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More Than Holland's Favorite Son

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06/26/2007 11:25 AM ET

More than Holland's favorite son

Vanden Hurk, who got a taste of the bigs, is living out his dream

By John Klima / Special to MLB.com


The night was made for baseball, and inside a home in Holland, where televised World Series games from the United States would reach the Netherlands at 2 a.m., Rick Vanden Hurk would get up from bed to watch his dreams.


His father, Wim, once a ballplayer, seldom missed a game. The deal was simple. Rick could get up in the middle of the night to watch the World Series, then get some sleep before school. These were small moments that began the bond of baseball between father and son. It would set a course for a future unfolding far from Vanden Hurk's native Eindhoven.


"We had it all planned out," Rick, now 21, explained. "It was a six-hour difference. I'd go back to bed at 6 a.m., and then get up to go to school at 7:30 a.m. The sleep deprivation was very much worth it."


Vanden Hurk had to rub his eyes when he arrived in the Major Leagues as a 20-year-old rookie right-hander with the Florida Marlins this spring. He later earned his first Major League victory and was selected to represent Holland on the World Team in the XM All-Star Futures Game on July 8.


This has not been as easy as rising in the middle of the night to watch one of his idols, John Smoltz, pitch for the Braves in the 1996 World Series and in countless playoff games. After Vanden Hurk left Holland at the age of 16, his cobbled road windmilled through two major surgeries before his 19th birthday. His goal this year was to get to Double-A, but a fastball running as high as 97 can change plans quickly.


After two stints with the Marlins this year, the 6-foot-5 Vanden Hurk is back at Double-A Carolina. Baseball has been a fixture in the Netherlands since 1905, but Vanden Hurk is only the fourth player born in Holland after 1900 to reach the Major Leagues. History is one thing, but his story is another. Vanden Hurk's cell phone is nearby, and he knows Wim is on his way to the ballpark.


"He's a great guy," Rick said. "Besides being my dad, he's my biggest supporter, along with my mom and my sister. They're always there for me no matter what happens. That means a lot to me."


It meant a lot when Vanden Hurk, then 16, made the decision to accept scout Fred Ferreira's invitation to come to South Florida and participate in the Marlins' International Baseball Academy. Vanden Hurk had already had a taste of international baseball, playing for Holland's youth national team. He had dabbled with soccer and judo, but baseball was his calling. Wim told Rick he could go to America if he finished high school in the States. Rick agreed before Wim could wink.


"They brought me over as a catcher, and the next Spring Training, they said, 'You're going to be a pitcher,'" Vanden Hurk said. "I said, 'OK. I didn't care.'"


But the plans went almost immediately wrong.


"Rick called me up on a Monday and said he had problems with his hip," Wim remembered. "He couldn't run, and he couldn't walk. He said I have to have surgery on Friday. I said, 'To do what?' He said, 'To remove something on my hip.' I said, 'Well, I'm there tomorrow.'"


The procedure was supposed to remove a small piece of frayed bone that showed up on an MRI. It was supposed to be a short surgery, but almost two hours later, Wim was still waiting.


"I was getting anxious," Wim said. "Finally, the doctor came and told me it was worse than we thought. It was a tumor, but it was benign. You can imagine, we were scared like hell."


Vanden Hurk was back in cleats for the Gulf Coast League that summer. Two years later, he underwent successful Tommy John elbow reconstruction surgery. Vanden Hurk said he came back after the surgery throwing four miles an hour harder.


That helped accelerate his arrival in South Florida. Marlins manager Fredi Gonzalez made a mental note when he saw Vanden Hurk pitch well against the Orioles in a Grapefruit League start. His goal of simply reaching Double-A suddenly had a higher ceiling when the Marlins decided he was ready to face big-league hitters.


His first call was to Wim, who spread the news as fast as it could race through the houses and storefronts of Eindhoven. Wim and Rita, Rick's mother, along with his older sister, Anneke, 24, drove to Amsterdam for a short hop to London followed by the nine-hour haul to Miami.


"My dad told me they'd all be there no matter what," Vanden Hurk said. "That made it so much more meaningful."


His family's devotion matched his. Vanden Hurk's Major League debut on April 10 -- a rainy and sticky South Florida night -- was as much about family as it was about baseball. Wim and Rita had divorced when Rick was younger. As he built his baseball career, he saw his parents build a different relationship centered around their children. When he made his debut, the healing process was complete. To Vanden Hurk, family means as much as fastballs.


"My mom and dad are divorced, but they get along with each other now very good over the last couple of years, so I'm really happy about that," Rick said. "For the whole family to come in to see me pitch in the big leagues, it just tells you right there that there's a lot of love."


His parents never hesitated for a moment.


"When you are divorced and you have kids to raise, you always have to discuss some problems," Wim said. "When one of those kids is in the United States, you have to discuss more problems than when they are back home. We are very close concerning talking about the things Rick goes through in the U.S."


Together, the family watched his first game. Wim saw his second victory in Kansas City. Rita saw his first Major League victory, a six-inning, one-hit effort in Atlanta. Wim and Rick didn't miss the significance. Vanden Hurk's first victory was against the pitcher they loved to stay up late to watch.


"Rick was always looking up to Smoltz," Wim said. "In his room back in Holland, he has a big picture of him."


Vanden Hurk took special pleasure in that, though at only 21, he sounds thrilled to have shared the same mound.


"That's a Hall of Fame pitcher," Rick said. "To actually get my first win against Smoltz was a big thrill. To me, it's part of learning in the big leagues."


The victory showed some of the tantalizing stuff he throws -- a fastball that rises in the strike zone, a curveball that dives, a changeup that stalls and a slider that slices. One scout called him smooth and explosive. He said he loved how Vanden Hurk pitches, like he's not afraid of anything.


Wim enjoys watching Rick take his first steps into the Majors. In Holland, a night on TV doesn't go by without a report. The newspapers follow him. Former pitcher Bert Blyleven was born in Zeist, Holland, but he grew up in Southern California and went to high school a curveball's toss away from Angel Stadium. His 287-victory career was molded in America.


Vanden Hurk, however, thoroughly belongs to Holland, as a product of its national and local club teams. Win Remmerswaal, Rikkert Faneyte and Robert Eenhoorn preceded Vanden Hurk to the Majors, but each had short career. Vanden Hurk has a chance to be the first native Dutch player to have a long impact.


"I don't think he's even busy with that yet," Wim said. "He's doing his job and enjoying every minute of it."


So too is Wim, who runs a baseball academy in Holland when he's not following Rick. He gave up his baseball career when he lost his father. Now he is repaid through his son.


"That was the end of baseball for me, but to be honest, watching what Rick is doing is great," Wim said. "I'm proud. For the moment, I'm living the dream, too."


So is Rick, who says he can't wait to pitch in the Futures Game, and hopes he can pitch for the Netherlands in the next World Baseball Classic.


"I love sharing what's going on with baseball with my dad," Vanden Hurk said with a broad enough smile to stretch across the Atlantic Ocean.


The nights are still made for baseball. Wim has watched Rick pitch a few Minor League games, savoring each one as though it was a World Series game. Baseball is still about fathers and sons, no matter the nation.


John Klima is a contributor to MLB.com. This story was not subject to the approval of Major League Baseball or its clubs.


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I like hearing all I can about Hurk(although, I wont lie...I came across this while researching if we had signed anyone else out of the Netherlands)

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