PEORIA, Ariz. — As some of the Seattle minor leaguers left the field following Thursday afternoon’s win over the Cincinnati Reds, they were greeted by a massive, hulking man sporting a Mohawk.
No, it wasn’t the ever-scowling Mr. T; this guy couldn’t stop smiling.
Kalian Sams – all 228 pounds of rock-solid muscle – was standing at the back gate of Peoria Stadium, where players exit to the clubhouse, waiting to see his teammates and friends. The affable Sams delivered a bear hug that engulfed Nick Franklin. He chatted with Brad Miller and Francisco Martinez. He said he talked to every player who left the field and many of the coaches and staff.
“That was almost the whole team I played with last year and a bunch of other guys I knew. It was so good to see them,” Sams said.
Why wasn’t he on the field?
Because in just over 24 hours, Sams would be playing against them as a member of the Netherlands team in the World Baseball Classic. The Netherlands will face the Mariners tonight at 7 at Peoria Stadium in an exhibition.
Sams is the lone remaining player in the Seattle organization still participating in the WBC. The Netherlands advanced to the WBC championship round by beating Cuba in the Pool 1 semifinals in Tokyo. Sams hit the winning sacrifice fly to beat Cuba.
The Nethherlands team, which is working out in Peoria, will play exhibition games before going to San Francisco for the championship round on Monday.
“It’s going to be weird to see them across the field because most of the time you are sitting next to them in the dugout,”
Sams said. “It should be fun playing against them. I’m looking forward to it.”
Sams isn’t exactly a heralded name in the ranks of prospects. Born and raised in The Hague, he is 26 and has been with the Mariners since he signed as a non-drafted free agent in 2006.
The Mariners had previous success signing the late Greg Halman out of Haarlem, the Netherlands, in 2004. Sams is a lot like Halman – big, strong, and athletic with raw power at the plate – but a year older.
“We grew up together throughout all the leagues we played each other since we were 9 years old,” Sams said. “He signed with the Mariners before I did. So after that, I decided to sign with the Mariners since he was here.”
Like Halman, Sams has progressed slowly through the minor leagues. The lack of top level competition in youth leagues in Holland slowed his progression. And better pitching led to struggles with strikeouts and production.
“I have to be more consistent with the bat,” he said. “I’ve had a lot of ups and downs throughout the years.”
He spent all of last season with Double-A Jackson, hitting .242 (62-for-256) in 76 games, with 11 doubles, 11 homers and 35 RBI. He struck out 85 times.
Two seasons ago, he hit 18 homers in 93 games with Class-A Clinton, but also struck out 102 times.
The talent is there; the power is evident.
“He’s amazing,” said one-time Mariners prospect Wladimir Balentien, who is Sams’ teammate on the Netherlands team. “You see him hit in (batting practice), he’s got power. He hits some balls where I don’t know how he far he hit them. He’s growing up. He has a little more to learn. If he puts all those things together, I hope he will be a star in Seattle someday.”
Sams knows there is work to be done just to get to Triple-A, let alone the big leagues.
“Cutting down the strikeouts will help a lot and putting the ball in play with two strikes,” he said. “Pitch selection is part of it as well. Just trying to put good wood on the ball consistently.”
Halman battled the same issues when he was with the Mariners. Eventually Halman figured out those problems and was called up to the majors in 2010. It was a landmark accomplishment for a native of the Netherlands.
While many players from Curaao – a constituent country of The Netherlands – have made the major leagues, most notably Andruw Jones and Balentien, Halman was from Haarlem and that meant something to the young kids back home .
“I believe a lot of kids looked up to him and started playing baseball and trying to be a little better,” Sams said. “They saw him grow from playing in the Dutch leagues to the major leagues. And that’s every kid’s dream, even in the Netherlands where it’s not as big of a sport. Having that kind of background and being from the Netherlands, you don’t really have anybody to look up to except for Andruw Jones and he’s not really from the Netherlands, he’s from Curaao. Greg became kind of the main guy at that point.”
The death of Halman, who was stabbed to death by his younger brother, Jason, in November 2011, rocked the small baseball community in the country.
“Everybody knew Greg Halman,” Sams said. “All the kids looked up to him. He was a great example. He was a great guy to be around. Everybody loved him.”
Sams hopes to ease some of the lingering pain from Halman’s death by following in the footsteps of his fallen friend all the way to the big leagues.
“Hopefully it’s me, I’m working toward it,” he said sheepishly.
The WBC has helped him in that process.
“You play good teams, the best of the best of every country,” he said. “That’s the best you are going to get. Having those at-bats against those guys and having good at-bats makes you a little more focused to be ready for the season.”
When he takes the field tonight against his teammates, Halman will be on his mind and always have a permanent place in his heart.
“I always play for him,” he said. “Every day.”
SPRING TRAINING RECAP
MARINERS 8, REDS 7 (at Peoria Stadium)
The facts: After dropping six of their previous seven games, the Mariners finally picked up a victory in come-from-behind fashion. The Mariners found themselves down 7-1 in the fourth inning, but they whittled away at the lead thanks to the power of Michael Morse, who went 3-for-3 with two homers, a double and five RBI. The Mariners’ spring training home run total has reached 36 – the most in baseball.
Play of the game: Mike Zunino provided the winning hit. Zunino, the No. 3 overall draft pick last year, broke a 7-7 tie in the bottom of the eighth, crushing a solo homer to deep left-center field over the 410-foot sign off reliever Drew Hayes. It was Zunino’s only at-bat of the game and his second homer of the spring.
Who was hot: Brandon Maurer took a major step toward being included in a serious conversation about the Mariners’ starting rotation. The 23-year-old right-hander threw four shutout innings, allowing three hits, while walking two and striking out four. Maurer used all four of his pitches and showed excellent command with each.
Who was not: Joe Saunders is going to give up hits because he pitches to contact. But giving up seven runs, five of them earned, in 32/3 innings wasn’t exactly what he had in mind. Saunders gave up nine hits. He struck out two and walked one. “My arm felt good, my velocity is starting to get up there,” Saunders said. “I’m not a guy that looks at results in spring training. I look at where my body is and how my arm feels.”
Quotable: “He puts up a professional at-bat, especially for a young hitter. He was playing college ball last year. That was a good example, that at-bat.” – Eric Wedge on Zunino’s home run.
On tap: The Mariners (split squad) will be pulling double duty again today. First, they travel to Tempe to face the Los Angeles Angels in a 1 p.m. game. Right-hander Jeremy Bonderman will start for Seattle and is scheduled to pitch four innings. Andrew Carraway, Carson Smith and Bobby LaFromboise are also scheduled to pitch. Later, the Mariners will play host to the Netherlands in a World Baseball Classic exhibition game. Right-hander Jon Garland will start, with Lucas Luetge, Stephen Pryor and Tom Wilhelmsen also scheduled to pitch.Ryan Divish: 253-597-8483 email@example.com blog.thenewstribune.com/mariners @RyanDivish firstname.lastname@example.org