Dutchman Kevin Heijstek gives the lowdown on the sport that makes its Olympic return 12 years after its last appearance, offering insight into the basics, the mind games and its place within Japanese sporting culture.
Throwing, hitting, catching and running would appear to be the basic skills needed to thrive in baseball, but in fact it’s all in the mind. That’s the message from Netherlands pitcher Kevin Heijstek, who will be aiming to get inside his opponents’ heads when the sport returns to the Olympic Games at Tokyo 2020 after a 12-year absence. “The most important thing as a pitcher is to try to put the hitter ‘off balance’. That’s how you stop them scoring a lot of runs – you get into their heads,” says the 31-year-old, who plays for Amsterdam Pirates. “First and foremost, baseball is a mental game. It goes a lot deeper than throwing and hitting the ball. It goes really deep.”
Baseball may be one of the biggest, wealthiest sports around, but it’s fair to say its psychological richness is fully appreciated in only a handful of countries. In many parts of the world, most people wouldn’t know their bottom inning from their topspin – and the Netherlands is one of them. “Have you heard of soccer?” Heijstek quips when asked about baseball’s popularity in his homeland. “Baseball in the Netherlands is a small world. You’re lucky if you’re on TV once a year.”
Yet Heijstek has been in love with baseball since he was four years old, when he joined his elder brother to watch a friend playing. Now he often finds himself explaining the finer points of his chosen sport to his football-obsessed friends. “To explain it as its most basic, baseball for the offensive team is about scoring runs, and for the defensive team it’s about preventing them. As a pitcher, I throw the ball, and the hitters try to hit it. There are nine innings, and each team takes it in turns to be on the hitting team.” But it’s a tad more complicated than that. “Mostly people say it’s boring because it takes so long, and I can understand that because they don’t know all the rules and tactics. They don’t see how things are unfolding on the field, and if you don’t know that, it can look like a pretty boring game. “But you’ve got a lot of science going on. You have bunting games, fielding positions, hit and run – there are a lot of things happening, but people only see runners, hitters and guys throwing the ball.”
There will be no such issues in Japan, where baseball is a national obsession.
The atmosphere alone will make baseball one of the most hotly anticipated events at Tokyo 2020 and, for Heijstek, being part of it would fulfil a lifelong dream. “I’ve played in the Tokyo Dome in Japan with 55,000 people jumping on the benches and yelling at you. The atmosphere gives me energy. There are a lot of crazy Japanese who like the game very much, and it’s a joy to play there,” he says. “It’s 12 years since baseball was in the Olympics, so players of my generation have not experienced it. Young players dream of playing in the major leagues – maybe one in 10,000 will make it – but the Olympics are the other great goal.”
With just six teams contesting the Olympic baseball tournament next year, the Netherlands are currently focused purely on qualification.
“Our goal is to come first (in the Africa/Europe qualifying event), and we are up against good teams like South Africa, Italy and Germany. If we come second we might have to face some even tougher teams.” Baseball’s previous Olympic Games appearance was at Beijing 2008, but Heijstek believes there is a way to ensure the sport enthrals Olympic fans for generations to come. “They have to make it shorter,” he says. “The game is nine innings and it takes three hours, which is a long time for most people. The big bosses in the baseball world are discussing making it seven innings for the Olympics, which will bring it down to two hours, and I think that would increase the appeal.”
One thing guaranteed to catch the public imagination would be the addition of Major League Baseball (MLB) players.
However, there has not yet been an agreement that would allow players to be released from the US league for Tokyo 2020. “It’s hard to say if it will happen because the MLB have the final say on whether they allow their players to play because they pay them a lot of money,” Heijstek explains. “For the Olympic competition, it would be huge if they did. It would be great for the Netherlands, too, because Dutch players like (Didi) Gregorius, (Xander) Bogaerts, (Kenley) Jansen and (Andrelton) Simmons are right at the top of the major league right now.”
Whoever is competing, success on the Tokyo 2020 baseball field will ultimately boil down to who wins that mental battle between pitcher and hitter.
“It’s just me and him. I might throw a fastball, a curveball, a changeup – which looks like a fastball but it’s slower – and if I can hit the right spots for my catcher then I can get the hitter off balance. He’ll be standing there expecting a fastball and you throw a changeup and he’ll miss it or foul it. That’s how you get in his head.” But it works both ways. “Meanwhile, the hitter is trying to get in the pitcher’s head. You might throw the fastball and he hits it for a home run. Then his whole team knows what I really threw, and they can all get into my head. But if you’re thinking in the past or in the future, you’re in trouble. As a pitcher you have to treat every pitch as special.”
And if Heijstek gets the chance to take to the field of dreams in Tokyo, that first pitch will be the most special of all.