As Hall of Fame voters receive their ballots for the 2019 induction class of the National Baseball Hall of Fame, Andruw Jones should get strong consideration.
The former Atlanta Braves center fielder’s legacy on the field is impressive: 10 Rawlings Gold Glove Awards, five All-Star Game appearances and a Sporting News Player of the Year Award.
More impressively, perhaps, Jones’ ultimate legacy may be off the field as the driving influence of the new generation of baseball stars from his home island of Curaçao.
Curaçao is roughly the size of Denver. Yet the island, which is only approximately 171 square miles, has become one of the hottest places for baseball development.
Dodgers closer Kenley Jansen, Braves second baseman Ozzie Albies and Brewers second baseman Jonathan Schoop are just three big leaguers who call Curaçao home. The explosion of talent on the island can be traced back to the 1996 World Series when a teenage outfielder in Atlanta burst onto the scene.
Jones inspired these players and also helped them see a clear, attainable path to the big leagues.
In 1996, Jones became the first player from Curaçao to appear in the World Series. Although a teenager, he hit two home runs in Game 1 of the Fall Classic against the Yankees.
Although the Braves lost the World Series, Jones became a hero back home.
“To see Andruw hit two home runs in the World Series in 1996 started hope that if he can make it why not us?” said Jansen, who became the second player from the island to appear in the World Series in 2017.
Hensley “Bam Bam” Meulens made his debut as the first big leaguer from Curaçao with the Yankees in 1989. Jones was the first player from the island to become a superstar.
Changing the game
After his emergence in the 1996 World Series, Jones went back to Curaçao and immediately worked to improve the approach to the game.
“On the island, they practice all year long but the season is so short,” Jones said. “I think they only played about 50 games, something like that. Their season was much shorter than it is in the States.”
Jones established a preseason tournament for the best young players on the island. The tournament winner earned the chance to meet Jones.
Schoop played on the team that won Jones’ tournament, earning the trip to watch his hero play in Atlanta.
Jansen has similar memories of the significance of the tournament in his development and aspirations to become a big league player someday.
“I was 9 years old and I remember him throwing out the first pitch,” Jansen said. “It was pretty awesome to see your hero from Curaçao come home and show some appreciation. “I looked up to him and believed in myself, and here I am 22 years later.”
The growing game
Almost every major leaguer from Curaçao has come through the Andruw Jones tournament.
The list of players from the island in the majors continues to grow and become more impressive.
In addition to Jansen, Albies and Schoop, Jurickson Profar of the Rangers, Didi Gregorius of the Yankees and Andrelton Simmons of the Angels also are Curaçao natives.
Gregorius is the only player from that list who didn’t play in Jones’ tournament.
“When I look around it makes me proud,” Schoop said. “Everyone has established themselves now and we’re playing in the big leagues as All-Stars. It makes me feel good and it makes us feel good about the island. It’s a small island, but there’s more to come.”
Jansen and Schoop were teammates representing the Netherlands in the 2017 World Baseball Classic.
Jones remains in contact with most of them. He works with the Braves organization, so he stayed in touch with Albies as he followed his path to Atlanta. For Jansen and Schoop, the guidance comes from a mentor they consider to be like an older brother.
“When I have tough times I talk to him,” Schoop said.
“[Andruw] is positive all the time, so just to talk to him it makes you feel good.”
Both players said they find strength and confidence in their ability to talk to a player like Jones, who appeared in 18 postseason series during his illustrious career.
For Jones, the relationship also feels brotherly. He has a sense of pride for playing a role in their development.
A bright future
Jones ran his youth tournament for more than a decade. He then handed it over to Jansen. He returns to the island frequently and has a vision for bigger things to come for baseball.
“My goal is to build a facility down there so the kids can have better places to practice and play,” Jones said. “Hopefully in the future we can have even more kids from Curaçao make it to the majors.
“I just want Curaçao to be known for having a lot of baseball talent.”
Featured Image: The Sporting News
Inset Image: Jayne Kamin-Oncea / Getty Images Sport