, Caribbean teams have received an automatic berth.

Over the past 15 years, Curaçao, a nation of 150,000 people, has sent 11 teams to Williamsport. Pabao Little League has won the Region seven straight times (2003-09); with Pariba Little League representing the Region in ’01, ’02, ’12, and again this year.

Gonzalo Cuales has covered the LLBWS each year Curaçao has sent a team since 2001. As the radio voice of Z86 in Willemstad, the capital city of Curaçao, Mr. Cuales has seen first-hand just how fervently his fellow countrymen follow the event.

“I have to tell you, people go nuts about everything that has to do with the Little League World Series,” said Mr. Cuales. “Even the regional tournaments are huge – we call them national drama, because there is so much attention.” Mr. Cuales said citizens of Curaçao will listen to the games on the radio – while watching the ESPN broadcast as well.

In fact, when Pabao Little League won the LLBWS back in 2004, the players were treated like national heroes upon their return home. “When the team came back on the island, of course there was a national parade,” recalled Mr. Cuales. “Everybody involved was in a motorcade in the city center, and people lined the streets waving and welcoming them back home.”

Mr. Cuales says the huge success of some Little League players from Curaçao, such as the Orioles’ Jonathan Schoop and the Rangers’ Jurickson Profar, has inspired countless children back home. Above all, he thinks Andrelton Simmons of the Angels – a Curaçaoan – has done a lot of good for his country’s aspiring ballplayers.

“Simmons went to school in the United States, and then he got drafted,” said Mr. Cuales. “He wasn’t originally scouted. So, now the trend is to send kids to school to get an education, and then get drafted.” That way, if baseball doesn’t work out – and for many, it doesn’t, observed Mr. Cuales – they have an education to fall back on.

He sees the Little Leaguers® in Williamsport as representatives of his home country, who have a responsibility to help Curaçao maintain its good name and gain more international exposure. “We have tourism as one of our main sources of income,” said Mr. Cuales. “So, we want people to know Curaçao is there as a potential vacation destination, which will help our economy.”

In his 11th trip to Williamsport, Mr. Cuales believes he knows the formula for success. “I’ve been here long enough to know there is one big clue to win in Williamsport,” said Mr. Cuales. “Pitching, pitching, pitching – its about 95 percent of the team’s success.”

Back in 2004, Pabao had both Profar and Schoop as pitchers, which Mr. Cuales believes gave them a significant advantage over other teams in that tournament.

When asked if this year’s team from Pariba Little League had the tools to win the LLBWS, Mr. Cuales said the challenge they faced was having already thrown its two best starters. Because of the days-of-rest pitching rule, both are ineligible to pitch against Australia on Tuesday. However, if the other pitchers continue to step up, Mr. Cuales likes their chances.

Ironically, Pariba Little League had its 2016 World Series ended by Australia, 2-1, in a pitcher’s duel on Tuesday evening at Little League Volunteer Stadium.