ANAHEIM, Calif. – Andrelton Simmons is a household name now, but in the spring of 2013, the slick-fielding shortstop had fewer than 50 major league games under his belt. Simmons cracked Baseball America’s Top 100 in 2011, but was not considered a surefire prospect. That all changed at the World Baseball Classic that March.
Simmons brought his trademark defence to the Netherlands’ national team, but also fuelled the nation’s incredible run with a .333/.382/.633 mark at the plate. Then 22 years old, Simmons collected 10 hits in eight games, striking out only twice as the Orange beat Cuba twice before losing to eventual champions the Dominican Republic in the semis.
Since then, Simmons has established himself as the top-fielding shortstop in MLB, winning two Gold Gloves with the Braves and leading the NL in defensive WAR between 2013-15. In November 2015, he was sent to the Angels in a surprise trade. Last season, he got off to a rough start and then tore the UCL in his left thumb, but finished strong, collecting a .281 average for the season.
Simmons picked up where he left off in the recently concluded WBC, hitting .344 in seven games, though he was upstaged at the plate by the combination of Wladimir Balentien and Jurickson Profar, to whom we talked in Los Angeles. Simmons (21) is just behind Balentien (23) on the Netherlands’ all-time Classic hit list, with both in the tournament’s career top 10.
We spoke with Simmons, now 27, before the first game of last week’s Angels-Rangers series. The Curaçaoan star made time before batting practice to sit in the home dugout and reflect on his baseball career two days after he treated our reporter to a line drive home run in his first at bat.
The thoughtful and genial Simmons spoke movingly about donning the Dutch jersey and the duty he felt to lead the team in the latest in our series of World Baseball Classic retrospectives. Our chat is below, but the expressive Dutch infielder is worth listening to via our Soundcloud.
Gabriel Fidler: We’re going to talk to Andrelton Simmons for a few minutes before the Angels take on the Rangers in Angel Stadium. Andrelton, I was wondering, first of all, if you could reflect on your time in the World Baseball Classic this year?
Andrelton Simmons: It was fun. It was really fun! Had a blast doing it again, got to play with some guys I play against now, but that I grew up playing with, so that’s pretty cool. And you get to represent your country! Making it as far as we did, it’s pretty special. I think we could have done better, but we still did pretty good once you look back.
GF: Compared to your first time in the Classic last time, when you were really just an up-and-coming guy, that was almost your breakout out—you were well on the way, but now you’ve had a few years behind you. Can you reflect on how you’ve grown since the last World Baseball Classic and also how being in the Classic has affected that?
AS: The first time I took part, I just got called up the year before and did okay, felt pretty secure about my job the next season, but still not anything [totally] secure, so I still felt a little pressure to do well so I didn’t look back when I came back [from the Classic]. Fortunately, I did good the first time. The second time, I felt more responsible for carrying the national team. I’m not saying I did that, but I definitely feel like I helped. I helped a little with the experience of the game, I helped with the mentality, I tried to keep everyone going, I tried to push the guys, although the guys we had were already pretty motivated. Job was easy, but it was fun!
GF: You, as you mentioned, played alongside these guys as a kid growing up, now as competitors. You know them really well. What is like for the Netherlands to have that infield of young guys who all feel really comfortable with each other and who enjoy playing around each other?
AS: It’s fun! We got guys that could have thrown—you could have picked a position and we could have done the job. When Hensley decided to make the lineup like he did guys did fantastic. It was fun, I can’t explain. [smiles broadly] I love doing it. I want to do it every year, if possible, if I get the opportunity. I’m looking forward to next time; hopefully I make the team again!
GF: Have you talked members of the team since the Classic has been over and talked about your experience and talked about where the team got to?
AS: Well we haven’t talked about that. You try to leave that behind. We know we could have done better. It hurts when you look back, when we lost that last game. I have talked to the guys, but try not to bring that up!
GF: It’s a tremendous accomplishment, though, back-to-back World Baseball Classics to have the Netherlands’ team in the semi-final. That’s incredible that there’s a team that represents Europe, with a lot of constituent parts, in a semi-final of a sport that’s known for its Japan, US, Caribbean teams, and so forth. Last time you got to the semi-final and it was a good game, a close game. This time, it was a nail-biting game [Simmons laughs] that it could have gone any way, any inning. It was electric—a lot of people said it was the best game of the tournament. You’re so close! You’re inches away. What does it take for the Netherlands to make it to the final next time?
AS: A little more focus, less mistakes. I feel like we had the game in our hands and we made a couple of mistakes. A couple of things go a different way and we win that game without it going to extra innings, with the runner on second, whatever that was! [Laughs]
GF: We’re going to talk about baseball in Curaçao in a moment, but I wanted to ask you about what it feels like to identify as—you’re Curaçaoan, that’s who you are—but you play for the Netherlands, which is a country in a completely different continent. Obviously, there are a lot of ties between Curaçao and the Netherlands, so it’s not like it’s an unheard-of concept, but what it is like to represent a country in name that you don’t actually live in. You’re representing a European country as a player from the Caribbean. Can you talk about that?
AS: It goes back to why we play—there’s a little history to why we play for the Netherlands—we have the Dutch passport, I have a lot of family that live there, or used to live there and came back. I’ve gone there to play tournaments. It’s pretty cool, I still feel like we’re family. The guys I played with, even though we’re maybe not from the same island, you still feel connected, especially when you’re playing a tournament like that. It’s personal. We all came together, we’re all very motivated, very passionate about what we were doing. We felt as one. I can’t explain it—I don’t notice we’re not the same, we don’t live on the same island or in Europe.
GF: But obviously, you speak the same language, you have a lot of the same traditions…
AS: We can speak the same language, we have a lot of the same traditions, like you said: colourful…
GF: You’ve mentioned that you’ve played in the Netherlands for tournaments. Could you talk about the experiences you’ve had playing actually on the continent of Europe? Your playing experience, but also the fans and environment?
AS: It was interesting. I was very young when I did it. I played for Curaçao against Netherlands, Cuba, United States…
GF: Was this the Baseball World Cup?
AS: No, it was a tournament… [pauses]
GF: Was it Honkbal Week?
AS: Yeah, it was the Honkbal Week. I didn’t do that great. I made maybe one or two good plays. I was still young, still very weak. I didn’t hit that well, but it was a good learning experience for me. After that I grew; after that I came back home and then got a scholarship and went to the US, and the rest is history. Playing there was a really nice experience. It still has room to grow, but there is talent and I saw it at the Baseball Classic. A couple of the guys I played with, there is talent, there needs to be a little more development there. It’s pretty cool, they gotta develop it, but it is there.
GF: Can you talk how the World Baseball Classic affects the growth of this talent and development in the Netherlands and Curaçao?
AS: When you’re a kid and you’re watching the national team play and everyone comes together and watch it, you want to do it, too. As a kid, I grew up watching the Netherlands play soccer a lot and I wanted to play soccer. I started playing soccer, made a lot of good friends playing soccer. Baseball [was] the same. I watched Andruw Jones, I wanted to be like Andruw Jones when I played baseball and here I am. Those tournaments, when you’re watching those guys play, you want to be like them. So it motivates a lot of kids to want to be one of the guys, one of the Gregoriuses, the Bogaerts, whoever, and it pushes you.
GF: Can you tell me now more about what it’s like to actually play as a child in Curaçao? What the fields are like, what the fans are like?
AS: It’s a lot of energy. I feel like in the US it’s a little more quiet, more respect, and on the island it’s a little more showy, fans let you know. You get that every once in a while here, but it’s a little more extreme back home. That’s the little difference. But baseball is baseball no matter where you play it. The environment, the fans are a little more excited in the way of how involved they are [laughs], how they let you know their real feelings [laughs again].
GF: But I’m guessing you appreciate that when it comes to something like the World Baseball Classic and you have these fans…
AS: Oh yeah, you saw that! You saw how the teams were reacting, Puerto Rico is a great example, they play with their heart on their sleeve. It shows. We have fun, we let them know when we’re feeling excited, we celebrated when we did something good. It’s a different than MLB with the long season and you don’t have that energy everyday, you’ve gotta hold onto that. That’s the difference I see.
GF: You’re playing in a few minutes, opposite Jurickson Profar of the Rangers. What are you going to say to him when he trots past you at some point?
AS: I don’t know! [grins] I talk to him every once in a while so I might say hi and whatnot, but once we start playing against each other, he becomes a little enemy, because we gotta win!
GF: Andrelton, thanks very much, I really appreciate it!
Past 2017 World Baseball Classic Retrospectives include:
Robinsón Canó on the World Baseball Classic: “It’s Always Fun”
Jansen on Baseball in Curaçao: “I Never Stop Helping”
Segura on Playing for Dominican: “The Best Emotion You’ll Ever Have”
All photos are copyright Gabriel Fidler, 2017.