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02/23/11 4:09 PM EST
Angels pitcher Van Mil more than just a tall tale
By Tom Singer / MLB.com
TEMPE, Ariz. -- He is a 26-year-old right-handed relief pitcher who, realistically, will contribute little to the Angels' mission to return from the nether lands to the top of the American League West. Yet, Loek Van Mil is one of the most fascinating individuals in Los Angeles' Spring Training camp, because of where he came from and because of who didn't have anything to do with him getting here. As further proof that baseball's universe spins in cycles and the circle always closes, Van Mil arrived at his first Angels camp six weeks after the election of the only Hall of Fame pitcher from the Netherlands, Bert Blyleven, who ended his career with the Angels in 1992. Not only that, but Blyleven is identified with the team with which he broke in and in whose broadcast booth he has become a mainstay, the Minnesota Twins, the club which discovered Van Mil in the shadows of Dutch baseball and signed him in 2005. So you would have to presume that Rik Aalbert Blyleven had a lot to do with the signing of Ludovicus Jacobus Maria Van Mil. Ah, wrong. "It was all the Twins' scouting department. They're really big and good and they're everywhere in Europe," said Van Mil. "Oh, I knew about Blyleven way before I signed, but I didn't meet him until Spring Training with the Twins. He would take us Dutch guys out to dinner." Us? "Yeah, there were two others with the Twins. Alex Smith [also a right-handed pitcher] and another guy. I was the last one left," Van Mil said, then paused. "Now I'm gone, too." He came to the Angels in the deal late last August that sent lefty closer Brian Fuentes to Minnesota. The Twins are reconstructing their bullpen following the departure of multiple free agents, so Van Mil, who has worked exclusively in relief the past five years in the Minors, missed out on a chance there. But the Angels' long-range bullpen picture is also fuzzy, so Van Mil instead can plot to become the third Dutchman to play for the club, not bad out of a total of nine who have appeared in the Majors. After Blyleven in 1989-92, Robert Eenhorn played some infield for the Halos in 1996-97. "I'm happy and honored that the Angels were interested in me and are giving me this opportunity. I had a pretty bad year last year, health-wise more than anything," said Van Mil, still recovering from the shoulder tendinitis that limited him to fewer than 35 innings. Except for eight starts in his first Minor League season in 2006, Van Mil has worked in relief. To inquire about a preference is ludicrous, given his eagerness to slay his huge odds by contributing any way possible. "If they want me to play third base, I'd do that," he said. Scanning his professional resume, one might cede him a better chance of doing that than ever pitching in a big league game. Guys still logging A-ball time at 25, as was Van Mil last season, wouldn't seem to have much prospect. But, of course, you have to account for Van Mil's baseball-impoverished background and, given that, his encouraging, if delayed, development both mechanically and physically. This is a guy who discovered baseball on his own in The Netherlands, where it isn't played on the scholastic level, and pursued self-improvement on a personal mission to just see how good he could become at it. "It takes some dedication," Van Mil conceded. "I went to a private school from 8:30-5, and after that, I would travel an hour-and-a-half to get to where my team was and practice, get back, then the next day, do it over again. I was gone from 7-11 every night. "Pro baseball was never a goal or a dream," added Van Mil in one of the three languages in which he is fluent, along with German and his native Dutch. "Just because it wasn't realistic. What are the odds of a Dutchman signing a pro baseball contract? So slim." Pitching for the Dutch Under-19 national team put him on the map of Twins scouts, who then searched for Oss on a map of The Netherlands, and found Van Mil's hometown about an hour-and-a-half south of Amsterdam. "They drove all the way out, saw me pitch a couple of innings, then drove back. I thought that was pretty cool," said Van Mil, who described the milieu in which he was scouted as "not very high level, kind of like a beer league." Van Mil was intriguing enough in this Heineken League for the Twins scouts to stay on his tail for more than three years, until they signed him as a 21-year-old and sent him on a humbling journey into baseball reality. "I'd say I was average at the highest level in Holland, but after I signed, I went to Australia, where the level was not very good and it really boosted my confidence," he said. "Then I show up in the States and all these 18-year-olds are throwing 94 mph, and I was 21 throwing 85. I wasn't insecure, but I thought, 'Wow, I'm not as good as I thought I was.'" Another thought a couple of years later was more productive. The day after being lit up in an outing during his second season in the Minors, Van Mil was pulled aside by a coach who told him, "You look like you're guiding the ball. Why not throw as hard as you can?" Van Mil mulled it over that night and told himself, "Let's get more aggressive." Conditioning, weight-gain and technique did contribute to turning up the heat on his fastball, but Van Mil "did add about eight miles overnight." No wonder Van Mil remains a worthy project. Could you see any batter digging in against a 94-mph fastball slung from apparently halfway to the plate by Shaquille O'Neal? What? We didn't mention that Van Mil is 7-foot-1, the tallest player in pro ball history? Sorry. "I appreciate that," Van Mil said with a grin when the interview ended with the admission that his height had been intentionally avoided. "When I first came over, it's the only thing anyone ever talked to me about -- Sports Illustrated, ESPN." Holland to Major League Baseball may indeed seem like a tall story, but Van Mil still has a short-relief ending in mind.